Chestnuts and Vino Novello: La Festa di San Martino in Umbria
There saints of whom I am particularly fond. San Francesco, because we eat mostaccioli on his feast day (Umbria’s singular contribution to cookie-dom). San Costanzo, because we eat torcolo on his feast day (any cake that is considered a viable breakfast food is good, in my book). San Giuseppe, because we eat frittelle di riso on his feast day (in a land lacking donuts, we turn to fritters for our cholesterol). And San Martino, because we go to Mass on his feast day.
Just kidding. We eat roasted chestnuts and drink young wine on his feast day.
San Martino, San Martino, Castagne e Vino (Saint Martin, Saint Martin, Chestnuts and Wine)
Dishes associated with the celebration of a particular saint usually have a symbolic connection with their life and legend. Mostaccioli (a lovely anise infused crisp cookie sweetened with grape must) were Francis’ favorite sweet and the Poor Clare Jacopa di Sottesoli is said to have prepared him a batch on his deathbed. Torcolo (a sweet bread ring rich with candied fruit, raisins, and pine nuts) recalls, with its circular shape, the wreath of flowers mourners placed around San Costanzo’s neck to hide the signs of his decapitation. San Giuseppe, patron saint of the destitute, is fittingly fèted with fritters traditionally prepared with only rice and lemon peel. The modern versions are more elaborate and use ingredients which would have been too precious for poor farmers centuries ago (eggs, flour, sugar), but the symbolism of a poor man’s sweet for the poor man’s saint remains.
San Martino, a pragmatic ex-soldier who ran his sword through his own cape in order to give half to a freezing beggar, doesn’t cotton to any of that highbrow symbolism. To celebrate him, we eat castagne and sample Vino Novello because, well, they’re in season.
If you’ve only ever tasted the blackened balls of mealy styrofoam hawked on winter streets in most northern American cities, you have missed one of the great miracles that the alchemy of heat + nut can produce. Chestnuts from Umbria—particularly marroni from the forests surrounding Spoleto—are sweet, creamy flavour bombs and overdose is avoided only because liberating them from their piping hot toasted peels is particularly labor intensive (and leaves you with charcoal-tinted fingertips for days). Umbrian’s score the reddish-brown shells with a sharp knife before roasting the nuts whole in perforated metal pans over the coals in fireplaces, woodstoves, or bonfires. Once the shells blacken and peel back from the escaping steam of the cooked nutmeat inside, they are wrapped in a large cloth and rolled between the table-top and able hands to loosen the shells from the interior.
Vino Novello, is the perfect foil to the richness of roasted chestnuts This ‘young wine’—which officially goes on sale on November 6th, but is traditionally consumed the evening of the 11th to celebrate San Martino– is a light, fruity (sometimes slightly fizzy) red similar in taste and production to the French Beaujolais Nouveau. Made by accelerating the fermentation process, Novello does not have tannins and will go bad if not consumed the same day it is opened. Not to be confused with Vino Nuovo (which is simply ‘new wine’, or wine that has just finished its traditional fermentation process and has not yet begun to age…most rural farm families drink their home brew Vino Nuovo on the night of San Martino), Novello can be found in most wine shops and cantine through the winter.
If you are in Umbria around November 11th, take the time to drop in at a local Castagnata (chestnut roasting) for the Festa di San Martino. Here you can sample the local marroni, Vino Novello, and, if you are lucky and are treated to one of those unseasonably warm days that can pop up even late into autumn, toast to l’Estate di San Marino (Saint Martin’s Summer).