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Flavouring the Garden: Scappi’s Chestnut Torte and Polyphemus’ Song

Chestnut tree

Chestnut tree (Castanea saliva)

As it’s Christmas, I thought Scappi’s chestnut torte was a suitably festive choice for my first post. We also have an abundance of fresh chestnuts in the house at the moment which are just crying out to be eaten!

As a tree native to Italy, Sweet Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) grew in abundance and were cultivated in ancient Italian gardens for their fruit. In Italian Renaissance gardens, their tall stature made them ideal for higher terraces and they were frequently planted in the wooded bosco areas.

Chestnuts are only mentioned once by Ovid in Metamorphoses, in the story of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus. In an attempt to woo ‘whiter than the snowy petals’ Galatea, the hulking cyclops Polyphemus appeals to her in a song, promising her the fruits of the ground he cultivates:

‘With me as your lover, you’ll have sweet chestnuts and arbutus fruits in the richest abundance, so every tree shall be at your service.’

– Metamorphoses 13.828-830

The nymph Galatea, however, is repulsed by Polyphemus’ effusive attentions (and his body’s ‘bristling thicket of prickly hair’ as well, no doubt) and only has eyes for her beloved Acis. Enraged with jealousy, the cyclops kills his rival by crushing him beneath a boulder, but as the blood flows from his body, he is transformed into the River Acis.

Polyphemus’ song also contains a number of references to plants, fruits and other such edible delights, so will definitely be making a reappearance! But for now, chestnuts…

To prepare a tourte of fresh or dried chestnuts. You can get fresh chestnuts in August; they are quite bitter when they are slightly unripe – that is, those that are just whitening. Boil them in a meat broth or in salted water. Peel off their outer and inner skins, then grind them in a mortar and put them through a filter or a colander. For every two pounds of strained chestnut add in a pound of fresh butter, half a pound of goat’s or cow’s milk, a pound of creamy cheese, a pound of sugar, half a pound of fresh, well ground ricotta or provatura, an ounce of cinnamon, half an ounce of pepper and six uncooked egg yolks. When everything is blended together, make a tourte with a lower and upper shell and a twist around it. Bake it in an oven or braise it. When it is almost done, make a glazing on it with sugar, cinnamon and rosewater. When it is done, serve it hot. You can do it the same way with dried chestnuts, putting in more milk and fewer eggs.

The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi, Book V, Recipe 120

I will be halving Scappi’s recipe and for the ‘creamy cheese’ I’m using mascerpone. The method – for this and all recipes to follow – incorporates all of Scappi’s directions and where he gives no instruction, (e.g. rather unhelpfully stating to ‘bake it in an oven but not stipulating any cooking time) I will use a mixture of baking intuition, trial and error and in some instances, just making it up as I go along! After all, this blog isn’t about how to be the perfect Renaissance cook (sorry Scappi), it’s about experimenting, tinkering and generally indulging my penchant for playing with food.

IngredientsIngredients

500g shortcrust pastry
200g butter
100ml milk
200g mascerpone
200g sugar
100g ricotta
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pepper
salt
1 teaspoon rosewater
1 teaspoon cinnamon
50g granulated sugar

Method

  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C and lightly grease a 23cm tart tin
  • For the torte shell, roll the pastry out to about 3mm thickness on a lightly floured surface, then line the tin and prick the base with a fork. 
  • Bake for 15 minutes until golden, then allow the pastry shell to cool completely before adding the filling.
  • For the filling, score an X into the side of each chestnut – this allows them to boil more easily and prevents the nuts from exploding out of the water into your kitchen!

Scoring

  • Boil the chestnuts in salted water for 15 minutes at a steady simmer until softened
  • Drain and allow the chestnuts to cool for a few minutes, then peel off their outer and inner skins while still warm

Shelling

  • Grind in a mortar, or cheat and just do it in a blender – I’m going for a slightly coarse texture in my torte, so I haven’t blended them too finely
  • Place the nuts in a bowl, add the butter, sugar, milk, mascerpone, ricotta, cinnamon, pepper and egg yolks and blend well, then gently pour into the shell
  • With the remaining pastry, roll out enough to cover the top of the shell, or you can do some lattice-work if you feel so inclined
  • Bake at 180°C for 30-35 minutes until the pastry is golden brown

Blended Filling

  • For the glaze, melt granulated sugar in a pan over a low heat, then add cinnamon and rosewater whilst stirring continuously and spread over the tart with a pastry brush

Glaze

I feel the look of it leaves a lot to be desired, (one of the reasons why I was perhaps a little liberal with the glaze!) especially after cutting it reveals an unappealing greyish-brown filling, but I have to say the smell is beautiful – buttery sweetness laced with cinnamon and rose.

Final

For the tasting, I have enlisted the help of family and friends to act as my guinea pigs…

The rose and cinnamon hits as soon as its on your tongue, then a slightly cloying sweetness along with the grainy texture of the filling comes through, but the general consensus was that the pervading aftertaste is the gentle earthiness of chestnut. The moistness and grainy texture reminded several of us of sweet potato or pumpkin pie. One friend dubbed it ‘a Western take on a Chinese dessert’, saying it reminded her of mooncake, a Chinese pastry with lotus paste filling which is eaten at the Mid-Autumn Festival that has the same greyish-brown colouring and a similar umami flavour.

Every one seemed to enjoy it and with a generous splash of cream it went down rather nicely, but I was only fully convinced of its success when I found my brother-in-law eating the leftovers for breakfast the next day!

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