Autumn and the smell of roasting chestnuts go hand-in-hand. Their relationship is so naturally symbiotic and undeniable that during the last few days we've witnessed the grotesque spectacle of the poor vendors stirring the braziers while everyone else walked around in flip flops.
Global warming, you might say. There is some of that, yes, but also there is the desire to prolong the consumption period. In the same way that supermarkets now want us to buy traditional Christmas sweets three months before the festivities, the start of the chestnut season has slowly been brought forward, in the hope that people might want them early or it might coincide with a cold spell.
Chestnut stands used to not open until the last week of October. During the first few days they started up the braziers and stocked up on what they needed for the two important festive days: All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, the 1st and 2nd of November, respectively.
For those not aware, All Saints' Day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church to honour each and every saint in existence- and families would take advantage of the day-off and visit their deceased relatives at their resting places- while the following day was set-aside to pray for their souls in Heaven. As pious as the intention may be, the truth is that it wasn't uncommon for the prayers to end in a bit of fun and games. Anecdotes of those who had passed quickly turned into songs, jokes or horror stories with everyone huddled around the fire, eating sweets, dried fruit and drinking wine.
The chestnut harvest ended up being identified with these festivities and others that traditionally would be celebrated at this time of the year such as magusto, amagüestus, castañada or calbote. Sounds unfamiliar? Maybe that's because they're celebrations of a regional nature, very rural and are at risk of disappearing.
Chestnut trees have suffered various devastating plagues that have considerably reduced both their numbers and the quality of the fruit. It has only been in the last 100 years that the trees have become the victims of the so-called ink disease, chestnut blight and the Oriental chestnut gall wasp.
In 1904, Emilia Pardo Bazán explained in her La Ilustración Artística column that chestnuts - and the traditions they entail - were in grave danger. "Our characteristic chestnut is disappearing. A wrong that science doesn't know how to cure is ending this magnificent forestry essence, of incorruptible and fireproof wood, of fresh and murmuring foliage, with a flower that resembles a green velvet fringe, of a fruit that, if better prepared and conserved, would keep farmers afloat for a third of the year and would resolve the shortages of wheat, sweetcorn and rye..."
Chestnuts are rich in carbohydrates, fats, proteins and vitamin C and were one of the basic dietary elements in Spain until the 19th century. Roasted, boiled, stewed or ground into flour, these fruits provided energy during hard winters.
One hundred and seventeen years ago the celebration for the dead hadn't yet descended into a party. It was the chestnut that ruled in stoves and in hearts, "women and children's bliss, the base of get-togethers where lies and scary stories were told and, of course, whisperings of the land".