November 11 is St. Martin’s Day, and here in Portugal it is the height of the Magusto, a celebration of autumn’s bounty and the ripening of both the chestnuts and the year’s new wine.
Martin was a Roman soldier, born around 316AD near Savaria, in what is now Hungary.
According to legend, Martin came across a beggar one cold day while he was stationed in France (Gaul, at the time). The man was sorely underdressed, and shook with cold as he called out to Martin for alms.
Martin, distressed because he had no money to give the man, drew his sword and cut his own cloak in half, so that he could give one piece to the beggar. Instantly, the clouds parted, and the winter sunshine warmed Martin, allowing him to reach home with no great discomfort. That night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream, wearing the beggar’s half of Martin’s cloak, and thanking Martin for providing Him with protection against the cold.
Shortly afterward, Martin left the army and dedicated his life to evangelism and service to the poor, becoming a monk, then a bishop, and eventually known as St Martin of Tours.
Because of the miraculous change in the weather caused by Martin’s act of charity, the warm, clear days often seen at the beginning of November are know in Portugal as St Martin’s Summer.
At about the same time, the chestnuts begin to ripen and the first of the year’s wine is ready to sample, as well as other alchoholic beverages made from the semi-processed grapes, such as agua-pé and jeropiga.
These, of course, are the makings of a party, and on or around November 11th, the Portuguese gather around bonfires, fireplaces or even stoves to drink, talk, laugh, eat chestnuts, and celebrate (traditionally) the bountiful harvest and coming winter rest. Before the introduction of potatoes from the New World, chestnuts were a staple starch in the Portuguese diet, and a good harvest meant families could comfortably weather the lean winter months.
These celebrations are called Magusto, and traditions vary around the country. In the north of Portugal the day is still often marked by outdoor gatherings or community parties, such as the Feira da Castanha in Marvao.
In Lisbon the day is mostly an excuse for a party, often in the schools as well as with family. The chestnut sellers do a brisk business at this time of year, and a few companies sponsor giveaways of free chestnuts, for the publicity. Many restaurants also offer seasonal dishes, such as meat roasted with chestnuts, which are often delicious.
If you happen to be visiting Lisbon this time of year, buy uma dúzia (a dozen) from one of the outdoor chestnut vendors and savour them while walking the streets of the Baixa. The crisp sunny days of St Martin’s summer await you…
What is your favourite way to eat castanhas?