AUTUMN, TIME FOR “AMAGÜESTOS” AND “MAGOSTOS”.
Today I want to talk a bit about the magostos or amagüestu (there are more names, but I am going to use only these two, because I want to focus on the Magosto del Bierzo and the Amagüestu of Asturias).
In short, a magosto or amagüestu is a gathering of people around chestnuts that are roasted for the occasion. Mostly in November, although while there are ripe chestnuts on the trees, there are magostos.
A bit of History
The origin of the word is uncertain, although there are a couple of interesting theories, which indicate that the name derives from the Latin “Magnus Ostus” (great fire) or “Magus Ostus” (magic fire).
But to tell you more, first I have to put you in context. Chestnuts have been eaten in these lands since Palaeolithic times. In fact, chestnuts and acorns were staple foods back then. If one day you happen to taste a ripe acorn you will understand how times have changed since then. And you will fall in love with chestnuts. I warn you.
And then the Romans appeared. And what did the Romans bring us? In this case, the expansion of chestnut cultivation. They must have realised the difference between the taste of chestnuts and acorns. Clever people…
OK, what I was getting at. Well, you live in a culture where the chestnut is a staple food. It’s only natural that you bow down to it, don’t you think? So that brings us to the origin of this festival. It is not at all clear, but it seems quite likely that it has a Celtic origin, closely related to the rest of the autumn festivities. Can you think of any other?
With the discovery of America (yes, talking about discovery nowadays is a bit anachronistic, but that’s just to simplify), the consumption of corn and potatoes was introduced in these lands. And although the chestnut was somewhat neglected, the festivities associated with the chestnut survived.
The tradition all around Spain and Portugal
In fact, in Asturias today chestnuts are not highly valued, and almost all the chestnuts bought in our supermarkets are foreign, despite the fact that they are plentiful here. Now, we Asturians are going to “harvest” chestnuts in abandoned or semi-abandoned chestnut fields. We say “apañar”, not to say “robar”. Here, where you see us, we are polite people.
As a counterpoint, in El Bierzo, chestnuts are an element of wealth, and they are cared for, protected and commercially exploited. And they are important for the economy of many families. Don’t even think of going to collect chestnuts in Bierzo, unless you pick them up from a road, or it is obvious that they are abandoned, please.
So, here we come to the tradition we know today. Basically, we eat chestnuts roasted in a kind of drum, or grilled, or on the griddle of the charcoal cooker (what a time those were…). And of course, chestnuts are difficult to eat without any drink, and we don’t have many Nobel prizes (some of us do), but nobody beats us at eating and drinking.
And that’s where the variants begin. In Asturias, we like sweet cider (the first pressing, before fermentation begins). In El Bierzo, we go for Bierzo wine (of course). In other areas, to local wine, orujo, muscatel… And of course, chestnuts alone are not enough, because there are liquors that threaten early drunkenness, just like that. So it is not unusual, depending on the area, to find bollos preñaos (chorizo), pork products, other dried fruits and nuts or whatever else, depending on what is available in each area at that time of year.
I say “in each area” because magostos or amagüestos are known in Galicia, Cantabria, Asturias, Aragon, Catalonia, Castile-Leon, Extremadura… even in the Canary Islands, as you can see. And in the peninsular context, Portugal also celebrates it.
And now we return to the subject of relating autumn festivals to each other. Depending on the area, there are obvious links between magostos and the feast of the dead. In some areas it is said that each chestnut represents a soul in purgatory. It is said that in some areas of Galicia a few chestnuts and other foodstuffs are left on the night of the dead. And in Asturias there is a tradition that, once an Amagüestu is over, the leftover chestnuts are thrown on the ground so that “les xinten los difuntos” (may the dead eat them).
My personal experience
But let’s move on to the present day, and above all to my personal experience, as I have attended several amagüestu in Asturias and magostos in El Bierzo. In all cases, they are always group events, gatherings. But in my experience, with some exceptions, the Asturian amagüestos are more linked to closed groups (schools, associations, families, friends).
However, in the case of Bierzo, I have known many popular Magostos, organised by public or private institutions, or by the people of the villages, who for a ridiculous price treat you to Bierzo wine, chestnuts, chorizo, ribs… and set to music or even with groups and orchestras. And one day I’ll tell you when they even invite you to a tasting of homemade cakes. Old-fashioned hospitality.
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