FIRE AND CHESTNUTS, APPLES AND CIDER AND SO MUCH MORE.
Everyone’s familiar with Halloween or All Souls' Day (The Day of the Dead) and many of us associate these festivals with cooling days, autumn leaves, pumpkins, candles, spirits and the “other world”, perhaps Church, prayer and visits to loved ones passed. But they have an ancient connection to legends and rituals that go back beyond Christianization in Europe and the Americas. The end of October has always marked the end of harvest and abundance and the beginning of the cold short days of winter. It was (and still is in many places) a time of food preparation of the crops gathered, livestock slaughter, a celebration of the cycles and the anticipation and faith in the sun’s return.
The autumn festivals in many countries touch on themes of life and death, renewal, and the warding off of demons and other bad spirits. It’s a time to honour the dead and celebrate the living. It’s a time to enjoy the bounties that the earth has provided over the warm months with the communities and families that all helped to produce them. Most of the harvest festivals involve fire, food and wine, and Spain is the master when it comes to incorporating these elements into their fiestas.
Samhain (Day of the Dead) started as a Celtic festival that celebrated the end of harvest and when the line between the living and the dead was blurred. It was a time to venerate the good spirits of deceased family and friends and to prevent the bad spirits from entering the world of the living. They lit candles carried in carved turnips, jumped over and danced around bonfires, wore animal skins and costumes to deceive the evil spirits and avoid possession, and left valuable gifts of food around the house for the spirits of dead family members to return home to at night. When the Romans brought Christianity, they also brought the tradition of placing flowers on the graves to honour their dead.
In my posts about Myth, Legend and the Holy Ghost, and Witches’ Land, I talked about the rich pre-Christian Gallegan traditions and how these traditions have melded with the Christian rites and beliefs, all with one foot in the afterlife and the other in the earthly. During Samhain, they jump the fires and rub their faces with the ash. They visit the family graves and go to Mass.
There are many fiestas around Spain that celebrate the autumn months with the preparation and sale of local products, competitions and traditional costumes, song and dance. Much of northern Spain celebrates the season of the chestnut, such as in Galicia, Asturias, Basque Country (with snails), Catalunya and Aragon (with muscatel) as well as more southern areas such as Zamora, Salamanca and Caceres (with figs, walnuts, acorns, pomegranates and quince jam). The fiesta coincides with the days between All Soul’s Day on the 1st November to the Day of Saint Martin on the 11th November. Having played such a vital role in the history of the country, the chestnut has given people a perfect excuse to party.
Perhaps the most famous of the chestnut festivals is the Magosto in Galicia. The soutos (chestnut forests) have been an important part of the economy in Galicia for centuries and their nuts were even used as currency for land taxes and rent during the Middle Ages. Before the introduction of corn and potatoes from the Americas in the 18th century, chestnuts, “the bread of the poor”, were a staple food in all dishes: in soups and stews, roasted, ground into flour, in desserts and as the main ingredient in most meals much as potato has become since. There are still places in Galicia where they call potatoes ‘chestnuts’ in the same way as potatoes are called ‘earth apples’ in French.
Chestnuts fall to the ground in small spiky cupules which turn brown and dry and split open when the chestnuts are ready to be collected. Whole communities and families make a day of it and the sooner they are gathered, the better. If there hasn’t been much rain, the chestnuts are small and fall early but if there has been some rain during October, they’re more likely to stay on the tree a little longer and are generally plumper. Some of the trees in the soutos are hundreds of years old and have stood over the dozens of generations of families who have collected their nuts each year.
In Galicia, they enjoy the Magosto with bonfires, roasted chestnuts, chorizo, wine and queimada. Queimada is made from orujo, a high alcohol drink (more of that later) with sugar and citrus fruit and is said to protect against evil spirits and curses. During the preparation, which includes setting the liquid on fire, a spell is spoken aloud by those partaking in the ceremony. The Magosto is an opportunity to promote artisanal products such as chestnut brandy, chestnut cream, chestnut cake, chestnut bread and chestnuts in sweet syrup. The recent grape harvest provides a chance to taste the young wines, and in neighbouring Asturias, the “Amaguestu” chestnut festival is also a time to exalt in their local specialty – apple cider.
The Apple Festival
Every two years near the weekend of October 12 (a national holiday in Spain), Villaviciosa celebrates its apple festival with contests, food, music, markets, theatre, exhibitions, workshops, cooking and tastings. It was started in 1960 as a way to promote the wide variety of apples and their cider.
Traditionally, making cider was all done in large barrels and wooden pressing mills. The apples were cleaned by hand, mashed up and crushed in the mills and the liquid would drain out into a tub which was then filtered and kept in a barrel to ferment. The left-over pulp was dampened and put through the press again at least two more times. These days they have modern shiny machines to do all the sorting, cleaning, crushing, filtering and fermenting for commercial production, though some places still prefer to do it the old way for personal consumption. Pouring the cider is a true art. The bottle is held up at arm’s length and the cider is poured into an inclined glass to aerate the liquid. If you plan to try this yourself, I can suggest, from personal experience, to first practice over a sink. If you’re lucky you’ll get some in the glass, though you’re more likely to wind up with soggy shoes. Buy a few bottles because much is wasted. Or you could choose not to aerate it – some would argue it tastes the same…
Towards the end of November, Rincón de Ademuz in Valencia celebrates its unique ‘esperiega’ variety of apple with food preparation competitions, tapas tastings in several bars and restaurants, exhibitions, music, traditional dances, guided botanic walks, artisanal market and workshops. The ideal climate in this area produces the fruit’s sweet flavour which makes it a perfect dessert apple. You can also take a tour around the town visiting its many historic buildings and sculptures by following the apples painted on the streets. Meanwhile, back up north, Cantabria is enjoying a different alcoholic beverage – orujo.
The Orujo Festival
In the Liébana region of Cantabria in the Picos de Europe, the small town of Potes is nestled at the confluence of the two rivers and four valleys that create a microclimate perfect for grape growing. These grapes are turned into a fiery drink known as orujo. Orujo is a colourless spirit with over 50% alcohol content and is thought to have first been made in the monasteries of Liébana during the Middle Ages. Since then it has become popular in many parts of Spain, particularly in the north, and every second weekend in November, the townsfolk of Potes show off their traditional fire water in the Orujo Festival.
Orujo is made from the residue of the grapes after they’ve been crushed. The skin, seeds and the stalks are all used in the fermentation process and then distilled over an open fire in copper kettles called alambiques for at least six hours. The orujo that is aged in oak barrels for a few years creates a golden-coloured variety similar to brandy.
Many families choose to make their own orujo from what remains of the grapes after they’ve been pressed for wine and often flavour them with sloe, cherries, herbs, flowers or honey. During the festival, homemade stills without a licence are allowed to be set up on the streets on the condition that all the alcohol they make be consumed during the festival and not be sold. Every year a public figure or celebrity is chosen to be the Orujero Mayor who then reads the inaugural proclamation and participates in various other ceremonies during the weekend.
People come from all over Spain to taste the local orujo, enjoy folkloric dances and exhibits and try local food products such as the Picón cheese and Borono black pudding. Finally on the last day, the Distillery of Honour award is given to the best tasting orujo from among the county’s main distilleries.
The Saffron Flower Festival
Anyone familiar with the story of Don Quixote and his battle with the iconic windmills of La Mancha, knows about these grand flour mills, some dating from as early as the 16th century. The 12 windmills lined up on the Calderico Hill in Consuegro, Toledo, are the backdrop to a fascinating festival celebrated for three days at the end of October/ early November during the harvest of the saffron flower stigmas.
The saffron flower was probably introduced to Spain in the 8th century by the Moors and its stigmas are used as a flavouring and food colouring spice in many traditional dishes, such as the classic paella. It is one of the most expensive products in the world per weight due to its labour-intensive production and scarcity. If the land has received a lot of rain and there is a sudden frost, there is the risk of losing the entire crop, and the process involved in the harvest is backbreaking and painfully slow. Although now there are small handheld machines that can make the process a lot faster, most farmers prefer the traditional method of collecting the flowers by hand. That requires a 19-hour day starting before sunrise while the petals are still closed. By 11:00 or 12:00 in the morning, the flowers are fully open to the sun which makes the picking that much slower.
The flowers are then piled onto tables where family members or hired hands work fast to pull all the flowers apart to extract the three red stigmas before they rot – which is usually within a day or two. During the festival there are saffron peeling contests where those with the fastest and most skilled hands are awarded. Once extracted from the flower, the stigmas are dried slowly over a low heat and weighed. There are food fairs to be enjoyed, cooking contests of typical La Mancha cuisine, dances in traditional costumes as well as the “Milling of Peace and Love” ceremony, which involves a blessing of wheat before it is ground in the “Sancho” windmill.
…AND SO MUCH MORE
Autumn is an exciting time of year for experiencing the gastronomical delights of Spain. Besides those mentioned above, there are a long list of food fairs and festivals that extol the abundant variety. In Torre de Miguel Sesmero, Badajoz, Extremadura, they celebrate the fig in October with battle re-enactments, parades, food stands and artisanal products, cooking workshops, hiking routes with a breakfast of figs, cheese and wine tastings and of course, music.
There is the food festival of Desarme in Oviedo on the 19th October where they also recreate historic battles while indulging in local dishes of chickpeas, spinach and cod, tripe dishes and rice pudding. The Autumn Fair of Biescas in Huesca, Aragon, holds cheese competitions among the best cheese producers from around the country; the Festival of Ham in Campillos, Malaga, pull out all the pig products in November; the Festival of Chestnuts and Wine in Yuquera, Malaga, is also worth a visit at the end of October for its grape treading, artisan products and traditional costumes. During the Bean Festival in Tolosa, Guipuzcoa, they indulge in blood pudding, wine and chillies and hold contests of the bean dishes.
And finally, one mustn’t forget the setas – wild mushrooms such as chanterelles and boletus – collected from the forested areas all over the country. There are mycological centres that organise guided walking routes, teach identification and provide cooking presentations and courses for adults and children. In the past, the autumn rains have signalled the beginning of mushroom season, but these days with the changing climate, mushroom hunting has become less predictable and as they’re now in such high demand, many places require a licence to pick them. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy them in restaurants and bars or even delight in the simple pleasure of heading off to the forest armed with basket and knife in the hope of coming across a recognizable parasol or milk cap.
Whatever your gastronomical preference may be during this gorgeous season – whether it’s the fire and excitement of the Magosto in Galicia or the more tranquil wild mushroom preparation in a mycological centre in the pine forests of Soria, there is something delicious for everyone somewhere.