This Old Chestnut Fosters Memories of Spain

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My family and I, on my grandmother's farm. (I'm in the yellow dress.)

By Sofia Perez

[Published by, April 12, 2016]

The Guardian logoThe day my mother discovered fresh chestnuts at a fruit market in our New York City neighborhood, she wasn’t the only one who hit the jackpot. As she stood in our kitchen, slashing the hard shells to keep the castañas, or chestnuts, from bursting in the oven, she told me about the trees near her childhood home in Galicia, the far northwestern region of Spain.

My parents rarely spoke about their childhoods, so I always listened intently to their few stories. Mom and Dad were raised under the cloud of Spain’s post-civil war dictatorship, amid extreme rural poverty. By age 10, both were working on their families’ farms, and both had lost their fathers to lung diseases. In Dad’s case, that meant becoming a surrogate parent to his two younger siblings. So if there were any tales of youthful shenanigans, I knew they’d come from Mom, who was the baby sister to three older brothers.

That NYC evening in our kitchen, she painted a vivid picture, recalling how she used to weave her way around those majestic chestnut trees, scouring the ground in search of open burrs and extracting their treasure, each nut as smooth and shiny as if it had been burnished. Collecting them by the sackful, she and her brothers would take their haul home to my grandmother, who roasted them over the woodburning stove, releasing their distinctive aroma and filling the drafty stone house with a warmth that was all too fleeting during Galicia’s cold, damp winters.

Mom smiled as she remembered competing with her siblings to see who was the fastest peeler, for speed meant more chestnuts in the stomach. With her small, nimble hands, she worked quickly, often sneaking a few nuts into her pocket to be saved for the next day, when she could wave them under her brothers’ noses and taunt them for their lack of foresight.

Her chestnut stories were a window onto an existence that seemed alien to me, and yet removed from my own by just one generation and the capriciousness of fate. Hearing her anecdotes emboldened me to ask additional questions, and for my temerity I was rewarded with glimpses of the past.

In Galicia, chestnut trees have long done yeoman’s work, supplying its people with firewood, timber and sustenance—the whole nuts as well as baked goods, crepes called filloas and other food made with chestnut flour. During hard times, it didn’t matter that the wood of the mature European chestnut tree, or Castanea sativa, has a tendency to split, or that it burned less evenly than other types of wood.

In return for all it provides, the chestnut tree is honored each November with the magosto, an informal festival likely of Celtic origin. For centuries, families gathered outdoors at night, roasting chestnuts alongside chorizos produced from the annual pig slaughter, and drinking the season’s new wine—an observance, like those practiced by small farmers the world over, of nature’s cycles. Towards the end of the magosto, children paint their faces with soot and ash from the bonfire, and a few chestnuts get tossed into the embers, a gesture meant to nourish the souls who are said to linger in the forest nearby.

When we study genealogy, we talk about tracing a family tree, and the analogy is apt. We are as inextricably linked and indebted to our forebears as the top branches of a tree are to its roots. Like having a baby, planting a tree is an act of faith, for it requires us to imagine a tomorrow. And protecting our forests is a way of giving thanks to our ancestors who, in one form or another, remain with us.

As I watch my mother and father age, those chestnuts tossed into the magosto fires strike me as a paltry tribute to those who’ve come before us. Like trees that share their bounty, my parents and grandparents have given me a part of themselves in the hopes that I might bloom. The very least I can do in return is to hold these gifts sacred and safeguard their source.