Castanha Season in Portugal
Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.
Growing up in a suburban community in Rhode Island, I didn’t know much about chestnuts. I thought the only thing they were good for was using them in a game.
In the neighborhood of Kent Heights (where Paul’s family and my family lived), there was an enormous chestnut tree along the sidewalk of a neighbor’s house. The chestnuts would ripen, drop, and then fall by the dozens onto the sidewalk or into the street creating a crunchy mess. But there also was opportunity here especially if you were a young boy looking for something interesting to do.
As kids, Paul, his brother, and their buddies would pierce a hole in a chestnut, thread a string or shoelace through it, and then use the device to play a game where you would thwack your opponent’s chestnut. The boy whose chestnut broke first or whose chestnut was thrown to the ground lost the game. To be truthful, I grew up thinking that chestnuts were only useful for this nut-knocking game that boys seemed to enjoy (by the way, the game is called Conkers and it’s a real thing).
Chestnuts have better uses in Portugal.
In Portugal, the chestnut (castanha in Portuguese) has better uses than for a game of Conkers. Castanhas are the symbol of the arrival of autumn, the coming winter, and the unofficial start of the holiday season. Many communities in Portugal celebrate the arrival of Magusto (a portion or dose of roasted chestnuts, as well as the fire where chestnuts are roasted) during Saint Martin’s Day (São Martinho) on November eleventh.
This celebration honors Martin of Tours, a Roman soldier in the fourth century who during a snowstorm cut his cloak in half to give to a freezing beggar to warm him. Legend says that after Martin gave the cloak to the beggar, the sun came out. November is also the time that castanha’s ripen, and the first wine of the season is in abundance. Celebrated throughout Portugal, there are parties, bonfires, and plenty of roasted chestnuts (castanhas assadas), and wine honoring Saint Martin.
Chestnut production in Portugal (and a little background).
There are several varieties of castanhas in Portugal which is something I was not aware of until doing some research for this post. The region of Trás-os-Montes is purported to have some of the richest production of chestnuts in Portugal and has received the Protected Designation of Origin (DOP) Castanha da Terra Fria.
Before potatoes were introduced in Portugal sometime after 1789, castanha’s were a hearty staple of the Portuguese diet and were incorporated into many main dishes. The wood from the castanha trees was often used in furniture making.
How to eat them and what they taste like.
The easiest way to eat castanhas assadas is to buy a dozen from a street vendor during castanha season. You can easily find these vendors in practically every city and village not only in Portugal but throughout Europe and parts of the United States. Just follow the smoke and the aroma and (usually) wait in a line as these tasty snacks are extremely popular.
The shell and the inner skin of the castanhas are scored and then placed into a cauldron sprinkled with sea salt over a hot fire. The handles on each side of the cauldron are used to shake the castanhas during roasting.
The chestnuts are usually served in a cone of paper or a small paper bag. They’re very hot so you must be careful not to burn your fingers.
Because the castanhas have already been scored, they open slightly making it easy to split and peel open to get to the nut meat.
The castanhas have a mild and somewhat buttery nutty flavor with a dense consistency (the nut meat reminds me of little brains). They can be a bit dry, so it’s important not to eat them whole but rather in pieces to avoid getting a piece stuck on the roof of your mouth. I didn’t think I’d enjoy castanhas but after tasting them last year at a São Martinho celebration in Cascais, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to have more this year!
What’s a celebration without eating and drinking?
In Portugal, roasted chestnuts are often accompanied by one of three types of beverages:
Água-pé – During wine harvest season, after the grapes are crushed and the juices are removed, what’s left is a residue called pomace which is the solid residue of grape seeds and skins. Água-pé is made from mixing water with grape pomace. It has a mild (usually less than 8%) alcohol content, slightly acidic to the taste, and is pinkish-red in color.
Jeropiga – This beverage is made by adding brandy to grape must. This results in a sweeter tasting beverage with a higher alcohol content than wine.
Aguardente – This beverage is not for amateurs! Also known as Portuguese Firewater, this is an extremely strong brandy distilled from wine. It has an alcohol content of at least 40 percent.
Of course, if you’re a wimp like me, a nice glass of Portuguese red wine or a glass of craft beer will also hit the spot with castanhas assadas!
Prefer to DIY?
You can make castanhas assadas at home do-it-yourself style if you prefer. Maria Lawton, of the Azorean Green Bean has an easy recipe you can follow here.
Muito obrigada (many thanks) to Mai for supporting Our Portugal Journey through Buy Me a Coffee. Your generosity and interest help to keep this publication free to subscribers.
Until next time…