To smell a chestnut roasting on a European street corner is to smell autumn at its most basic. Add the scent of sweet potato cooked with hot coals, and you have a scent that transmits harvest, tradition and location – the smell of La Castanyada.
The Catalan festival of La Castanyada - which loosely translates to “the chestnut time” – is an old tradition surrounding All Saints’ Day. In the particular mythology of this kind of thing, chestnuts and hot sweet potatoes were cooked and eaten during the cold nights around the day of the dead, when bellringers needed to stay up through the darkness to chime prayers and commemorations for the departed. It has become something of a celebratory event on both the 31st of October and the 1st of November, with special recipes, small “panellet” cookies and lots of moscatell wine. In Barcelona, the street carts roasting nuts and roots get busiest as the sun goes down and the night’s chill sets in.
Barcelona isn’t a cold place, of course, and this year it’s particularly balmy – especially for those of us unaccustomed to southern climes. While the Barcelonés walk around in sweaters and scarves, we were feeling quite warm in short sleeves. The atmosphere is autumnal, the temperature is temperate. But the cool night air off the Mediterranean carried with it a melancholy of shortening days and summer’s end. Joining the huddle around a Castanyada stand, a universal sentiment of fall came over us – like what’s elicited by the rustling of leaves or Halloween night.
But La Castanyada is perhaps one reason why Halloween hasn’t caught on here in Catalonia as much as it has in other parts of the continent. It’s a simpler holiday, and it feels more fully autumnal, a flickering of food and fires against the tableau of a fading year. It’s said that the roasting of the sweet potatoes offers an opportunity to remember and commune with the dead. It's nice, instead of the ghoul-aping of Halloween, to feel a communal search for heat and closeness.
The women who traditionally sold their “castanyes i moniatos” from simple braziers were called the “castanyeras.” They sat bundled in blankets and headscarves, their fingers blackened from the work and smoke, scooping nuts into paper twists with special “espàtulas” scoops. The image has endured, though the vendors have changed. We saw many versions of these scarecrow-like figures, some set out in jest, some with care.