November is a popular month for chestnut festivals across the whole of Portugal. Last Saturday I went with Nuno to a chestnut festival in the nearby village of Soito, Serra do Açor. When we turned up there was a heap of straw ablaze on the street cobbles, an accordion playing and people dancing together. What an atmosphere! Nuno hadn’t told me what to expect and I was pretty confused by the burning of straw! There was also children running around with black face paint… erm!
He explained that it’s tradition: they throw straw onto the cobbled street, set it alight and sprinkle chestnuts on the top. Once the straw has burned away the chestnuts lie amongst the ash and they’re ready to eat, but first the children have the ash smeared onto their faces!
There was also a huge cauldron (and I really mean a cauldron!) of ‘stone’ soup on the go. Nuno told me the story that once upon a time a hungry traveler was in the mountains of Portugal. He came to a small village, very much like the one I was in, and asked the people there if they had any food to spare. Everybody said ‘no, no, we can barely feed ourselves and have nothing to spare’. In the end, he decided to make some ‘stone’ soup, which consisted of boiled water and a large stone thrown in. Whilst the traveler was cooking his stone soup the villagers became interested and came over to speak to him. He tasted it and said ‘hmm, perhaps it could do with a bit of potato’. The villager went and returned with some potato to add. The traveler tried it again and decided that it could do with a bit of carrot this time, so another villager went off and came back with some carrot to add. This continued on until the ‘stone’ soup was a delicious combination of all sorts of ingredients. The villagers were so curious about this ‘stone’ soup that they all wanted to try it and soon the traveler was sharing it with the whole village.
After Nuno told me the story I asked him whether there would be an actual stone in this soup and he reassured me that it was ‘only a story’. So we went up and the chef served out my bowl and handed it to me and then it was Nuno’s turn. The chef scooped out a huge rock, dropped it into a bowl and handed it to Nuno as if expecting him to eat it. The chef began cheering and this prompted everyone to burst into fits of laugher and a new song started playing on the accordion. Only in Portugal!
After our stone soup we retreated inside because it had started raining and listened to some live music. It was a fantastic evening where everybody was happy and having a great time. I thought to myself that I was really lucky to find such a genuinely warm community, where people of all ages and nationalities, Portuguese, English, Dutch, German, whatever, all came together to celebrate.