Associated with agricultural practices is the dessert Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), which, in Italy, is traditionally made on 11 November to celebrate St. Martin’s Day and the end of the so-called Estate di San Martino (‘Saint Martin’s Summer’, also known as ‘Indian Summer’), or short period of mild autumnal weather occurring after the first frost. The dessert is particularly popular in the north Italian regions of Lombardy and Piedmont, perhaps because of its French influence. Its name is evidently Franco-Italian inspired, linked as it is to the well-known, snow-capped mountain in the Graian Alps (Alpi Graie).
Saint Martin of Tours (San Martino di Tours) is, among other attributions, patron saint of wine-growers and wine-makers, and, on St. Martin’s Day in Italy, it is customary that barrels of new wine are tasted and ready to be sealed. Chestnuts, generally abundant in this season, accompany the wine tasting and are prepared in many different ways – one of which being our menu’s Mont Blanc.
During the Estate di San Martino, agricultural contracts traditionally came to an end, and seasonal workers moved on to other opportunities. Saint Martin is commonly associated with rural communities and the migrant workers who travel through them, and the agricultural background to Saint Martin’s Day is the subject of a famous poem by Nobel Prize-winner Giosué Carducci (1835-1907), reproduced and translated for your enjoyment.
San Martino (Saint Martin)
By Giosué Carducci
La nebbia a gl’irti colli
(Drizzling, the fog)
(the steep hills climb)
e sotto il maestrale
(and the northwest wind torments)
urla e biancheggia il mar;
(the howling, foaming sea)
mar per le vie del borgo
(but in the village sreets)
dal ribollir de’ tini
(the seething vats send forth)
va l’aspro odor de I vini
(the pungent smell of wine)
l’anime a rallegrar.
(and cheer the weary souls.)
Gira su’ ceppi accesi
(On fiery logs the roast)
lo spiedo scoppiettando;
(turns on its spit and cackles)
sta il cacciator fischiando
(the hunter sands and whistles)
sull’uscio a rimirar
(and watched from his door)
tra le rossastre nubi
(the flocks of birds that)
stormi d’uccelli neri,
(back upon reddish clouds,)
(like forlorn thoughts gyrate)
nel vespero migrar.
(at dusk, preparing to migrate)
Baker, J. San Martino by Giosué Carducci, English trans. feature on John Baker’s blog Reflections of a working writer and reader, 19 March 2008 [online] available at www.johnbakersblog.co.uk/giosue-carducci; accessed November 2011
For your delight, a recipe for a special occasion:
Preparation time: 45 minutes
Cooking time: 40 minutes
Serves: 4-6 people
What you need:
1 ½ kg / 2 ¼ lb chestnuts, peeled
1 ½ litres / 51 fl oz / 6 ½ cups whole (full-cream) milk
1-2 tbsp white sugar, according to taste
½ tsp salt
1 vanilla pod
150g / 5 ¼ oz Amaretti (almond-flavoured) biscuits
250g / 8 ½ fl oz / 1 US cup whipping cream / doubly (heavy cream)
1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder
How to make it:
Peel the chestnuts. To make it easier taking the inner skin off, warm the chestnuts in the oven first, but at a low temperature to avoid roasting them.
Pour the milk into a large saucepan and add the peeled chestnuts. Add the sugar (1 or 2 tablespoons, depending on the sweetness of your tooth), the salt and the vanilla pod.
Cook on a low heat for 30 to 40 minutes until the chestnuts are soft. Skim the milk while cooking.
Meanwhile, crumble the Amaretti biscuits and set to one side. To crumble the biscuits, I wrap them in kitchen towel, folded in two, then crush them by rolling an empty glass bottle over the towel, so that the crumbs are not too fine and it stays uniform. If you don’t want to follow this old-fashioned method and have a food processor, whizz the Amaretti in it for a few seconds.
Once the milk mixture has cooked, try it and adjust sugar to taste. Allow the mixture to cool down. Strain the chestnuts, keeping some of the cooking milk to one side.
Using a food / vegetable mill, set on the middle size holes, pureé the chestnuts together in a large bowl. The mixture should be smooth and soft. If it is not soft enough, add a little milk to it.
Using a potato ricer, pureé the mixture once more, but this time directly onto the serving plate and shaping it into a mountain. Every time you pureé one amount of chestnut mixture, sprinkle Amaretti crumbs.
Once the ‘mountain’ is made, whip the cream by using an electric hand-held whisk and a mixing bowl that has been kept in the fridge for 10 minutes beforehand. The colder the cream and the temperature of the mixing bowl, the better the cream will fluff up.
Spread the whipped cream on the ‘mountain’ from the bottom to the top. Decorate the top with either the rest of the Amaretti or cocoa powder.
Keep cool and serve within an hour.
Recipe taken from the book:
Versatile Cooking & Living Italian
by Grazia Giuliani