The days throughout November in Tuscany grow progressively shorter and colder, with rain becoming less of an uncommon sight. However, the days are frequently sunny and cloudless, with fresh, crisp air that seems to beckon us to spend time outdoors. When we do, our senses are blessed with the most stunning colors and smells. There is nothing quite like going for a walk to marvel at the vineyard and forest leaves that are at different stages of green, yellow, brown and red, like nature’s own fireworks display! Those that like to take longer walks always carry a basket with them, since it’s unlikely that they’ll come home empty-handed. There is no better month than November for foraging in the Tuscan hills.
November days are perfect for eating good, fresh foods that delight the senses, especially those that can be picked up from the wild: pomegranates, persimmons and chestnuts, many different types of mushrooms and topinambur, a tuber that can quite easily be found thanks to its bright yellow flowers that can be spotted from quite far away. Also known as the sunroot or earth apple, these are much more common than black and white truffles and quite delicious. Once washed, they can be used to make a risotto or blended into a cream soup and are a tasty and sweet addition to roast vegetables. Whatever is foraged can be dressed in fresh, extra virgin olive oil and washed down with a glass of novello wine. What more could you want as consolation for shorter, colder and wetter days?
Chestnuts Chestnuts and vino novello or new wine are often the protagonists during celebrations of St Martin’s Day, which happen throughout Italy on November 11th. Chestnuts grow all over our peninsula and it is important to distinguish between castagne, which are the fruit of wild chestnut trees and therefore variable in shape, size and taste, and marroni or marrons, which are quite different since they are the product of cultivated chestnut trees. Already in 1939 there was a regal law that noted the difference between the two, and today Italy can count 13 different protected varieties of these fruits, one from the Monte Amiata between the provinces of Siena and Grosseto. The culture of chestnuts has far away origins; already in the 14th century there were regulations for the safeguarding and exploitation of chestnut trees, for harvesting and deforestation, with a precise calendar for the harvesting period reserved for land owners, after which the collection was free for all. Chestnut trees were called alberi del pane or trees of bread, since they offered nourishment in areas where agriculture was difficult, often sustaining the poor. But chestnuts have come a long since then, especially since their nutritional values have been revaluated. We now know that they contain complex and slow absorbing carbohydrates of the best kind, many minerals and vitamins and good, polyunsaturated fats. Chestnuts are naturally gluten free and rich in fiber, so they are as healthy as they are delicious!
Castagne del Monte Amiata IGP
There are three different varieties of chestnuts under the Castagne del Monte Amiata IGP denomination. The production area is comprised between 11 different municipalities between the provinces of Siena and Grosseto, more than 5000ha of forest with less than 80 operators. The chestnut trees have to grow between 350m and 1000m (1150-3300 ft.) above sea level and the harvesting of its fruits can be done manually or mechanically between September 15th and November 15th; only in case of adverse weather can the harvest continue for another 15 days at most. Conservation must occur in cold water with no additional additives for no longer than 7 days. The fruits are large (about 80 fruits to 1kg), of variable shape and external color depending on the variety, whereas the pulp is always light cream. The taste is delicate and sweet and they can be glazed or dried, boiled or roasted, transformed into jam or reduced to flour. Many traditional recipes of breads and cakes are made with chestnut flour, as is fresh pasta and polenta. The dough can also be fried and chestnuts are used to flavor soups and beer.
Tuscany is rich in mushrooms and people often return from the woods with baskets of wild chanterelles and horns of plenty, parasols and the much-loved porcini from which a whole menu can be prepared. The starter could be just a tasty Crostone or slice of toasted bread topped with porcini mushrooms sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and garlic and then sprinkled with fresh parsley, or a Carpaccio di porcini, raw porcini mushrooms dressed with fresh lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. A delicious sauce can be made for some fresh Tagliatelle pasta and a side dish of grilled, sautéed or fried porcini pair well with any main meat course, especially steak. Many restaurants display a tray of fresh porcini mushrooms throughout October and November with several specials of the day, from starters to main courses that can be enjoyed separately or as a full menu. The most special mushroom is undoubtedly the truffle, the most elusive subterranean mushrooms that is almost impossible to cultivate, difficult to find and surprisingly precious (sold at almost the price of gold)!
Truffles Black and white truffles are the fruiting bodies of subterranean fungi, so unlike other mushrooms that they were initially thought to be tubers, like potatoes. Truffles are usually found in proximity of certain trees as they live in symbiosis with their roots, feeding from organic substances supplied by the nearby trees. Truffle hunting is done with the aid of a dog, usually the Lagotto Romagnolo (which looks similar to a poodle) because of its small size and because its curly and thick, abundant mantle protects it from the shrubs and undergrowth in the forest. Originally used water retrievers, lagotti became truffle kings because of their spectacularly sensitive sense of smell and obedience.
In Italy, the use of pigs is forbidden, since they damage the mycelium network with their snouts, breaking the symbiosis between truffle and root systems which is essential to the truffles’ growth and proliferation: because truffles are nurtured by carbohydrate sugars and minerals provided through these networks, pigs literally “starve” any other truffles that are part of the network. Truffle hunters must obtain a special permit to be able to seek out truffles, a permit that is issued by the Region after passing an exam to ensure that the conservation of the network of truffles is understood. They must then train their dogs to aid them, which is usually done by feeding them truffles!
There are 9 different types of truffles in Italy, 2 white and 7 black ones, but the most common are the black winter truffle and black summer truffle or Tartufo Scorzone, from which most sauces and truffle products are made. The white truffle is the most delicate, sought-after and expensive one, with an average price of € 30 per gram, which frequently peaks to €40 per gram, just a little less than the price of gold! Finding a truffle is like finding a gold mine! Luckily only a few shavings of truffle are required to transform your eggs, pasta or meat into a divine dish.
When visiting Tuscany in November (not during a pandemic!), make sure not to miss the white truffle festival held just a short drive south of Siena in the Crete Senesi, in the small town of San Giovanni d’Asso on the second and third week-ends in November. You can experience all sorts of different truffles in all sorts of different ways, and visit a whole museum dedicated to them!
Visit https://www.tartufodisangiovannidasso.it/ for more information.