Le Caldarroste – Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire
Humming joyfully in Milan’s nippy morning air, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at my nose…”
Oops, wrong country.
Have you ever had roasted chestnuts? I had my first open fire roasted chestnuts on the streets of Milan on Saturday morning. I know, it is embarrassing. I, like most Americans grew up singing about roasted chestnuts at Christmas time. I was even born in the north and most of my youth was spent in cities that could be considered north but to my defense, I come from a Southern family. My family is so southern that when my grandmother was 7 months pregnant with my father and was living in New York, she left her husband, moved back down to South Carolina to stay with her relatives because there was no way she was going to have a “Yankee” in her family.
My oldest daughter was about nine months old. We were strolling piazza Duomo, enjoying the Christmas lights and Nativity Scenes, and it was cold. Even though I had several sweaters underneath my overcoat and wool scarf the chill made my bones creak. In the corner of the piazza, next the Duomo and across the street from the Rinanscente was an old man with a cart. His face was weathered and his hands rough but I could tell he was warmer than I was because his jacket was open and his scarf laid to one side on his shoulder. I noticed a wood burning fire in the lower portion of the cart with flames lapping up and around the sides of a rotating, round, iron plate.
He called into the morning air, “CALDAAAAAARROSTE!” and spun the disk causing these little nuggets on the plate to shift and resettle.
The air filled with a sweet perfume and again a call, “Marroni Caldi!” and again a pull on the plate, the fire crackled a bit and there was that perfume. It was sweet like baked nuts and honey.
My mouth was watering even though I had no clue as to what he was roasting and the cold in my back pushed toward the street vendor. As I came closer and could see the contents of the plate it was clear they were some type of nuts. The shell was burned black and had been split on one side. The meat of the nut exposed to the plate looked crisp and slightly burned. I had learned over the past few years that my culinary preparation was lacking and that it was generally a good idea to try just about anything sold by the street vendors. I was further encouraged as I saw the little kids pulling on their parents coats begging for the Caldarroste.
The handwritten sign above the cart indicated “five mil” (five thousand lira) for a bag of these roasted nuts. Although I was poor I could afford “five mil”, so I made my purchase. Perhaps he realized my inexperience and pushed about 10 napkins into my bag before I stepped aside. I reached into the bag and grasped one of the caldarroste. Quickly my hand retreated; they were hot, oh so hot, as if they had been roasted over an open fire!?!
Now prepared for the burning sensation, I learn quickly, gingerly I broke open one of the nuts to reveal a soft, steaming hot meat. I broke half of the nut off with my teeth, yes still hot, and my mouth was filled with a honey sweet taste. The slightly charred part of the nut was a bit hard creating a contrast of soft and crunchy. It was very satisfying. Needless to say, the bag of roasted nuts did not last long. As I was about throw away the bag, I thought, but the napkins? A quick look at my hands revealed the answer. They were coal black. Roasted chestnuts create a tremendous amount of soot. Perhaps, this is also the reason of the permeating perfume they release while cooking. The ten napkins were barely enough to clean my hands.
Upon my return home, I pulled out my Italian/English dictionary and found Caldarroste. Chestnuts, I thought, where do I know chestnuts from? It was several days later that I associated chestnuts to the Christmas carols I had sung since a small child. Again, chestnuts are not just Italian, but with something so good, how is it possible that I had never had them before. To this day I cannot answer that last question but next time in Italy over the Christmas holidays, buy some CALDAAAARROSTE and you may decide that this is one lost Christmas tradition well worth a rebirth.
Tags: Gourmet Foods Chestnuts Holiday Traditions Italian Holidays Italian Recipes Food and Wine Travel Italy