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Marroni Canditi, Sirio and a Food Street in Parma
by Fred Ferretti

There is little question in Cesare Bardini's mind that those sweet glazed chestnuts most of us know as marrons glacés should be called, perhaps, marroni canditi.

"Are they French?" asks this man of the Italian Piedmont who, with his family, produces what may be the finest sweetened chestnuts in the world. Though he concedes that even in Italy they are known as marrons glacés, he suggests, "They are French only to the extent that they were probably introduced to the court of Carlo Emanuel I of the Savoys by the same confectioner who gave us zabaglione."

Which would make marrons glacés Italian or at least Italian-French, he supposes, for the Savoys came from France to Italy in the sixteenth century to settle into, and rule from, Turin. There they not only adopted but also altered much of the traditional cooking of the hill peasants, including such Piedmont creations as vitello tonnato, cold veal dressed with a tuna-based sauce, and bagna cauda, the dip for vegetables made from anchovies, garlic and olive oil.

It is believed in the Piedmont, surely by the Bardinis, that the marrone — shelled with care after being either roasted, boiled, or soaked, then peeled and sweetened with liquefied sugar — was a festive treat of the mountains but that it and other foods of the hills became royal dishes in the court of the Savoys.

Cesare Bardini began his company, Azienda Agrimontana, twenty years ago in Borgo San Dalmazzo, a small niche of prime chestnut country in the Piedmont province of Cuneo. His father had been a grappa distiller near Turin, but Cesare wished, he said, to do "something new and different, in the old manner, in the correct way, perhaps something no one or only a few were doing." This desire flowered and grew into the family's sweet-smelling factory devoted to marrons glacés and also to tiny, exquisite candied violets and a wide range of jams, marmalades, and preserves; all of which are made largely by hand.

I visited Azienda Agrimontana to watch the making of Bardini's chestnuts, the "Veri Marroni Piemonte," and to taste them. Cesare's brother, Erico, walked me around, past vats of plums, wild blueberries, and wild cherries "from our mountains." These would become preserves without the introduction of pectin or any other ingredient except sugar. The family factory also makes jars of chestnut cream.

The exacting process the Bardinis call the curatura begins in late fall with the harvest of the chestnuts from the groves of trees surrounding the factory. Only large and meaty chestnuts are selected; others are processed into the cream. The chestnuts are placed in a bath of spring water for nine days. "The people of the hills call this the novena," said Erico. It is in this period that inferior chestnuts float to the surface of the water and are discarded.

Following the novena, the marroni are trucked to Viterbo, just north of Rome, to be stored until the spring in caves that were once reserved for aging wine. Then they are returned to the Cuneo factory, where, through a series of baths and heating, the tender skin around the nut is removed and then the chestnuts are placed in syrup. After a week they become thoroughly imbued with the syrup and are sealed in jars.

Out of the jar they are a splendid treat, but to become marrons glacés the Bardini brothers suggest that the chestnuts be arranged in a single layer on a fine grid of a rack, placed in a roasting pan, covered with their own syrup, and set into an oven preheated to 300° C (572° F) for ninety seconds — to give them "a stroke of heat." If timed accurately and if the heat is precise, when the chestnuts are removed they will not only have lost their stickiness but will have developed a bright sheen. They are now marrons glacés.

If left out, the glazed chestnuts will harden in a very few days, says Cesare, and so they should be wrapped well in foil. Then they will last about three weeks. We ate these marrons glacés, these marroni canditi, as the final course of a brilliant dinner one evening in Turin at the Ristorante Balbo, along with some of the other foods of the Piedmont: tajarin (a regional, narrow tagliatelle noodle) dressed with a truffle-scented butter sauce, a variegated fritto misto, and a mousse di marroni that Chef Luigi Caputo whipped up in honor of the Bardinis.

"This is not French either," said Cesare. "I think."

We are arranged around the kitchen table in a house in the flats of Tuscany's Montecatini Terme, at the very edge of the thickly wooded green slope that is a steep climb up to Montecatini Alto. Egidiana Maccioni is at the stove in her big kitchen, a space filled with light that bounces and rebounces off the glazes of earthenware tiles. In a large iron skillet she places pieces of rabbit that she has coated with a batter of flour, olive oil, and eggs to make her coniglio fritto, which fries slowly in the green extra-virgin olive oil she buys in Lucca, a half hour away.

In a large pot, short and plump tubes of pasta cook in boiling water, and on yet another burner simmers Egidiana's sauce of fresh tomatoes, chopped sweet port sausages, onions, garlic and white wine — a Montecarlo Biano from Fattoria Michi, in the hills of Lucca, in fact the same wine we are drinking as we inhale the aromas of her kitchen and watch her cook. Soon the pasta and the sauce, wedded, will come to the table as Egidiana's maccheroni al sugo DI salsiccia.

At table, Sirio Maccioni, her husband — less the urbane keeper of the gate here than when he is at his French restaurant in New York City, Le Cirque 2000 — cuts slabs from a thick, round, hard-crusted loaf of pane sciocco and serves them to us with slices from a length of the special fennel-flavored salame of Florence and a leg of salty Tuscan prosciutto crudo. The Maccionis' second son, Marco, on a brief vacation home after months of tending to the Maccioni culinary holdings in Las Vegas, has decanted our red wine, a Collegrosso from Fattoria Maionchi, also from Lucca, and is pouring the Montecarlo before his father's critical eye. Sirio lectures on how properly to enrobe a wine bottle in the folded linen, how to give the bottle a fine twist to avoid droplets that stain.

"Now, present the label. Yes. Good. Pour. When you pour bend only at the waist. Good," he says, and Marco, though he obeys each instruction, smiles, drapes a napkin over his non-pouring arm, and presents himself to his father and to us as would a wine steward, sans tastevin.

At least once each year Sirio Maccioni, the man who is everybody's favorite restaurateur and the object of some envy among his colleagues, locks the door of the sleek dovecote that is Le Cirque and with his family goes home to Italy, to Montecatini Terme. That ochre-hued, languid town of restorative waters is where he was born, where as a young man he cleaned kitchens and waited on tables, and the place he still considers home. The house he and Egidiana have built there is an airy, angular villa with marble floors that provide respite from the hot Tuscan summers. The villa is surrounded by, shaded by, tall firs, and through it's shutters pass the minimal breezes of Montecatini, disturbing neither the many vases of flowers inside nor the flotillas of Maccioni photographs and published profiles of the family that adorn its walls.

~

In the Maccioni kitchen Egidiana reigns. Before we go, without being summoned, into her kitchen, she brings to us at poolside platters of deep-fried zucchini blossoms, her fiori fritti, to eat as we drink our Prosecco from Treviso, frizzante and icy cold, that Marco has poured. The fiori are salty and tender. Unusual-tasting. Why?

"I put beer into the batter," she says. "They are good, no?"

"Yes."

In the kitchen Egidiana talks of preparing the coniglio that has been brought to her that day, fresh from a hunt. "I put it in water and vinegar for a couple of hours. This drains the impurities and the blood. Then I dry it, cut it into small pieces. I make my batter, coat the pieces and fry them. In olive oil." She cooks, without books, from experience, which goes back to when she was very young. "My mother was a dressmaker, and she had not much time to cook. So I began to cook as soon as I could reach the table. I was behind the stove more than she was."

Egidiana began singing professionally at eighteen and was a popular singer in Italy for almost ten years. "I cooked during the day and sang at night," she says with a smile. She and Sirio were married, and "as soon as our first son was born, I didn't want to be away from him." That son was Mario. Marco and Mauro followed. "No more singing," says Egidiana, "but I am cooking still."

What she has cooked for us this early evening in Montecatini is exquisite. The rabbit is white and moist inside a crisp, salted crust. The maccheroni, its sauce simmered slowly for an hour, is thick and sweet from the onions and the pork sausage, redolent of garlic, fine. We eat the soft Pecorino cheese favored by Tuscans and hard, aged Asiago from Vicenza; these with the deep-red Collegrosso and our bread. Then, with coffee, Egidiana serves hot square of her castagnaccio, a non-rising cake of chestnut flour and olive oil, flavored with fresh rosemary and dressed with pine nuts.

"Every mother in Tuscany teaches her daughter to make castagnaccio," she tells us. "It is what I make when I wish to make Sirio happy."

Surely Sirio must be happy, I tell her, because I am, inordinately. Is Sirio happy? I ask.

"Yes," says Sirio Maccioni.

"Good," says Egidiana Maccioni.

"Good."

The street in Parma is called Via Garibaldi, but it could just as easily have been named La Strada della Cucina, for along it are some of the best food purveyors in northern Italy. Just across the street from the Pilotta and the Teatro Farnese is the Salumeria Garibaldi, where Piero Cavatorta sells gamberone all‚olio e limone, large meaty shrimp marinated in oil and lemon juice; dried tomatoes he calls pomodori calabresi: lovely porcini sott‚olio, and his own concoction; insalata brasiliana, salad of pasta, prosciutto DI Parma, and artichokes, which is perfectly splendid with fresh, crisp bread.

A couple of doors away is the butcher shop of Ghiretti Bruno, where fresh "bovina, ovina, e suina" — beef, lamb, and pork — are sold and nearby is the restaurant La Greppia. Parma's excursion into la cuicina nuova. There are marvelous chocolate shops and marble espresso counters, cheeses and gelati, but there is only one Pasticceria Torino, as fine a bakeshop as you're likely to discover anywhere in the world.

The very best time to visit the fragrant little store is in the morning, for then it is that you will find Secondo Paini behind the copper and chrome espresso machine drawing down on the handle and setting out little cups of the hot, thick coffee that the bakery's customers like to drink with some of the specialties of the house: small cakes such as bomba DI sfoglia, a puff pastry filled wit the egg and milk custard called crema pargigiana; cannoncino, a roll baked with an almond zabaglione inside; or torta della nonna, a soft pastry tart filled with lemon, all of which are served on doilies on tiny china plates.

Back in the kitchen of Pasticceria Torino is Ugo Falavigna, the man who makes all of those wonders, a master pastrymaker for more than thirty years. Ugo works in a kitchen filled with history — with ancient cookery and baking books, books to which he constantly refers for inspiration. "The torta della nonna I invented in 1957," he says. "But my dolce della corte, my chocolate leaf, I found in the sixteenth century." He smiles, pointing to his copy of Cuciniere by Bartolomeo Scappi, a fine book of cookery techniques written between 1570 and 1581.

It was in 1962 that he created la duchessa, a thin cake consisting of three layers of hazelnut pastry, separated by fillings of zabaglione and chocolate and dusted with confectioners' sugar.

Was it for a particular event?

"No," he said. "For me the making of cakes is a cultural event. For me a new cake is like a duchessa — an old cake really — made well is as exciting as my book will be when it comes out." His book, a labor of his professional life, will be entitled LaNobile della Pasticceria DI Parma, and it will concern itself with "the ducal pastries of Parma." It will be an important work, he acknowledges, inspired by the 1832 Manuale del Cuoco delle Pasticcerie of Vincenzo Agnoletti, who was the last pastry chef to Marie Luisa, once ruling duchess of Parma. It is a book he has been working on for many years. Yet, he says that as important to him as his book is his latest creation, the ungherese, a many-layered chocolate cake with anise-flavored filling and a dusting of cocoa.

He offered me a taste. "Is it good?"

Very. Very.

"They come from Rome just to have this cake," says Ugo with a wide smile. "My cake."

It's worth the trip.

Table for Two

"Margarine has fat in it," I said to my wife the other afternoon as she was slicing up some vegetables for our evening salad.

"What did you say?" she asked. "And I wish you wouldn't come skulking into the kitchen on little cat feet. You gave me a start. Now, what did you wish to say about margarine?"

"Margarine has fat," I replied.

"So? Everything has fat, particularly around here."

"You're doing it again," I said. "Every time I try to alert you to something of immense nutritional interest you try to be funny. You promised last time you wouldn't be funny, don't you remember? Don't be funny, please?"

"Excuse me," my wife said. "I will do my best to be solemn. Now what about fat in margarine?"

"Well, I was in the library reading the Very Important Paper, and that lady who knows just about everything there is about soluble fibers, running shoes and fatty deposits wrote that when they manufacture margarine, fatty acids are created that could be as dangerous to the civilized world as real fat in real butter."

"And . . . .?"

"You don't think that's important?" I asked.

"For us? Not really. In the first place butter is not dangerous, and as for margarine, we just don't eat it."

"But . . . ."

"Now isn't that the same sort of contradictory nonsense that has been preached for years?" my wife said. "Remember? Coffee gave you jitters, if not ulcers, they wrote, and it was bad for you. Now a bit of caffeine is just fine. Drink decaffeinated coffee, they said. Now decaffeinated coffee can give your heart an attack. Remember how olive oil was awful for you and those oils from palms and cotton seeds were better? Now they are awful, and olive oil is a health drink. Remember? Salt was bad. Now a little salt is necessary, if only to save us from the blandness of modern restaurants. Sugar was bad. Now they're not at all sure it is. I get tired of all that. I just think we shouldn't pay that much attention to reports like that, even when they are in the Very Important Paper. That's what I think. I'm sorry."

"But . . . ."

"Didn't Paul Bocuse tell all those new chef graduates that the fixation in the United States with cholesterol has caused underseasoning of food and has created cooking here that is less than memorable? Didn't he?"

"Yes, but . . . ."

"Then please do not bother me with this margarine nonsense. If you wish to discuss something important, tell my why America needs things like Tato Skins, why I have to discover a Frank Sinatra pasta sauce on the shelves of the supermarket, why we need a rice that, for goodness sake, smells like popcorn? Can we talk about things like that?"

"We could, but . . . ."

"And how about those cookies and cakes you brought home, those so-called healthier junk foods, which are made of corn oil and egg whites and have no cholesterol?"

"You didn't like those?"

"They were so heavy they were like blocks of dried mud, and I suggest that if people must eat them, and that includes you, they don't go swimming afterward because they will sink like millstones."

"So, from all this, I gather that what you're saying is I shouldn't talk to you at all about cholesterol?"

"You do understand. Wonderful," said my wife, "and there's no need for you to try to be funny either. Now, what sort of dressing shall we make for our salad?"

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