The Mugello Chestnut Trail of Marradi – Strada del Marrone del Mugello di Marradi
North of Florence is a wild landscape limited by mountains and hills that slowly decrease towards the plain alongside the Sieve River. This is the Mugello region, settled by a Ligurian tribe known as the Magelli and later occupied by the Etruscans, who built the first road network. The Roman conquest, and subsequent colonization, dates back to the 4th century BC, whilst in the Middle Ages it was home to numerous castles and during the Republic of Florence to many historical villas, among which the Medicean Cafaggiolo and Trebbio, as extensively commented in “UNESCO’s World Heritage List adds other 14 Tuscan locations”.
Here the landscape is dominated by chestnut groves and their fruits, the marroni, which, being the symbol of Mugello’s cultural, rural and gastronomic tradition, are the protagonists of this Food and Flavour Trail. For centuries chestnut trees have fed the people of these mountains with their fruit, and for this reason they have gratefully been called the Bread Tree. The first news of chestnut cultivation dates back to the early Middle Ages, and the period of maximum development was during the reign of Matilda of Tuscany, who determined the planting distance between one tree and the other. The distance was 10 metres, in this way the flocks could eat the grass in the undergrowth and the leaves were easily gathered as food and bedding in the stalls. Subsequently, industrialization and the abandonment of the mountains compromised the value of these chestnut groves that were absorbed by the forests. Fortunately in the ‘80s the inhabitants of the town of Marradi recovered the chestnut cultivation and today are internationally recognized among the top quality producers.
The chestnut harvest, done by hand, is during October and November. The flour is used for making a sweet polenta or for cooking excellent cakes, puddings and biscuits. Otherwise the chestnuts are used to make delicious marron glacés or a jam, which is more like a cream. Chestnuts are also to be found in many local dishes, such as the fried tortellini (pasta with a chestnut filling and fried), the chestnut stuffed pork or just simply roasted. Chestnut is also well-known for its fine wood, from which objects or furniture are made from. Furthermore, in the undergrowth of these groves one can also pick mushrooms and find precious white truffles. Other outstanding products of this rich, untamed region are the caprino cheese made from goat’s milk, the pecorino cheese made from sheep’s milk, as also the ricotta cheese, and the raviggiolo del Mugello cheese made from cow’s milk. In addition, there is the mouth-watering salami and pork meat of the Cinto Toscano pig, the organic emmer, the sweet tasting honey, not only chestnut but also acacia, the famous unsalted bread strictly cooked in a wood-burning oven, the potatoes (white, yellow and red), and obviously a sublime olive oil.
Many are the typical dishes one must try in this generous region. One can choose the black cabbage on toast or emmer salad as an appetizer. The first course offers a choice between the potato tortelli (pasta with potatoes) typical of Mugello, or the zuppa rustica, a soup of chickpeas, local sausage, bacon, Parma ham, green cabbage, potatoes, onion and peppers, as well as the renowned pappa col pomodoro, soup of bread and tomatoes, or ravioli with a delicious ricotta cheese filling. For the main courses one must remember that this area was the favourite hunting ground of the Medicis, so along with the duck in the ‘Mugello style’, there are roe deer with cream, stewed fallow deer, rabbit with apples and a Medieval pork belly cooked with juniper berries. To conclude for the sweet-toothed the chestnut cake, the torta in balconata made with almonds, walnuts and raisins, and the above-mentioned fried pasta with chestnut filling.
To digest all these scrumptious dishes one should take advantage and take a trip around the Mugello region, following the maze of paths, through age-old chestnut grooves and farm estates, which can be done on foot, horseback or by bike. Or otherwise visit the main towns and villages of the Mugello on a journey to discover an unusual itinerary between art and nature. Here, in fact, many little towns host uncommon works of art. In Borgo San Lorenzo, for instance, the Romanesque church of San Lorenzo conserves a precious Madonna attributed to Giotto. At Barberino di Mugello one can admire the magnificent Medicean villa of Cafaggiolo, as well as 16th century Villa Le Maschere and the 13th century Castle of Villanova. Dicomano, along the Sieve River, has some lovely old mansions to visit, while in the town centre one can stroll under the 17th century open gallery. Firenzuola, meaning ‘little Florence’, offers two medieval gates and a castle built in 1332. Beautiful Palazzuolo sul Senio still retains vestiges of when the Ubaldini were lords of the territory in the 12th century. The Medicean villa of Trebbio is near San Piero a Sieve, also renowned for its Medicean walls and many churches. Not to forget Scarperia and its magnificent 14th century Palazzo dei Vicari and Vicchio, birthplace of painters Giotto and Fra Angelico and home to goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini.
Mugello, truly a casket of unknown precious jewels.