I always associate Autumn in northern Portugal with the sweet, heavy scent of chestnuts (castanhas) roasting in braziers along the cobbled streets. People wrapped up against the cold stroll with a newspaper cone filled with blackened chestnuts, peeling off the charred shells and biting into the hot creamy centres. Bliss !
Northern Portugal is covered with these tall majestic trees and in October you can hear the chestnuts crashing down through the branches and forming a prickly carpet on the earth below. Under this thick green spiky layer is the hard glossy brown chestnut.
Minho, and especially Tras-os-montes in the far north-east of Portugal, are famous for their chestnuts. In medieval times before cereals became popular the pick of the harvest made its way to the tables of merchants and nobility in northern Europe. The remainder kept the peasant families going through the long hard winter.
The big day for chestnuts in Minho is the Magusto celebration, usually held on Saint Martin’s day (11 November) when families and friends gather round a bonfire to roast chestnuts and sample Jeropiga. This is the wine must from the recent harvest fortified with aguadente or grape spirit. Legend has it that Saint Martin of Tours was riding home in a storm when he came across a bedraggled beggar. He took off his thick heavy cloak and with his sword cut it in two giving one half to the beggar. Miraculously the storm cleared and the sun shone for the remainder of his journey. Ever since this act of kindness (according to legend) there has been sunny dry weather around this time in November known as the summer of São Martinho (Verão de São Martinho).
Chestnuts are woven into the cuisine of northern Portugal and here in UK we use them for stuffing our Christmas Turkey, however there are plenty of other ways to enjoy chestnuts
Check out Yotam Ottolenghi’s chestnut recipes and enjoy with a bottle of Quinta Sobreiro de Cima