A celebration of the season's bounty.
We always get excited when the leaves change and days become chilly, naturally, because of the food. Here are a few of the seasonal foods and classically autumnal dishes you'll find everywhere in Italy. The main reason we rub our hands together gleefully in September is not from the cold but from the thought of a delicious bounty, about to present itself.
Many a sagra revolves around chestnut season and probably one of the most autumnal smells is that of roasting chestnuts driving home and passing a caldarroste seller beside the road. It might be dark, but the golden flames and smells of chestnuts on the fire are noticed even in the dimmest of misty nights where we stop and buy a hot bundle to take home. Chestnut roasting pans have long handles and holes in the metal because the leaping flames must touch the scored chestnuts for an optimal roast.
Chestnuts may be preserved in syrup as marron glacé which prove popular at Christmas, but talking sweets, one of the most classically autumnal desserts in Italy has to be Monte Bianco. The process is laborious, involving shelling, boiling, mashing and whipping into a dense mousse with cocoa, cream and rum but truly, Monte Bianco (named after the French/Italian peak) is a dessert worth leaving lots of room for. An agriturismo which serves Monte Bianco to perfection is Claudia Altenate Augusta, positioned aptly amongst sloping groves of chestnut trees in the hills of Valmareno, on the Prosecco Road.
Porcini and foraged mushrooms
Foraging for mushrooms is a mysterious art. Our house in Italy sits below dense, hilly forest where 'chiodini' (Armillaria mellea, commonly known as honey fungus) grow in abundance but mum is the word in these parts. Early morning in September, you may notice a silent figure moving along the fields and undergrowth, wicker basket in hand, eyes cast to the forest floor, it's often the elderly who return to the same prolific spots year after year, hence the secrecy. The joy lies not only in discovering funghi, but in the calming art of cleaning them delicately with a blunt knife, perhaps sitting on a stool in some September sunshine or before a warm, wood-burning stove. It may take hours but here lies the celebration and value in these foods. A love of nature's bounty, early misty mornings and ongoing traditions becomes woven into one single funghi dish and it may simply result in a simple, side of grilled porcini or sauteed chodini on polenta, but that small dish speaks thousands - reflected in taste and appreciation. Wild mushrooms are prized in autumn thrown together with freshly-made pasta, grated with Parmigiano Reggiano, or placed on warm toasted ciabatta and drizzled in excellent olive oil, perhaps with a shaving of Pecorino Romano. You'll find porcini are considered the most exciting of foraged mushrooms and you'll find them everywhere in Italy, you just need to know where to look.
Pumpkin has to be the most iconically autumnal food. Think autumn - think pumpkins, if only for Halloween. But this versatile veggie is much more than pure looks and has much to offer in the flavour department, it can even be eaten raw. Some relish the seeds roasted and sprinkled in sea-salt and some puree the pulp into a pie with spices and a dollop of cream. In Italy, 'la zucca' is loved in risotto on every restaurant menu - thus of course, also on ours. We have it paired with gorgonzola, walnuts and Speck in a classic culinary combination layered between fresh pasta sheets and bechamel, then baked as a tasty lasagna.
Ah, now where do we start? How about in Alba?
The white truffle of Alba in Piemonte is more renowned than the black truffle of France, Croatia and even Australia and the States. It's heady aroma and intense flavour is sliced thinly over creamy tagliatelle, warm bruschetta or fried eggs, and is worth quadruple in flavour and value than the black truffle. With a barky, rough exterior, it grows willingly as a fungus worldwide under Elm, Oak and Chestnut trees and is harvested from January whereas the elusive white truffle remains true to Tuscany, Piemonte, southern France and Croatia only, during its favourite season, autumn.
Radicchio di Treviso
The prettiest of autumnal salads, this beauty is geographically protected and must be grown along the banks of the River Sile in Treviso. Its fascinating regional production is a complex, well-timed matter, producing purple and white curly stems, beautiful raw or cooked in a variety of dishes. Read all about the enchanting veggie here. An autumnal favourite is risotto al radicchio or perhaps baked in a quiche but it's often found grilled simply and wrapped in Prosciutto Crudo or Pancetta - favoloso as an antipasto.
Although not a food, mention must be made of the excitement of opening a new barrel of wine. 'New wine' is ready early, at the end of October, made from a combination of grapes but mainly Merlot and fermented fast using CO2. One of our favourite sagre takes place in Orsago at the end of October when the small, unassuming hamlet, shadowed by the Prealpi mountains, closes it's main thoroughfare and packs the piazze with long tables for a feast of new red wine called 'Novello in Piazza'. It's a fleeting moment, as the wine lasts in bottles merely 2 months, however, there's something special about this juicy, fresh yield - popped in anticipation of a fresh new vintage and celebrated along with all autumn has to offer.