Some cold nights, some rain, the bracken turning to rust: these harbingers of autumn remind us that we must lay in logs.
An e-mail arrived this morning announcing the first meeting of the season at the chestnut cooperative SCA Castañera Serrana, to be held at the end of the month. It's good to get together and plan this season's campaign.
Volunteer work picking Chestnuts.
Our chestnuts won't be ready for gathering until late October or early November and we shall be looking for young physically energetic people to come and help with the harvest in exchange for board and lodging.
Usually we have 6- 8 helpers for the first two weeks of November. They stay in our holiday cottages and we provide the ingredients for breakfast and dinner which they cook for themselves. Lunch is always up at the main house and is a convivial affair. Picking is from 9 - 2.30pm 0r 3pm if going well. After lunch time to play.
At 5pm we will need some help to load the sacks into the van and deliver them to the co-op. Most applicants come through www.helpx.net or www.workaway.info
Our chestnut co-operative, the Castañera Serrana, cleans the nuts naturally, using water at different temperatures, without the use of chemical agents which can affect the environment as well as the final product. The cooperative was founded in the early 80’s, and presently has more than 280 active partners, within the "Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche natural park", which contains about 3.000 chestnut trees and an average total production of around one million kg.
They have a lyrical webpage in English about the seasons on a chestnut farm. Here it is:-
"Our chestnut forests are made up of trees, many of them hundreds of years old, which form one of the richest ecosystems in Andalusia. They are an perfect example of respect for and balance within the environment.
These beautiful chestnut landscapes, occupy the highest and steepest slopes of the southern ranges in the Sierra de Aracena and Picos de Aroche Natural Park. They are particularly widespread in Fuenteheridos, Galaroza, Los Marines, Castaño del Robledo and Aracena.
The Chestnut Year
In the fields of the Sierra de Aracena (Huelva), the winter frosts give way to heavy rainfall. On drier days, early morning dews refresh the grass, which starts to grow strongly. Pigs can forage on roots and herbs in the meadows, and their offspring grow healthily. The wild mushrooms of the area (umbrella mushrooms, saffron milkcaps, and edible amanita ponderosa), flourish and the farmer sees in this surge of new life the surest proof of overcoming the sterile winter, as well as the hope that the nuts will mature between summer and autumn.
Little by little the chestnut forests are covered in dense and intensely green foliage which in June is dappled with the paler starbursts of chestnut catkins.
Unlike the flowering and growth which is usual at this season in most of Europe, the Mediterranean countryside seems to die under the torrid heat of summer. The gushing rivulets and streams unleashed by the recent spring rains turn to a trickle and eventually dry up; the river banks and watercourses are dry. The grasses, herbs and flowers left by the spring wither and die, leaving bare the dusty ground. The chestnuts drop their large catkins and life seems to go into a deep torpor.
But the collapse is only apparent, for once the trees and shrubs have finished flowering, their fruits start to form, to grow and to promise an autumn harvest.
The first autumnal rains cool the atmosphere and soak the bare ground. The chestnut trees change the colour of their leaves, which turn to yellow and drop lazily. Finally the time has come to start collecting the precious and exquisite chestnuts. There are different varieties: the locally named Pelon, Wide-Alájar, Helechal, Dieguina or Vazquez etc.
The harvesting of the chestnuts, which drop to the ground wrapped in a spiky protective shell known as a hedgehog, takes place in November and in the first half of December. The whole family is usually involved: while women and children concentrate on gathering the nuts, the men are in charge of loading the sacks and transporting them to the trucks, some use mules and others have 4 x 4 cars.
The chestnuts are usually eaten raw or roasted in the fireplace (the latter known as tostones or escafotes). Sometimes, to keep them longer, they are spread out onto a slatted upper floor in an old building known as a zarzo, where they are dried and smoked over wood fires lit on the floor below. These will become the popular pilongas or castañas enzarzadas which are very hard and need soaking after which they are easy to eat raw, or can be stewed (typical chestnut soup).
Currently, large numbers of excellent varieties of our mountain chestnuts, are exported to the United States, Brazil, Canada and other European countries where they are highly prized for making marrons glacés or chestnut jams.
The days grow short and it grows cold. The chestnut trees stand leafless, and have become grey shadows silhouetted in the fog. The naked forest meanders melancholy between the dark meadows. The shadows are long and the dreaded frost returns.
During the winter months peasants perform maintenance work on our forests of chestnut trees.
Expert hands shape and prune the chestnut trees with the axe, eliminating all unproductive branches and strengthening the health and vitality of the tree."
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