This Rural Tuscan Town Has a Festival Dedicated to Chestnuts

In Marradi, surrounded by woods, chestnuts are the truest sign of autumn—and a matter of local pride
October 20, 2019 Updated: October 21, 2019

When October arrives in Tuscany, chestnuts finally appear at the market stalls again. The town of Marradi, in the Mugello area, not far from Florence, celebrates with a month-long festival dedicated to its renowned chestnuts. Running for some 50 years now, the event attracts folks from all over Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna on Sundays in October.

Visitors arrive in hoards and the town center fills up with stands and counters where you will find not only chestnuts—arranged in every possible manner—but also crates of apples, Volpina pears, and other forgotten fruits; towers of local cheeses like pecorino aged in chestnut or walnut leaves; truffles and local mushrooms, from fragrant porcini to the precious ovoli variety (Amanita caesarea); porchetta, tripe, lampredotto, or cured meat sandwiches; and plenty of other traditional dishes. 

Marradi
Chestnuts for sale at a market stall. (Giulia Scarpaleggia and Tommaso Galli)

Chestnuts are the unrivaled king of this scene. Gathered in enormous containers along the town’s small streets and alleyways, these shiny round nuts are the truest symbol of autumn in the Mugello woods. Choose between castagne, or regular chestnuts, and marroni, a sweet and delicate local variety. The choice should be based on how you intend to use them—roasted? Or in recipes?

And of course, you can always pick up dried and other processed chestnuts, too. For instance, marroni chestnuts can be covered in water, usually in huge wooden or plastic containers, to soak for several days and then dry out again. This method removes all the aerobic bacteria and mold agents, guaranteeing a longer shelf-life.

Marradi
Marradi’s chestnut festival. (Giulia Scarpaleggia and Tommaso Galli)

The range of chestnut products is astounding, from flours and creams; to floury and very sweet roasted chestnuts with their burnt bits here and there; to chestnut brittle, marrons glacés, and caramel-covered chestnuts on skewers. All of these sit alongside traditional castagnaccio and other cakes typical of Marradi; Swiss rolls made with sponge cake, Alchermes, and chestnut cream; chestnut flour crêpes; and tortelli pasta. Every kind of sweet or salty chestnut delicacy imaginable is on show here, all made according to recipes that live on in local memory.

There are plenty of chances to drink well at this festival, too. Alongside chestnut beers are the local wines Ciliegiolo and Cagnina, a sweet “young” wine drunk during festive periods in the Romagna area that goes very well with roasted chestnuts.

Marradi
The rural town of Marradi. (Giulia Scarpaleggia and Tommaso Galli)

A Warming Tradition

Chestnuts have a true cult following in the Mugello, given their fundamental role in times past as a means of sustenance, as well as the deep respect locals hold for the tree (sometimes called the “bread tree”) and its fruit. 

Talk of chestnuts can also turn reductive rather quickly here, since in Marradi, the marron buono, a slightly larger variety that has earned IGP status, tends to dominate. This versatile chestnut is perfect for making quality marrons glacés.

Marradi
Harvested chestnuts, still encased in their protective burrs. (Giulia Scarpaleggia and Tommaso Galli)

For years, chestnuts have been a crucial source of sustenance for local mountain populations. My grandmother once told me that when she was little, on her way to school she would pass by the mill where one of her classmates lived, and they both would fill their pockets with dried chestnuts to snack on that morning. The sweet nuts were a real treat for my grandma, who today still has rather a sweet tooth.

These days, roasted chestnuts are found on every street corner in wintertime. A dozen or so wrapped in a paper cone is the best way to warm one’s hands, too.

At home with friends, we often end our fall dinners with chestnuts, especially when the fire is blazing so we can roast them in the traditional manner, using an iron pan with holes.

Roasted Chestnuts
Roasting on an open fire. (Giulia Scarpaleggia and Tommaso Galli)

Chestnuts, Boiled, Roasted, or Wine-Soaked (Ballotte, Bruciate, Ubriache) 

Boiled Chestnuts

Serves 4

  • Water
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • Just over 1 pound marroni chestnuts (or other variety)

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add bay leaves, fennel seeds, and salt. Add the chestnuts and cook for 25–30 minutes.

Let the water cool. Start to peel the chestnuts by making an incision in each with a small sharp knife. Keep the chestnuts in the water as you peel them, which facilitates this long and painstaking task, since the water softens the skins.

Roasted Chestnuts

Serves 4

  • Just over 1 pound marroni chestnuts (or other variety)

Make an incision in the skin of each chestnut on the lower part, or the “belly.”

The best way to roast chestnuts to release all their sweet and toasted flavor is over an open fire, in an iron pan with holes made especially for this purpose. Lacking such a pan, you can use a cast iron or non-stick pan on your stove burners over high heat.

Toss them often to roast evenly. They are ready when the skins are burnt and opened at the point of the incision.

Transfer chestnuts to a paper bag for about 10 minutes, then clean them by removing the burnt outer layer and the light-colored skin.

Roasted Chestnuts Soaked in Wine

Serves 4

  • Just over 1 pound marroni chestnuts (or other variety)
  • A few tablespoons sugar 
  • Red wine, as needed

Start by roasting the chestnuts according to the instructions in the previous recipe. Peel the chestnuts and place in a large soup bowl or tureen. Dust them with a few tablespoons of sugar and cover in red wine. Let soak for at least 30 minutes before eating.

Text and recipes reprinted with permission from “From the Markets of Tuscany: A Cookbook” by Giulia Scarpaleggia. Translation by Amy Gulick. Published by Guido Tommasi Editore.

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