I may have mentioned before, but it is Autumn in Asturias. The leaves have turned. The cider lorries collect the roadside sacks of apples daily. And round every bend on every winding back road huddles of people clutching baskets, carrier bags and, of course, sticks hunch to their task of collecting chestnuts.
As do we. It’s quite impossible to resist. The proliferation of the sweet chestnut tree is such that the roads are carpeted in their fruit at this time of year. In fact, I regularly suffer pangs of conscience as the car bumps over yet another prodigious patch of them, plastering them pointlessly to the tarmac. Such waste.
So, quite apart from dedicated foraging trips to the woods or chestnut groves, and much to the annoyance of our energetic greyhound, our daily roadside walks have become grossly extended in time but not distance, as I cannot resist stopping to stuff my pockets to bursting every few paces. As I roll yet another spiky chestnut casing underfoot to reveal its shiny bounty within, the hound prances about impatiently, occasionally resorting to a gentle nip on my sleeve to remind me where my focus ought to be.
Luckily, in addition to bones, meat and all things stolen, our greyhound is also partial to a roasted nut or two, so his payoff comes in the evenings, as he lolls in front of the woodburner which currently doubles up as a perpetual chestnut roaster.
The history of the chestnut in the culture of Asturias is as rich as the velvety flesh of the nut itself. Introduced by the Romans, the chestnut was the staple food of northern Spain for many centuries, providing the main source of nutrition and being consumed in many forms, including flour. Knowing this, the nutty autumnal abundance falls neatly into place.
And so it is that the Asturian version of harvest festival, ‘amagüestu’, is a celebration of both the apple and, primarily, the chestnut. And where better to learn about the traditions of a harvest festival than in a school?
Our little country school celebrates amaguestu in fine style, involving people from across the community and the generations. The children and teachers wear full traditional dress and there is gaita music (the Asturian pipes) to accompany their dramatization of chestnut picking throughout the ages. Chestnuts are roasted and the first (non-alcoholic!) pressing of the apples (sidra dulce) is drunk. Families provide the food, with an emphasis on local and seasonal specialties (and cake, because that’s always appropriate!)
All in all it’s a wonderful event and we feel privileged to be part of such a strong community that is still so clearly attached to nature and the traditions that spring forth from that. Mind you, you don’t actually need to go to any school to realise that – you just need to drive down an Asturian country road in Autumn and see all the chestnut collectors in action.