The Green Shacks are Back !
Arriving at Zürich’s main train station after almost two weeks in the more remote northern regions of Portugal, Olivier and I were prepared for a drastic change from what we became accustomed to. We had been driving through the isolated and magnificent parks of Portugal, protected areas with striking landscapes. We passed fields and fields of craggly olive trees, vineyards ready for harvest and chestnut trees just planted or overflowing with fruit. We visited markets with live chickens and rabbits, alternated meals between bacalhau (salted cod), sardines, kid and smoked meats, always followed (and preceded) by egg yolk-laden pastries. We savored the relaxed Latino rhythm of life there, people overflowing with warmth and generosity and villages where time has stood still.
One foot outside of the Zürich train station, and I immediately yelped – they’re back! Chestnuts are back! The perfect link for our time in Portugal and our return to Switzerland, thanks to the roasted chestnut stands that are now all over the city here. October 1st was the day: the chestnut guys set up their little green shacks and the aromas immediately began wafting through the air, drawing you in. My buddy Roland, who sells chestnuts at Weinplatz in Zürich’s old town, told me that for the first few weeks, they are not Marroni, but in fact Kastanien or châtaigne (his are from an Italian city near Naples) – the same type of chestnut we were seeing in Portugal (Castanea sativa). In a few weeks, the Marroni will arrive – sweeter and more tender than the others.
The Castanea trees were just gorgeous when full, their clusters of chestnuts a bright chartreuse color. Even though it may be tempting, don’t grab them with your bare hands; it’s like a mini porcupine! Driving through Portugal’s Trás-os-Montes (the country’s largest chestnut producing region), we saw these endless fields of chestnut trees, alternating between winding roads and tiny, quiet villages.
In one of the towns near the border of Spain, Olivier asked a man off the side of the road if there was a bar or café nearby to get a drink. Not for at least 30 kilometers, he said. While I was looking left and following their conversation, the man’s wife popped her head into my window and said, “We’re about to have lunch, why don’t you just join us.” Okay! And so, it was a three-hour lunch, simple and delicious, with lots of fun and interesting discussions in Portuguese. Following queijo fresco with an assortment of homemade jams (blackberry, cherry, chila squash) and shots of cherry liqueur, we went chestnut picking in their backyard!
Costa showed us the long tool you use to snip the clusters off the tree, unless they are ripe and fall off themselves. When they haven’t opened naturally, you can still open them yourself – as he showed us with a quick stomp and twist of his foot on the spiny round. Using a paring knife, he and Maria meticulously peeled open a few chestnuts for us to taste, raw. Very hard, rather dry and not sweet at all – I can’t say I was a fan. Time to hop outside here in Zürich and pay a visit to Roland…