Growing up I couldn’t understand why all my friends thought the holiday season started with Thanksgiving. In my home it always started in the beginning of November with the Feast of St. Martin, a holiday celebrated by drinking wine and eating roasted chestnuts. –Maria Lawton
When I was six years old, my family moved from the village of Rosario de Lagoa, on the Portuguese island of Sao Miguel, to New Bedford, the home of a thriving Portuguese community. In our family, chestnuts symbolize the start of the holidays and the Feast of St. Martin. In Portugal, the Feast was a time to celebrate the ripening of the first chestnuts and the season’s newly pressed wine. There would be large bonfires in the town centers for all to enjoy and chestnuts were roasted over open fires, adding a wonderful aroma to the festivities. The Feast itself is held on November 11th and the adults celebrated by drinking wine and eating roasted chestnuts . . . not a bad way to rejoice!
We all loved chestnuts in our home; we could never wait until the 11th to start celebrating. As soon as they were available I would go to the market with my dad and he would show me how to pick just the right one. It became like a treasure hunt, with me picking one up and getting his approval. He would show me a healthy chestnut and explain that it needed to be unwrinkled with a glossy brown surface. If they weren’t, they could have mold inside. He would also show me how some would have small pinholes in them; you want to avoid those too, he would say, since that meant that worms have been drilling. I remember his words as if it were just the other day. We would then take the bag full of chestnuts home and I would watch him prepare them.
To this day, I prepare them the same way he taught me: a combination of boiling, then roasting, the chestnuts. It’s very simple and, of course, very delicious!
The holidays in my home are filled with celebrations, continuing traditions, and customs that I grew up with. My hope is that these will never be forgotten and will be passed on to the next generations. My desire to document my family’s recipes resulted in a self-published cookbook, Azorean Cooking: From My Family’s Table to Yours, where you can find additional Portuguese holiday recipes. Enjoy!!
Maria Lawton, known to fans as the Azorean Greenbean, is currently working on her second book. To begin the holiday season, she and her husband will be enjoying roasted chestnuts served with port wine.
Roasted Chestnuts by Maria Lawton
- 1 pound fresh chestnuts
- coarse sea salt
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
- Using a very sharp small knife, carefully cut a straight line across the base of each chestnut. Penetrating the shell and just into the flesh of the nut allows steam to escape. Otherwise, chestnuts can explode!
- Put the chestnuts in a large saucepan, and cover with cold water. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, and bring to a boil. Simmer gently for 15 minutes, then drain.
- Strew a thin layer of salt to cover the bottom of a baking tray or large cast iron skillet. Place in preheated oven and roast 30 minutes. Peel and eat while hot.
Aka: St. Martin’s Day