November 11th is St Martin’s Day, and is eagerly awaited by many Portuguese people, especially those who make their own wine as this is the first day that the new batch of wine is ready for tasting. Happily, it coincides with the chestnut harvest and the date conjures up images of hot, roasted chestnuts with a glass of wine in many a mind.
In the town of Lousã, there’s an extra ingredient thrown into the mix; the locally produced honey. Take a walk through the forested mountains that loom over this central Portugese town and you’ll spot the beehives dotted amongst the eucalyptus and chestnut trees.
To celebrate these local treats, Lousã holds an annual honey and chestnut festival which spans the weekend closest to St Martin’s Day.
People queue up to buy kilos of chestnuts and walnuts and to choose from the row upon row of jars of honey and pollen. There are cure-all creams, soaps and hand moisturisers made from honey and decorative beeswax candles on sale.
The exhibition hall hosts stalls from local schools, scouts, organic and community organisations, most of whom have a mouthwatering range of home made cakes on sale.
I tried a chestnut tart, enjoying the crunchiness of the pastry and firm, sliced chestnuts set in syrup. I washed this down with a glass of jeropiga, a home made, fortified wine made from fresh grape pulp and juice mixed with grape spirit, aguardente. It’s lighter and less syrupy than port and more refreshing; sweet but not sickly.
To my surprise, the temporary restaurants set up in the tented area behind the exhibition hall weren’t serving any chestnut or honey based dishes. If that’s what you’re after, you need to check out one of the dozen or so participating restaurants which have added special dishes to their menus in the two week run up to the festival.
Otherwise, like me, you’ll have to wander outside, with another glass of jeropiga, and wait in line for a bag of freshly-roasted chestnuts.
The waiting is almost as much fun as the tasting.
I find it mesmerising to watch the old man manage his cart. He slits each chestnut near the base and pops them into a container, stopping from time to time to check the conical roasting jar. He picks it up, shakes it, lifts the lid and inspects the contents then replaces it on the white hot embers, giving it a twist before returning to his slicing.
When his container is almost full, the current batch is cooked. Holding his face away from the sweet-smelling smoke, he empties the roasting jar onto a tea towel in a basket then covers them up. He throws a couple of handfuls of salt into the jar then adds the fresh chestnuts, swirls them around then puts them over the heat.
Finally, the moment I and the others in the queue have been waiting for; he folds back the cloth to reveal the blackened shells of the chestnuts coated with a grey film and the ridged creamy chestnut flesh that shows through the split skins. Washed down with a glass of jeropiga, this is a treat well worth waiting for.
Practicalities for visiting the Feira do Mel e de Castanha in Lousã
Lousã’s honey and chestnut fair is usually held on the weekend closest to St Martin’s Day, November 11th. Check the Eventos section of the municipal website and look for Feira do Mel e do Castanha for exact dates and details.
If you don’t have a car, you can get to Lousã from Coimbra by bus.