Lesson from Corsica

Header Illustration: Lake Nino, Corsica (France)
Credit: vigour

Corsica is a beautiful island. It is the most beautiful Mediterranean island west of  Italy and I’m not just saying that because it is a French administrative “région”. As a matter of fact, Corsicans are the proudest people you’ll ever meet and, despite the fact that the Corsican nobility produced France’s most famous emperor, they occasionally hate to be reminded that their “Island of Beauty” has been under French dominion since it was sold by the Republic of Genoa. That was back in 1768 but Corsicans love to hold a grudge.

Olabella-Margaritix (L) and Boney-Wasawarriorwayayix (R) argue in “Asterix in Corsica”, by René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo (1979)

But I digress.

Corsica is notorious for its gorgeous, white, tiny beaches hugged by warm turquoise water. Its culture and traditions, however, were wielded in the rugged mountains that make up the bulk of the island. Geography has long imposed severe constraints on the local farming practices. Rather inhospitable to wheat and cereal, Corsica became in the 15th century a fertile ground for a crop beloved of the Genoans who ruled over the island for centuries: chestnuts.

The “bread tree”, as the chestnut tree has also been known in Europe, thrives indeed on mountain slopes. In Corsica, its pristine fruits would feed the local population and the export trade. The rest would be consumed by animals, especially pigs and wild boars. And so it is that chestnuts and chestnut flour (as well as pork and boar meat whipped up into all sorts of delicacies) are the staple of the traditional Corsican diet.

“As long as we have chestnuts, we’ll have bread”, wrote Corsican independentist Pascal Paoli in 1758. It still holds true, even though the chestnut production has dwindled since reaching its peak in the 1800s. Chestnuts are a marvelous alternative to cereal. Their production requires very little work (in fact, the French contemplated banning it when they acquired Corsica because they judged it to be conducive to laziness and poor economic performance). Chestnuts are three times as nutritious as potatoes and over 50% more caloric than whole wheat bread. They saved Corsicans from starvation time and time again over the centuries.

Chestnuts are also especially rich in dietary fiber, as well as vitamin C, potassium and magnesium. And, of course, they are gluten-free.

As for me, there are two other reasons why I’m infatuated with chestnuts. Because they grow on trees, they offer a wonderful Earth-friendly alternative to cereal. Imagine what our countryside would look, sound and feel like if we were to replace vast acreage of cereal monoculture with chestnut trees where the climate and soil allow. We could even imagine integrating chestnut trees with other trees and vegetables and create ecosystems that mimic nature AND produce food. That’s not just a fantasy, by the way, it’s what permaculturalists practice and advocate (see below).

The second reason is that chestnuts taste incredibly GOOD. Dried and processed into a flour, they retain a mildly nutty, sweet, rich aroma that’s bound to work wonders with whatever dish you incorporate that flour into.

The other night, my husband and I accomplished the unthinkable: we made fresh chestnut pasta from scratch and were blown away by how easy and gratifying it was.

Here goes:

1/ mix together 1 cup of whole wheat flour and 1 cup of chestnut flour

2/ incorporate 1 egg

3/ knead (using your hands works great and it’s FUN), slowly incorporating as much water as needed to work the mixture into a malleable, elastic, silky dough.

4/ shape the dough in a ball and wrap it in clear plastic wrap. Let it rest for 1 hour.

The second phase took under 10 minute and was rather exciting! We fed the dough into our Samson juicer with the special flat noodles attachment. We would stop the juicer every 5 seconds or so,  just enough to create 12-inch noodles at a time, which we would then hang on a broom stick to dry. I haven’t tried, but I suppose you could just as well fashion the dough by hand into gnocchis.

We were too hungry to wait for more than a few minutes for the pasta to dry. By the time the water was boiling, we eagerly threw them into the pot, tasting them once in a while for consistency. After 8 minutes or so, they felt just right—more importantly, I realized the water was turning brown and was alarmed at the prospect that the chestnut flour was beginning to “leak” into the water, remembering the recent story of my mother boiling gnocchis into oblivion.

At any rate, the chestnut pasta were drained and stirred with a freshly home-made pesto. A couple of tomatoes diced over the mixture for moisture and crunchiness. We were so proud, it tasted better than delicious!

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