|The town of Pontremoli|
As it happens, the shed we are standing in is an old chestnut drying shed. From the outside it looks like an inverted ice-cream cone, slightly cylindrical at the base tapering off into a tall funnel-shaped roof with a hole at the top. The centre-piece of the room is a cavernous fire pit. In the old days, as the name implies, the hut would have been used to dry chestnuts. Throughout the fall, sacks of nuts would have been suspended from a rafter high above the fire. Once dry, the nuts would have been ground to make flour which in turn would have been used to make everything from local breads to a version of fresh pasta to polenta to castagnaccio, otherwise known as the ‘poor man’s cake’.
To the uninitiated eye, the testarolo looks like a supersized pancake. Made from a batter of flour, water and salt, the testarolo is approximately 40-45 centimeters in diameter and a few millimeters thick. Whilst it might well look like a pancake, there the similarities end. To begin with you can’t flip a testarolo as you would a pancake in your home kitchen. That’s because they are traditionally cooked in a testo, a cast-iron pan which weighs a hefty 25 kilos. Try flipping that!
The testo is most likely a Roman invention, with earlier versions been made from terracotta. It’s a piece of culinary engineering that was, you could argue, ahead of its time. Along with its dome-shaped lid, the pan was used not so much like a frying pan, but as you would an oven. To demonstrate, Alberto places the testo directly over the flames where it remains until it becomes smoking hot. He then drags it to the side, adds a ladleful of batter and replaces the lid. The residual heat inside the covered pan and time are left to do the rest. After about 90 seconds he lifts the lid, scoops out a perfectly cooked pancake and adds it to a growing stack.
The Irish, the Welsh and the Scottish once used a similar device known as the griddle (in
it was called a ‘girdle’). More a hotplate, however, it would have been placed directly over the flames and used to cook breads such as Irish soda and potato breads, Welsh pancakes known as drop scones and Scottish oatcakes. The precursor to this method of cooking would most likely have been cooking over a hot stone. Scotland
Traditionally a testo could be found in every household in Pontremoli and indeed such was its importance that in 1391 the city levied a tax on them. They would have been used for everything from roasting meats to baking savory vegetable tarts. Today, you’ll still find a testo in many homes in the area but they’re generally assigned a decorative function.
A couple of things that haven’t changed in the Lunigiana are the appetite for testaroli and the preferred method of cooking. Testaroli can still be found on the menu of practically every restaurant in the region and they’re still habitually cooked at home. The method is simple. Once the pancake has cooled, the testarolo is cut into small diamonds, boiled and served hot, most often dressed in a basil pesto sauce made with a generous measure of the finest Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Occasionally, in the fall, when local porcini mushrooms are in season, they are served with a creamy mushroom sauce.