Normally there would be no reason for me to be interested in anything the slightest agricultural. News of the European Common Agricultural Policy would have me yawning. A bumper grain harvest would mean nothing. Even a good year for grapes and the wine-makers, unless grown around Bordeaux, would not get me excited. Then a friend gave me the news.
“This has been a very good year for castañas”, she said.
That’s chestnuts, to you and me.
Apparently this year’s weather has provided the optimum amount of everything needed to produce a vintage crop. For me that was excellent news.
I have always loved chestnuts. When I was a child we used to roast chestnuts on the coal shovel, still sooty from putting more fuel on the fire, while gathered round the TV on chilly winter evenings. It was an irregular treat, but the memories have stayed with me. I just love their sweet buttery taste and would eat as many as I could and was always disappointed when my small child fingers, oblivious to the burning heat, had succeeded is removing the shell only to find a bad nut inside.
I am old enough to remember hot chestnut sellers on London street corners. What they sold was, to me, far better than anything found in the local sweetshop.
In my early twenties I left England and travelled to places where the chestnut is unknown and probably went thirty years chestnut-less. Then I came to Spain.
I came in May. Through the year the weather became hot, then cooled off to winter. Much colder than I had expected. That shows how much I knew about Spain! Then one chilly November day I came out of the hostal where I was staying in Gran Via and saw my first Spanish chestnut vender. The smell of roasting chestnuts was an intoxicant. I immediately bought a dozen. From Gran via I wandered down to Sol. On the corner opposite McDonalds was another vender, brazier glowing, a pile of chestnuts keeping hot on a grill above those still roasting. My first dozen had left me hungry for more and pig that I am, bought another twelve.
For this simple fact alone, November and December have become my favourite months of the year to be in Madrid. (In January the chestnuts are getting a little old and don’t taste so good.) I like them so much that some days I will buy them for my desayuno segundo, (the eleven o’clock break that the Spanish call their “second breakfast”), lunch and dinner. I don’t need to eat anything else, although I am a little worried about my littering potential. What do you do with the shells, las cáscaras? You could follow my trail around the city. I mean, if you neatly put them into the paper cone they come in, it gets all messy and it’s not really sanitary to eat hovering over a litter bin. A friend who had never had chestnuts before coming to Spain and didn’t know how to eat them ate the shell as well as the nut. You can be sure I never let him forget that! He said it made them “crunchier”. Well, it would, wouldn’t it?
The nutritional facts about chestnuts show they are good for you. They are, according to one web site, known as “the grain that grows on trees”, but that was news to me, but apparently they have a similar nutritional to brown rice. The web site reveals that a “typical serving” of two and a half chestnuts (who are they kidding?) contains sixty calories, one gram of protein, 13 grams of carbohydrates, one gram of fat, one mg of sodium, and are twenty percent vitamin C.
So, two dozen have about 600 calories and fill you up. Great for the diet ladies!
The Spanish know all about chestnuts.
In the days of open fires no Spanish household would have been without a holed, metal saucepan called a Tixolo. After cutting your chestnuts with a cross to stop them from exploding from the steam pressure as the internal moisture is heated, you put the chestnuts into the tixolo and rest it among the glowing logs. It only take ten to fifteen minutes and your chestnuts are done. I don’t have an open fire. Ten minutes in a frying pan on the cooker top works for me. Experimentation has revealed eight chestnuts can be cooked reasonably well in a microwave in about two minutes. But put them of a paper towel as the water expelled during the cooking makes them soggy.
There are chestnut trees all over the Iberian peninsular. Some people have said that they were introduced by the Romans, but according to Celtic legend the trees were here before. In fact the humble chestnut did not used to be so humble. It was a very important constituent in food until corn and potatoes arrived from the New World.
Its high carbohydrate content made it a suitable foodstuff for the cold winter months and in some societies this almost gave the chestnut magical qualities.
The name of the holed cooking pot comes from Galicia. In that rainy and misty part of Northwest Spain, where the old Celtic traditions are never forgotten, there is an ancient rite of autumn called The Magosto, which celebrates the connection between nature and mankind and the debt he owes to it for his survival. It is a rite celebrated to glorify nature’s abundance and to ask her blessing for the next year’s harvest. It was an outdoor celebration. Homer tells us that the Druids worshipped the Chestnut tree and considered it a “fruit given by the gods”.
Chestnuts - Ready to eat.
The celebration would take the form of a huge banquet of hot chestnuts that had been roasted over a fire of Laurel tree wood. It is believed that the word “magosto” is derived from the latin Maguma Ustus (high fire) or Maguma Ustum (which refers to the magical nature of fire).
In Asturias the celebration is known as Magüestu and in neighbouring Cantabria as Magost. The Asturians, being Asturian, have a sweet chestnut cider for their feasts. In the Basque Country they eat their chestnuts, so I am told, with snails or baked in a morokil of corn flour.
It is from there I found an amusing piece of trivia. A chestnut grows inside a spiny case that could be said to resemble a small green hedgehog; in Spanish the animal is an “erizo”. It used to be that the Basques would store their chestnuts, still within their husks, outside in a construction called an “ericero”, which means “the hedgehog house”.
Over the border in Portugal the “Magusto” is celebrated with jokes and songs. Faces are smeared with the ashes from the chestnut fire. One local tradition there is to prepare a table with chestnuts for the dead which no one would touch them for fear of being haunted by the spirits of the hungry departed.
I don’t know if I could resist the temptation.
We had a Magosto in Madrid in November. In front of the bullring on the Plaza del Torres at Las Ventas, they erected a huge tent, and with great quantities of beer, managed to roast and consume, they claim, twenty thousand kilograms of Chestnuts. I gave them what help I could, but, assuming fifty chestnuts to the kilo, that’s half a million nuts. Luckily for them, I am not the only aficionado de castañas in Madrid.
The Good Castaña Guide.
You know how it is with chestnuts. They have to be properly roasted with the shells almost burnt away. You can tell if they have been cooked well by the ease with which you can peel them. The cáscaras should crumble. You also know that if you buy a dozen there will be one or two that are bad. I found a forum for different chestnut recipes and one poster remarked that if a chestnut explodes in the microwave it’s probably because it contains a worm! Definitely one to avoid.
On street corners all over Madrid chestnut vendors hover over their braziers, (which is a good job to have in these cold times), and turn and stir the nuts over the glowing charcoal. However, as in all things, not all things are equal. This is my fifth Christmas in this beautiful city, and I consider myself an expert on where the best chestnuts can be bought. So, in the spirit of goodwill to all, I have thoroughly researched where you can buy the best. I have eaten lots of chestnuts in the past few weeks on your behalf, and I can now reveal the results of my survey.
First the places to avoid. There are two vendors in the Plaza Castilla. I think they are probably in cahoots because both of them sell the worst chestnuts in town. They are not roasted for long enough and on the three occasions I have bought what I hoped would be a tasty snack there at least a quarter were rotten.
In Callao, on the corner with the Calle Jacometrezo, they are reasonably well roasted, but usually have a couple of bad ones.
I am waiting for the man to reappear in Sol, but he’s not there yet and maybe he has been moved on following the renovation of the Plaza, but last year his were well cooked but would normally pop up a dud or two.
So the winner is: The vendor on the metro station corner of the Plaza de España. Always well roasted and, so far this year anyway, not one bad chestnut. (And I have made several visits!) Also, when he has some tiny chestnuts recently, my dozen became almost two dozen. Definitely value for money.
The citizens of this town don’t actually need me to tell them this. After finishing this post yesterday I met a friend in town for dinner. Coincidentally, we had arranged to meet near the Plaza España. The chestnut stand was doing a fine trade with a long queue. Madrileños, you have chosen well. Oh, and dinner or no dinner, I joined the queue because I just can’t resist.
Oh, did I tell you – I love chestnuts!
Do you have any recipes for chestnuts? Or do you just like them roasted "On an open fire", to coin a phrase?
Comments please, as usual, below.