Monday, October 31, 2011

In celebration of the chestnut

In October the chestnuts start to fall (mind your head they are spiky buggers), but the whole village and beyond start collecting chestnuts, young and old alike, everyone is carrying buckets of them around.   As with all gluts, you do start to tire of them after having baked chestnuts the 4th night running!  But we’ve been collecting with the best of them, as the proud owners of one of the best chestnut trees in the village, we’ve been out there every day clearing up, throwing some on the bonfire (which has smoked away for several days now) and hearing them pop, preparing 100s of them for freezing.  I even made a chestnut flour cake (recipe below if you want to try it).

So, what better time to have a chestnut festival!   The village of Coentral hosts an annual chestnut festival, with music, dancing, food, drink and you guessed it...chestnuts.  Normally held inside due to poor weather, this year the sun shone and almost all the surrounding villages came out to celebrate this humble (but staple part of the autumn diet) nut.   Well, maybe it’s just an excuse for a party, but who cares!

Folk dancing in these parts is a big thing, at almost every event (before the modern keyboard players come on with their leggy dancers – remember Nuno and the Nunetts from last years blog?) the crowd are always treated to a display of local dancing.  Each region has their own style unique to their heritage, from the snowmen of Coentral to the fishermen of the west, folk dancing has its place at every festa.   

 Now, some of these characters may look like a local production of Bugsy Malone (check out the hats), but it’s a great tradition and something kept alive in rural Portugal.   Having said that, the music is OK, the dancing great, but the singing....oh god, the’s not all it should be in my opinion.  Have a listen

See what I mean?  After an hour or so, you just WANT IT TO STOP!   Now I love tradition and heritage but COME ON!

As the evening draws in the bonfire is lit and the chestnuts placed on dried grass to cook.  It’s a lovely site, especially with a glass on red in hand, tummy filled from roasted pork and sopa de pedra (soup with large chunks in).  

In celebration of the chestnut – long may it continue, but next year I might wear some ear muffs!

Chocolate, ginger and chestnut flour cake
5 oz of cooked chestnuts (without shells)
2 oz plain flour
1 large teaspoon baking powder
6 oz brown sugar
3 eggs
6 oz butter (salted)
2 oz chocolate chunks
1 oz stem ginger
Vanilla essence
Prepare the chestnuts
Score the chestnut shells and place your chestnuts into boiling water, bring to the boil on the hob then leave for 10 mins.  Drain then with asbestos fingers remove the chestnuts from the shells (easier to do when they are hot, but you do need to have asbestos fingers).  Leave to cool.
In a food processor shred the chestnuts until they are lumpy flour.
Make the cake
Mix the sugar and butter until it is well combined, add a drop or two of vanilla essence.  While still mixing add the three eggs and combine.  Add the flour and chestnut flour and baking powder and combine until it is nice a light but still a little runny (you can add more flour and a dash more baking powder if the mixture is too runny).
Add in the chopped chocolate and the chopped stem ginger (if you don’t like ginger then just leave it out) and mix until it is combined.
Pour the mixture into a prepared cake tin/loaf tin. Put in the oven for about 25/30 mins until the top is golden and when you insert a skewer into the centre it comes out clean.  Leave to rest for 15 mins then turn out onto a rack to cool.

Serve large slices with Crème fraîche!

Thursday, October 13, 2011


Wednesday the 5th October was not a great day for Castanheira de Pera,  a small fire started in the woods sometime in the early afternoon.  By 2pm it was a pretty big fire with 30 firemen (Bombeiros) and numerous fire trucks.   

Coming home from a lunch with some friends, we got a phone call asking if we were OK.  Well, we’d seen the smoke from the road, but not realised it was happening so close to home.   

The village was out watching the fire, it seemed under control.  No one was worried, everyone just calming saying how awful the fire was.   

2 hours later the wind got up and blew the fire across the valley, on an on it went, along the top of the ridge through thousands of trees, covering miles and miles.   

At 4pm the helicopter came over head, dropping tonnes of water on a hotspot just at the top of the hill. Through the binoculars we saw the Bombeiros run for their lives as the down draft from the water dump and the helicopter moved fire and smoke into their path.  

The helicopters kept coming over until nightfall, but with the fire raging on many fronts and just two helicopters our side of the fire was not a priority.  We hear that the fire took hold just on the other side of the hill.

 As it got darker and more windy the fire made its way across the ridge, moving down the valley but creeping down the hill towards the village and our house.  At one point the fire was about 600 meters from the back of our garden !  Fortunately the wind was taking the fire along the valley, I hate to imagine the situation if the wind had been blowing in another direction.  

At 8pm we packed our bags, got the dog ready to leave and got our ‘important papers’ out.  Peter soaked the garden for 2 hours, dampening down the parched grass, trees and plants in a bid to try to stop anything taking hold should the fire make its way down here.  Also at 8pm, all the bystanders watching went home for some dinner – what’s wrong with these people!  Well, I suppose they’ve seen it all before!  

At 9pm the fire was at its peak, a small clearing in the hill behind the house took alight.  I’ve never seen anything like it – white hot only makes real sense when you’ve seen that.   

After that, we had a beer!  Well what more can you do?  We were ready to leave, we’d filled every bucket we could find, we’d got all the towels in the kitchen ready to soak them (should they be needed).   Time seemed to fly by, we could hear the fire crackling in the trees, watched as some trees ‘blew up’ and burned with a white heat.  

It must have been about 11pm when I feel asleep on the sofa, then at about 2am I went up to bed to try to sleep.  Peter stayed on the patio watching all night.  At 5am after numerous bad dreams (which included, me not being able to put the collar on the dog as we ran for our lives from the fire)  I gave up sleep and came down to make a cup of tea.  

6am and the fire was under control in our area, well enough for Peter to give up his vigil outside and try to get some sleep.

Unfortunately it wasn’t over.  All of Thursday helicopters flew overhead dumping water all over the hillside.  A flare up close to the house had me in tears as the helicopters dumped tonnes of water just 600 meters from us.  Flying directly overhead and so low they made so much noise, it was so intimidating.  With the smoke rising from all over the valley, the helicopters flying overhead I thought, ‘thank god our neighbour Jon isn’t here, it’s just like the Vietnam war and I wouldn’t want him having any flashbacks!’

Later, I walked the dog down the road, passing lots of Bombeiro trucks hurtling along for more water.  God only knows how much water was used to put this fire out!   The smoke was in pockets along the valley, but as the wind started to clear the smoke you could see the areas devastated by the fire.  Huge areas of the forest, gone.  

Even now, 7 days later there are still pockets of smoke coming from hotspots along the valley.  The fire was started, they think, by a carless cigarette butt!  

The really crazy thing, this wasn’t even a big fire!  Fires like this happen in Portugal every day during the summer.  No, hang on, the really crazy thing, is that the Bombeiros of Portugal is largely made up of volunteers....every year these people put themselves in harms way to protect people.  

Thank you Bombeiros.