As soon as the weather starts to cool down, the rain starts falling and the days become shorter, the Portuguese start looking out for that familiar combination of the smell of roasted chestnuts, and the smoke emanating from the carts where they are cooked. And thus Fall starts.
Sold in cones, in sets of half a dozen (or a dozen if you’re greedy), these pockets of warm goodness are as autumnal as the falling leaves or the cold wind that makes carrying an umbrella an impossible feat. But why do chestnuts hold such a special place in this country? And how are they connected to a 4th Century Hungarian saint?
St. Martin’s celebrations in Portugal: roasted chestnuts, wine and more!
Born in Savaria, in what is nowadays Hungary, St. Martin was a soldier born in a pagan family, who converted to christianity, and became famous for the miracles he performed. The legend says that one stormy day he came across a beggar. Having nothing else to offer, he cut his cape into two with his sword and offered one of its halves to the poor man. In that same moment, the storm passed, and the warm sun started shining again. And to this day, around the time of his passing, on the 11th of November, we are graced with a brief period of sunny respite from the cold Fall weather, the so-called Summer of St Martin.
In Portugal there is a saying: “No dia de São Martinho, pão, castanhas e vinho” (“On the day of St. Martin, bread, chestnuts and wine”). But why are wine and chestnuts consumed on this day?
Around this time there is also All Saints Day, on the 1st of November, as well as All Souls Day, on the 2nd of November, where traditionally people celebrated their dead around a bonfire, and roasted chestnuts (which are in season around this time), so that the souls that had departed could warm up in the heat of the fire and enjoy the sweet nourishment of these autumnal treats. The two traditions coalesced in the celebration of the St Martin magusto where people celebrate this date by roasting chestnuts in bonfires, accompanying them with água-pé (a traditional alcoholic drink, with a low alcohol content, resulting from the addition of water to the grape pomace left after winemaking, and wine spirit). Jeropiga (which is a variant of this drink, with a higher alcohol content) is another traditional drink that marks this day, pairing perfectly with the warm, charred chestnuts.
To this day, families, colleagues, groups of friends, and sometimes even schools and companies throughout the country organize gatherings where this tradition becomes the perfect excuse to engage in one of the nation’s favorite pastimes: eating and drinking! Dried pine needles, pine cones and wood are gathered, expert bonfire makers set up the fire and chestnuts are thrown in at the right time to gain the char and smokiness that makes them so addictive, while the grown ups enjoy the warmth of the água-pé. Whilst in cities these celebrations are harder to come by, in the countryside they are still common, and can become huge affairs, with bonfires that can become impressively big.
Roasted chestnuts are Lisbon’s most popular street food during winter
But how can you enjoy these delights if you can’t attend a magusto?. Well, that’s where the roasted chestnut carts come into play. In Lisbon, for example, if you walk around Baixa (downtown Lisbon) you’ll certainly come across a few of these carts, and you’ll smell them before you can see them. The smell will come first, then the smoke of the coals where these chestnuts are cooked… and then you’ll see them. And you might still hear the cry of the sellers quentes e boas (warm and good) enticing you to pick up a cone with half a dozen, or a dozen of them, warming your hands while you peel them to reveal these perfectly cooked fruits, taking part in an old Fall tradition. In a country not famous for its street food, chestnuts are made to be consumed outside.
Chestnuts have always been a part of the Portuguese diet, especially in the colder and more mountainous regions of Portugal, where they usually grow. Hearty and nutritious, rich in fiber and vitamin C, they played an important part in feeding people throughout the cold Fall and Winter. Even though, (specially after the arrival of the potato), they’ve lost some of their importance, they are still cherished by young and old, throughout the country.
The secret to the perfect streetside roasted chestnuts seems very simple: the chestnuts are scored to facilitate their peeling as well as to prevent them from exploding while roasting, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and cooked in coals, in conical metal containers, shaken periodically to prevent burning. However, this magic is near impossible to replicate at home, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a try, either roasted or even boiled with fennel (see our recipes below). Around this time you’ll find them for sale in markets and even in supermarkets. As they are a crop that is sensitive (and can be affected if the rains arrive too early, or too late, or not at all) they tend to be on the pricier side, but are still worth buying. However, many Portuguese will try to make use of any connections they have, and try to secure a “chestnut dealer”; whether a family member from the countryside, or a friend of a friend, who can get them directly from the producers at a more affordable price. Anything to get their hands on these tasty delights.
Sold in sets of six (meia dúzia) or twelve (dúzia), street cart roasted chestnuts will typically sell for 2.5 to 3 euros for a dozen, depending on how plentiful the crop was that year, and where you buy them. In premium locations like the Baixa, or Chiado, sellers will tend to charge more, while you might be able to find them at a cheaper price if you buy them further away from the city center. Invariably, Portuguese people will complain about how expensive they are, which still doesn’t stop them from partaking in this seasonal tradition.
A curious fact: traditionally, roasted chestnuts used to be wrapped in pieces of paper from the Yellow Pages, or even newspapers. However, nowadays, for health and safety reasons, they are wrapped in food grade paper, with a compartment for the chestnuts, and another for the peels. People who still remember the old way of serving them still miss this quirky tradition, and you might hear them complain about how it somehow made them tastier than their modern version.
BONUS RECIPES: how to make Portuguese style chestnuts at home
We hope you get to try roasted chestnuts in Lisbon this winter. But if this isn’t possible, we still wish for you to have a little taste of this Portuguese tradition at home, by trying out these simple recipes of chestnuts at home.
Ingredients for 4 people:
4 Tbsp coarse salt
Optional aromatics: a sprig of rosemary or a a couple of fennel stems
How to make your own magusto at home:
Preheat the oven to 200ºC / 400ºF
Meanwhile, rinse the chestnuts, pat them dry and score them horizontally with a knife. It’s important that each chestnut has a deep cut to avoid them from exploding inside the oven, but you shouldn’t exactly cut each piece into 2.
Place the chestnuts in a baking tray, spreading them apart and avoiding overlapping them.
Sprinkle the chestnuts with coarse salt and place the tray in the oven. If you’d like to, add in your aromatic herb of choice.
Bake between 30 to 45 minutes - the total cooking time will depend on the size of your chestnuts. Enjoy them hot!
Boiled chestnuts with fennel
Ingredients for 4 people:
1Kg chestnuts (scored the same as in the recipe above)
2 Tbsp salt
A couple of fennel stems
Water to boil
How to boil chestnuts Portuguese style:
Place the chestnuts in a pan over high heat and cover them with water. Season with salt to taste - the end result won't be completely savory as chestnuts are naturally sweet, but the salt really brings up a lovely flavor.
Bring the water to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for about half an hour. Try one of the chestnuts and see if it’s cooked through. It should take approximately 30 minutes. Drain them in a colander.
Sprinkle the chestnuts with salt to taste and enjoy while warm or room temperature, Don’t forget to treat yourself by doing a nice Portuguese wine pairing!
Other chestnut specialties you can taste in Portugal
Although we have so far talked mostly about how chestnuts are consumed in Portugal on their own, they are also a key ingredient in many delicious seasonal recipes that you can find throughout the country, and are even used to make chestnut liqueur (mostly produced in the mountainous region of Serra da Estrela, and in general in the region of Beira Interior).
In the northeastern region of Trás-os-montes, caldo de castanhas (chestnut soup), a simple yet filling dish that combines chestnuts, onions, and often includes a few smoked meats, is a delicious way of enhancing the humble chestnut. In the northwestern region of Minho, pork meat is combined with chestnuts in a dish called rojões com castanhas is another dish that will warm and nourish you, and might even make you have to take a nap after you consume it. And finally, for those with a sweet tooth, the tarte de castanhas (chestnut tart) is a perfect way to end a meal and honor this humble but nutritious fruit, whose season is always too short, and always leaves wanting more. Because once the chestnut season is over, all we can do is dream about the next one, in the year to come.