A: There was a three part series on TV called Italy Unpacked. This is one of the best modern television programmes I have seen. Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art historian, teams up with Giorgio Locatelli, an innovative chef, to travel through some of the most interesting parts of Italy in a blue Maserati. Andrew shows the art of the places they visit and Giorgio tries cooking something local to the region. There are many fascinating places they visit. The last episode takes them to a wild part of Calabria in Southern Italy. They very lovingly talk about a 600 year old sweet chestnut tree called the Good Giant that produces 400 kg of chestnuts every year. Calabria is a very hostile part of the world and is inhabited by some very hardy people. Having access to the chestnuts ensured that they could survive the winter – flour and bread and pasta from the chestnuts. This fascinated us immensely. A tree could have played such an important part to human survival, literally a question of life and death.
Both N and I have been rebels in our own ways – always challenging the norms. Not that we have gained anything substantial by being rebels, but I guess that’s how we are! So you wouldn’t normally expect rituals or routines in our lives. Over the years, however, a ritual has crept in and I have to say that this is at least one ritual I am very happy to cling onto. I am talking about the Sunday morning pancake breakfasts. I think the origins of the ritual have been from visiting IHOP on some Sunday mornings during our stay in the US. Since then, N has been experimenting with pancakes and crepes. Our holidays in Holland, France and Belgium have influenced N’s pancakes a lot. However, through these Sunday morning experiments, two things have stayed constant. The maple syrup from Canada and the coffee from Italy. So in a gastronomic sense, I always feel directly connected to Canada and Italy.
It is no surprise then that we were keen to try out the chestnut flour. Roasted chestnuts are always a delight, especially around Christmas. Our local park has quite a few chestnut trees and lately foraging has become so popular that in season you are bound to see people collecting the chestnuts. Last Christmas the foraging had reached such a feverish pitch that the council had to stop people from taking the chestnuts home. The squirrels were having too little chestnuts for the winter and there was a risk of the poor squirrels starving to death.
Despite such seasonal popularity of roast chestnuts, I have not seen chestnut flour in the shops. We ordered online from one of the few mills that grind chestnuts here in the UK.
N: I first had pancakes at IHOP but I was not particularly impressed. I was overwhelmed by the size of the portions; I had to leave some on my plate and that left a bad taste in my mouth. Later I had crepe in France and I liked it. What we now make at home is somewhere between a crepe and a pancake and I have heaps of it.
Chestnut is very sweet and you can eat it even without any toppings but as A said we have maple syrup with it.
– Soak 1/2 cup of chestnut flour, 1/2 cup of plain wholemeal, 1 tbsp of fine semolina with 1 cup of milk and 1 cup of water. I know I am going to prepare pancakes on a Sunday, so I always soak it the night before. It makes a lot of difference to the texture of the ultimate dish.
– Store it in the fridge.
– The next morning add 1 egg to the mix.
– Also add some freshly ground nutmeg.
– Whisk the mixture well and you are ready. This mixture should make about 12 pancakes.
Getting the Pan ready
– Brush the frying pan and heat. The pan needs to be very hot – so make sure the oil has a high smoking point.
– I use a very old non stick frying pan. I have tried it with new frying pans but the results have not been that good. So you do need to find your right pan.
– Test the heat by adding a drop of the mixture to the pan. If the pan is sufficiently hot, it should make a sizzling sound and cook immediately.
Now the Fun part – do not be afraid to fail. The more you try the better you get.
– Add about 4 spoons of the batter and rotate the pan so that the mix spreads thinly on the pan and more so on the side of the pan.
– The thin layer on the side of the pan will be very crispy, almost paper like, while the centre will be a bit more substantial.
– Let it cook for a min or two. Turn down the heat if necessary. The mixture changes colour as it cooks. The sides will become golden brown. If it has worked well so far, there will be lots of visible air holes on the cake.
– Gently brush oil at the side of the pan. The oil will trickle down between the pan and the cake and prevent the cake from becoming too friendly with the pan.
– Take in the aroma of the sweet chestnut.
-Time to toss over and gently fry the other side for a minute or two.
– Fold and stack high.