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In a Nutshell

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

When leaves turned to yellow and red, the chestnut trees of my Scottish youth were beset by legions of school kids armed with sticks & stones to try and knock down clusters of chestnuts, the finest specimens were dried or soaked in vinegar to harden them, punched with a nail to f eed a string through and then, like knights-of-old, we’d go to battle! The idea was to smash the other kids’ ‘chessies’ until eventually, a champion conker would emerge.

Spanish Chestnuts

I didn’t know there are several different types of chestnuts; the horse chestnut for example is inedible while the Spanish variety offers a sweet, tasty nut. The horse chestnut is in fact mildly poisonous!

Sweet, edible chestnuts were a curiosity in my Scottish youth. I only encountered them on street stalls in London’s West End or occasionally during the Christmas season.

Here on Madeira, they’re part of a tradition and a significant addendum to the local diet. The chestnut harvest lasts from late October until mid-November. This year we were invited to the most ‘nutty’ part of the island, Nun’s Valley, locally known as ‘Curral das Freiras’.

Curral das Freiras

The moon was still visible as we arrived at ‘Restaurante O Lagar Antiguidades’ sitting above the village of Curral das Freiras. It’s only a half-hour drive from Funchal so easy to get to and by the way, O Lagar is one of the best restaurants in Madeira for Espetadas (meat-on-the-skewer). We’ve been several times! This year, the owner, Gabriel, invited us to join in the chestnut harvest. When we arrived, it was not quite 8am but thankfully the restaurant was open for a quick coffee before we set off into the woods.

There were only two men on the job, swarthy characters, one wielding a sickle and the other a long stick and together they routed about the terraced slopes like truffle-seeking epicures gathering up the fallen fruit and occasionally knocking some down. “We’ll be at this all day,” one told me via my Madeiran girlfriend/translator. It seemed a hapless task but armed with their cigarettes and perhaps something warming in the flask, they were clearly happy at their work.

Once gathered, the nuts were taken to a concrete bunker where they were slowly heated over an open fire to harden the shells. Finally, the darkened nuts were thrown into a huge wicker basket where the men had a good workout, twisting and crunching the nuts beneath their boots to tear the shells off.

Local Tradition

In Curral das Freiras, there seem to be two aspects to the chestnutprocessing process, one being more commercial while the other is for the households of the valley who do their own thing. We came across a couple who kindly invited us to see their own homemade set-up.

The husband showed us his operation which was simple enough. Then in great local tradition, he treated us to a song. That seems to be the thing up here. They’re unabashed! Even the wife took a shine to me! “My daughter would like to meet a rich, young Englishman,” she told me linking in suggestively. She was wrong on all three counts, me being neither rich, young or English - but it was nice of her to say so!

Casa do Povo

Casa do Povo is ‘the People’s House’ and there’s one in every town on Madeira. I like the Casa do Povo concept here on Madeira. These ‘community centres’ not only look after the old folks with cheap lunchesand stimulating activities but also serve the wider community with soccer matches against other towns. Whoever came up with this, it seems to work well here in Madeira.

The one in Curral das Freiras enjoys a spectacular view of the valley, a great place for me to get in on the act and try preparing Chestnut Liqueur. It’s not rocket science, a kilo of crushed nuts, a bottle of aguardente mixed with some sugar water and a month spent in the alcohol with a further week in the sugar water. At the end it’s a slightly sickly brew but it’s part of the tradition.

Chestnuts are also used in several traditional recipes from soups to main courses and desserts.

Chestnut Festival

The Chestnut Festival normally takes place in Curral das Freiras on the 1st November since 1983. People come from all over the island to browse the stalls selling chestnuts products in the centre of town. It’s another great example of how you should ‘root’ around these islands and tune in to the local calendar.


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