Almost exactly 3 years ago, my mum took me to Florence for my birthday. My mum, my grandmother and I, all 3 generations, used to sometimes take trips together, and mum and I have tried to continue the tradition whenever we can. My grandmother particularly, nosy in the extreme and a keen student of her own family history, was always eager to chivvy out distant relatives and invite herself to lunch with them. It usually ended happily, and I remember a hilarious lunch with some poor distant cousin who had never met her before, a Professor of Arabic and married to a glamorous writer of (racy) novels, whom my grandma forced herself and us upon one late summer lunchtime. We sat under a pear tree in their ramshackle garden as pears hurtled grenade-like to the ground around us, and the poor, startled Professor was treated to a lengthy lecture by my grandma about how they were related (very, very distant cousins). Granny was absolutely thrilled with her discovery and insisted we buy all of the wife’s novels immediately, which we duly did, only for her to be horrified at their content.
So, in early May 2018 Mum and I set off for Florence, honouring the tradition, though sadly without my (dear departed) grandmother this time. Florence had a family connection; my great grandmother had grown up on the outskirts in an old monastery attached to the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola, near the Bello Sguardo. One of the funny things I have noticed about getting older is that I – like my granny - am increasingly interested in family history, and so I thought it would be a nice trip to honour her memory and visit our distant cousin who still lived in the grounds around the church.
We crossed the river, climbed the hill to the gates and buzzed the brass doorbell. A voice answered in heavily accented Italian.
‘Hello, we’re your distant cousins!’ Mum and I chimed in unison.
‘Oh. You’d better come in then,’ there was only a moment’s hesitation.
We entered the grounds and wandered around for a minute or two amongst the Cypresses, trying not to look too conspicuous (a difficult feat as mum had a plastic bag on her head – as she always does when it rains).
Then we walked off to the little garden cottage where the (very distant) cousin lived.
Installed in the cottage we had a brilliantly odd tea, where we talked about all the relatives, and then Starr (our very-distant cousin) introduced us to his wife, Yvonne, who offered us slices of what she called ‘her Wednesday cake’. She said every week she made the same cake on the same day, and if guests turned up on a Thursday they were lucky and they’d get a nice, moist slice, and if they turned up on a Monday, then hard cheese. It was Saturday, halfway through the cake week, and having been made with lemon and ground almonds our slices were still nicely damp.
The next day we headed in the same direction again, towards the river, and stopped at the Santo Spirito flea market. I wanted to wander around and look at the stalls, and I’d also heard from a food-writer friend that there were fresh Necci being made.
Necci are sort of chestnut crepe/galette/pancake, made with a simple batter of chestnut flour and water, then cooked traditionally over an open fire on special flat, heavy pans called Testi. They are then usually served with ricotta. I did, however, read online about a modern Nutella filling which I think sounds delicious. Almost anything stuffed with Nutella is delicious. In my family Nutella was considered so exotic and indulgent that it was one of those things that was reserved for ‘only on holiday’, but now I live in a place which feels oddly like half home/half holiday (and without parental supervision) and so I always have Nutella in the cupboard.
Chestnut flour here too is easily found, and it has a lovely nutty, toasty flavour and pairs brilliantly with the creamy ricotta (and presumably with Nutella too). I read a story about the traditional making of these, which are found originally in Tuscany and Corsica (next-door to us here in Sardinia, and a place famous for its chestnuts) where the chestnut leaves were gathered by ‘the waning moon’ and then soaked in water before being laid out over the Testi to prevent the dough from sticking. They then impart their flavour into the Necci as they cook. I can find no explanation of why the moon had to be waning but it’s a nice story, and who am I to interfere with nice stories.
At a little stall at the corner of a market was an old lady in a gingham apron, aided by her son, cooking Necci on traditional Testi and serving them in a little paper roll filled with fresh ricotta. The pancakes were thick, rustic, a pale caffe latte colour, the ricotta filling cool and creamy against their addictive smoky-sweetness. I sat in the sun and ate one, a fountain trickling nearby, and the market bustling on all around me, and then immediately I bought another.
Not having testi at home, I (and presumably you too) will have to make do with frying pans/or a pancake pan, which work fine. I like to serve my Necci with an extra drizzle of honey, too. Next up, Nutella filled.
Makes around 3-4
These are very rustic, simple pancakes, quite thick, so please don’t worry about dainty lace-like crepes.
200g chestnut flour
A pinch of salt
Olive oil, for frying
A pinch of salt
Honey, to drizzle
Make a simple batter by whisking the water into the chestnut flour and salt, until smooth.
Warm a pancake pan or shallow frying pan and grease it lightly with a drizzle of olive oil, wiping away any excess with kitchen roll.
Ladle out a scoop of the mixture onto the frying pan and swirl it around or spread it with the back of the ladle to form a large round.
Cook for a few minutes, until golden, then flip and cook the other side.
Whip the ricotta until smooth with a pinch of salt.
Spoon the ricotta onto the neccio, in a thin, even line then roll up like a crepe and serve with a drizzle of your favourite honey.