Friday, 13 October 2023, 16:34
For Diego Guerrero harvesting chestnuts is as much a part of autumn as the clock change. It has been a tradition in his native Genal valley in Malaga province's Serranía de Ronda for generations. Roasting them over an open fire, the old-fashoned way, using a forged iron stand, is a ritual that is also practised at the chestnut stalls set up at this time of year in big towns and cities. Malaga is one of them.
Guerrero lives 100 kilometres from the city, in Pujerra. He is the head of the chestnut cooperative in this village of 300 inhabitants. This year, the doors of the cooperative will remain closed. Chestnut production has plummeted this season and it would not be profitable. "What little there is is collected more out of romanticism than anything else," he said.
Chestnut production in the province of Malaga is at an all-time low. The figures just published by Asaja, a major Spanish farmer's association, reveal an 80% drop. For Guerrero, even this percentage is "optimistic". He has four hectares of chestnut trees of his own. If in the "good times" he used to harvest around 5,000 kilos, he estimated this season's crop at a meagre 150 kilos.
"Talking about profits is nonsense. You pick chestnuts to roast with the family and little else," he said. Not so long ago, in 2015, the Pujerra Cooperative could boast a production of 150 tonnes. The municipality will now produce, according to Guerrero, around 1,000 kilos.
The main cause of such a small produce is the drought. "We are in a very long period without water. And every year it is more evident," Guerrero explained. But the drought is not the only factor affecting production. A fungus is also threatening the chestnut season. The effect is uneven, but many trees in the Genal Valley are suffering from this plague, which translates into what is known as anthracnose, a disease that affects the leaves of the tree and prevents flowering.
Chestnut trees are also endangered by an invasive species. The Asian wasp moth has become another headache for farmers. It was detected about ten years ago. It is a species originating from China and causes trees to weaken.
Guerrero explained the problem as follows: "The insect lays its eggs in the buds of the chestnut trees and then the larvae develop inside those same buds. The chestnut tree itself develops a tissue to defend itself against the insect's infection. The chestnut tree eventually loses the ability to produce fruit."
This vicious cycle of drought, Asian wasp and fungus is also affecting the street consumer. Although the weather is still telling us to think about bathing on the beach, the traditional chestnut stalls have already taken their place. At the head of one of them, in the Alameda Principal, stands Carlos Santiago. He has been roasting chestnuts for more than a decade. The white smoke and its smell coming from his stall draws you in. The main enemy of his business, he said, is the "high temperatures". With temepratures at almost 30 degrees, most people prefer an ice cream.
Chestnuts were once a very valuable food. Now, consumption has declined and with it the number of stalls in the city. Chestnuts have also become more expensive. Each year, chestnuts have become 37.7% more expensive for Santiago. "I used to pay 4.50 euros per kilo. Now, I pay 6.20. Everything is more expensive," he complained. As a consequence, he is forced to pass the higher prices on to the customer. The portion still costs two euros, but it has ten chestnuts instead of twelve.
Santiago stands by the fact that "being a chestnut roaster" is not a profession for everyone. "Roasting chestnuts is an art. I have it in my blood because my mother, my grandmother and my great-great-grandmother used to do it," he said. Seventeen years ago, when his mother died, he took on the job he has now. Every morning he starts to work from eleven o'clock in the morning. The working day ends at midnight. "Whoever says that this is a way to get rich is lying. In reality, it's not even enough to save money. It's enough for the next meal and that's it," he said.
Low profits, falling demand among young people, and long hours on their feet are some of the factors that explain why there are not many chestnut stalls anymore . "Adding those in the neighbourhoods, there are between 20 and 25 stalls in Malaga," he explained.
Among them is Santiago, who always finds a reason to engage in friendly conversation with customers. At the moment, he has no problems getting his raw materials from a farmer in the Genal Valley, with whom he has a long-standing business relationship.
Santiago is a firm advocate of the consumption of roasted chestnuts. "It is a fruit that forms part of our culture," he said. He wants to continue working with chestunts while he hopes the white smoke will continue to float along the Alameda Principal. The smell of chestnuts reminds you of autumn, but the strange thing here is that it mixes with the heat of the summer.
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