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How Real Food Traditions Survive Modern Life

How can a fall tradition of mushroom hunting, roasting chestnuts and donning a tattered apron and handkerchief go head-to-head with modern day Halloween costumes, a carnival of candy and epic haunted houses?

It does. . . and it wins year after year.

The chestnut celebration survives in a modern world because it's simple.

One of the treasures of living in a foreign land is learning and adopting the traditions of the culture. No matter the country, food is usually the epicenter of those traditions. Most of the holidays we share in the U.S. are rooted in an appreciation of seasonal foods paired with a desire to share those with loved ones. As a nutritionist, learning new culinary and cultural celebrations is a delight—particularly when it involves the Mediterraneans.

As the temperature cools from the blazing hot sun of summer here in Spain, the autumn palette of colors and flavors change the landscape of the market and the meals of the season.

With fall brings Castanyada, the traditional close of summer celebration in Barcelona, the capital of the autonomous Catalunya region of Spain. While we Americans are stocking up on bulk bags of miniature chocolate bars, getting poised for Halloween, the Catalans are heading to the mountains to play in the dirt.

Castanya is the word for chestnut in Catalan, and Castanyada  simply translates to celebration of chestnuts. The holiday is celebrated from October 31 to November 1, and therefore butts heads with Halloween. Each year, the pressure mounts as Catalan children are enticed by the Western traditions of soliciting treats from strangers and showing off Disney princess gowns or Darth Vader cloaks on the streets of Barcelona. Yet, the Force is strong with Catalans, and they continue to wield great power, sticking with tradition.

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From enthusiasts to families, the locals venture to the muntanyas (mountains) to uncover the treasures and seasonal specialties directly from the earth. Instead of knocking door-to-door for tricks and treats, the Catalans are hunting mushrooms, foraging for chestnuts, and hand selecting quinces from the trees for homemade membrillo jelly. The Catalans are diehards when it comes to fall foraging. The mushroom hunters, or boletaires, are the originals to the modern “foodies.” The hunters scour the deepest, darkest corners of the forest searching for the best bolets (wild mushrooms) the soil has to offer.

Wild mushrooms on display at La Boqueria Market, Barcelona

Wild mushrooms on display at La Boqueria Market, Barcelona

Other delights of the season include sweet potatoes grilled over a rusty barrel along the sidewalk. Grandmothers and children together crush almonds to paste, and potatoes to puree for the magical transformation to panellets, the traditional dessert cookie of the holiday. In the evening, moscatell, the sweet, dessert wine is enjoyed around the table. The star of the holiday is the chestnut, of course, which are adored by everyone—and only disputed as to whether roasted or boiled are the most delicious. 

Instead of filling a plastic pumpkin with chocolates and sweets, real pumpkins and butternut squash fill the markets and the dinner plates of Catalunya. As opposed to sporting Amazon costumes of witches and superheroes, the children (and adults) dress up in aprons and handkerchiefs, paying homage to the legendary castanyera grandmother from childhood stories.

Local children performing  La Castanyera  dance at school

Local children performing La Castanyera dance at school

As every child learns very early in life, La Catanyera fable goes something like this:

Once upon a time, there lived an elder woman in a cottage upon the mountain. As fall arrived, and the weather shifted from hot to just right, the castanyera put on her foraging garb—skirt, shirt, and shoes that clicked when she walked—and grabbed her wicker basket as she headed into the forest. When she arrived, she saw loads and loads of chestnuts perched high in the branches of the trees. She shook each tree by the trunk, yet no chestnuts fell to the ground.

Naturally, she solicited help from a wandering giant, who then rumbled the trees until dozens and dozens of chestnuts dropped to the forest floor. The castanyera scooped up the chestnuts and dropped them into her basket and the fold of her apron.

With a rich bounty of nuts, and while humming her now famous tune, she descended the mountain to the village. There in the town, and with the help of a cat named Marrameu, la castanyera set up a sidewalk old-school version of a food truck and roasted chestnuts over an open-flame. She wrapped the toasty treats in newspaper cones and handed them out to the children of the village.

I'll admit that the story seems overly simple,
yet, I think that's the point.

The story of the castanyera keeps it real, rooted and rustic in tradition.

Not everything has to be shiny, new and perfect, apparently. The symbolism of la castanyera is strong, and the traditions shared with children are rich—even without the shine.

My son with the rustic, homemade  castanyera  at school

My son with the rustic, homemade castanyera at school

Each fall, we adopt the Castanyada holiday and celebrate the message of la castanyera—who even makes an appearance at my children's´ school. It´s an opportunity for everyone, young and old, to be grateful for the bounty made possible by the season and a chance to remember our roots—both from the soil and from our past.  

While I still miss the costumes, candy corn and hayrides of Halloween back home, I appreciate the simplicity and tradition of Castanyada here. Halloween may creep it's way into the culture eventually, yet the tradition of Castanyada will always have a place in the hearts and history of Catalans.

The tradition reminds us that everything in life need not be optimized.

Many things—particularly our foods—are already perfect just the way they are.    

This fall, as my family and I relish in the seasonal delights of Catalunya shown below. I welcome you to try some of your own seasonal foods in your neck of the woods.

Make sure to tell me about your adventure!

Keep it simple.

Keep it real, rooted and rustic
—just as the Catalans have for years.

Chestnuts at the local market

Chestnuts at the local market

Rustic sweet potatoes

Rustic sweet potatoes

Wild mushrooms from the market

Wild mushrooms from the market

Homemade panelletts made with almond paste, potato, nuts, coconut and sugar

Homemade panelletts made with almond paste, potato, nuts, coconut and sugar

Muscatell sweet dessert wine

Muscatell sweet dessert wine

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