Archive for chestnuts

pereje and castanas

Posted in delicious places, delicious stories, vague recipes with tags on November 4, 2008 by thatwasdelicious

In the northern part of Spain, right before you enter the moutains of Galicia, the roads are lined with chestnut trees.

´Castanos, my companion Antonio told me. ´

´And these´? I asked bending down to scoop up the smooth pebble like fruit of the castanos.

Castanas,´he told me´

And for the rest of the day we walked along the paths of the Camino lined with castanos. The chestnuts underfoot made for hard walking. It was our third week on El Camino. We had left the soft gravel paths of the foothills of the Pyrnees, we had crossed the hard packed dirt of the trails between the grapvines of La Rioja, our ankles had endured a week of walking through the meseta on the rough stone and dirt senderos and now here we were about to climb the first mountain into the region of Galicia and we couldn´t find a firm foothold with the round castanas underfoot.

Antonio is about 45 and used to work the nightshift at the airport in Madrid. His wife and son live in Galicia and he started the Camino because he wanted to get back into the natural rhythm of life again after years of living nocturnally. He is quiet and we don´t say much when we find ourselves walking next to each other but he knows all the names of the trees we pass and the calls of the birds we hear. Chopos, acebo, retama, he says. Poplar, holly, fern. I respond.

He stoops to pick up some castanas as we round yet another bend and begin a slippery climb under these elegant and beautiful trees. He tells me that in the years after the war you would never find castanas lying on the ground uncollected. Wives and mothers would make soups, breads, milks, flours from the nuts using them up as a substitute for all of the things that they didn´t have. The castanas were food and the castanos with its hard wood was fuel for the winter. Now with the relative prosperity of modernity, people can afford to let the castanas fall without collecting them, leaving them for the feet of the pilgrims to tromp over.

They are delicious, he says and picks up a few more to put in his pocket.

Wait a minute. I stop and pull off my pack. There is a plastic bag inside and I pull it out. ´Let´s collect some and roast them tonight.´So we walk pausing to pick up castanas as the storm clouds gather behind us. We fill the bag Antonio showing me how to differentiate between the castanos that will be amargas and those that will be dulces. He insists on carrying the bag even though it is not that heavy and I really don´t mind. There are some rules in the world of machistas that you just don´t break.

We are five kilometers from Pereje (the town at the base of the ascent into the mountain pass) when the storm clouds break open. Neither Antonio nor I vary our pace as the rain streams down and the wind picks up. It is growing darker and the primal urge to find shelter in the cold, wet, and dark is calmed by the magic of walking through the forest knowing that sooner or later we will reach an alburgue and the traditional unquestioning hospitality offered to pilgrims.

We arrive in Pereje wet but exuberant. A fellow pilgrim opens the door to the alburgue and we tromp in leaving our dripping rain coats and soaked boots in the entry way. The alburgue is an old barn converted in to a pilgrim shelter. There is a kitchen with skylights on the top floor and a roaring fire in the fireplace. Antonio and I shed our wet clothes, chose our beds, and find the rest of our family of pilgrims that has been traveling together for the past three weeks. We show them our bag of castanas and immediately Manolo hands out knives and starts directing everyone on how to slice them open just enought to roast.

Victor finds a skillet and some salt and we throw the sliced castanas into the skilled with salt, cover, and let them roast undisturbed on the stove while Alex runs down to the bar to buy some beer. Half an hour later we are peeling off the hot skins of the chestnuts and pulling out the sweet yellow meet of the nuts. The sweetness is make sweeter with the faint traces of salt the laughter as stories and jokes swirl around. Outside it continues to rain and we fog up the windows of the kitchen with the heat from the stove, the fire, and our tired pilgrim bodies.