Thursday, October 27, 2011

La Castanyera (The Chestnut Lady)

In my country of origin we do not have Halloween, but we have la Castanyada, a festival with roasted chestnuts, baked sweet potatoes and panellets. It is also very special time of the year as the colors are still in the tress but fading on the ground, and the winter peeks its nose through the clouds. The day after is All Saints, and the families gather together, to remember the love ones that have passed away.

This is a story of that time of the year, situated in Barcelona, around 1960:

The Chestnut Lady(La Castanyera)

Once upon a time there was a boy that lived with his family in the older part of town, where old castles and turrets where seen through the more recent buildings, and where alleys and crooked streets made the walking every day a small adventure. Each Saturday morning him and his father went together to get the newspaper from the newstand, a dozen of blocks away from home, and they spent that time talking about the past week, and the week ahead.

It came to pass that the fall season was coming once again, (it was the ninth one for the boy), and the streets got darker in the morning, with leaves from the maples trees whirling all around and making deep carpets to walk through. At that time of the year, the Chestnut Lady (Castanyera) also made her appearance, she was an old lady with hooded cape and cloaks that would stand in the corner of Santa Maria Street and the Pi Square, with her small fire burning in front of her, with an iron low pot, roasting chestnuts and sweet potatoes for the passers-by. Here and there a person would come and she would prepare a little cone with old newspaper and rake some chestnuts from the grill on top of the pot, and slide them carefully inside the newspaper cone, then she would fold the upper part and hand the nice warm bundle of chesnuts to the client.

The boy and father had to pass her on their way to the newstand, and the boy, asked his father What is the name of the Chestnut Lady? I do not know, said his father, and they went along. The next Saturday, again in passing the Chestnut Lady, the boy asked his father: Where does she live? I do not know, answered his father. On the third Sunday approaching the end of October, again the boy asked: Does she have family? I do not know, said his father.

One block further, the father stopped to talk with an acquaintance of him for a few minutes, they were talking about some business and the weather for the week. After bidding farewell to each other, the father suddenly realized that the boy was not by his side. He looked and called around and around, turning to every corner, and looking into every spot where the boy may be lost. It lasted for one hour, and the father, in despair, turned his steps back home to look for help. But, when passing by the Chestnut Lady, he suddenly stopped, and for some reason, instead of asking about his lost boy, he asked about her name, the name of the Chestnut lady, which was Esperansa, and he still spared some time asking where did she live, even he inquired about her family and relatives in town. Immediately after that last question was answered, the face of the boy appeared through the corner of the Pi Square, and father run to embrace him and held him in his arms.

 After that day, they always stopped at the corner of Santa Maria street and Pi square, to talk with the Chestnut Lady and have some time with her.

(Soon we will do some drawings for the story, edit it and make a small book for children.)

Below there is a recipe for the "panellets". We usually put way less sugar in the mix, or substitute with honey, and we use almond flour instead of grinding the almonds ourselves. Also we do mix the same amount of coconut into the dough for the coconut type.

Prep Time: 8 hours, 45 minutes

Cook Time: 4 minutes

Total Time: 8 hours, 49 minutes


  • 1 lb. ground almonds
  • 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 -1 cup water
  • 1 small potato
  • gtrated peel of 1 lemon
  • 3-4 drops lemon juice
  • Toppings:
  • pine nuts
  • sweetened cocoa powder
  • candied fruit
  • Flavorings:
  • instant coffee powder
  • coconut flakes


Makes approximately 32 cookies.
Blanch almonds, then grind in food processor until almonds are a fine dust.
Peel the potato and cut into quarters. Boil potato in a saucepan until cooked. Drain water and mash with a fork.
Place sugar in a medium saucepan. Pour 1/2 cup water into the pan and stir to dissolve sugar. Add more water to completely dissolve sugar if necessary. Place on medium heat on stovetop and bring to a boil, stirring often. Add 3-4 drops of lemon juice. Reduce heat and simmer until mixture is a thick syrup.
Remove saucepan from heat. Using a large wooden spoon, gradually stir in ground almonds, potato and grated lemon peel. Allow to cool to room temperature. Then, refrigerate overnight.
Pre-heat oven to 380F degrees. Grease cookie sheets. Spoon out dough with a teaspoon. Roll dough into small balls in your palms. Then roll the balls in powdered cocoa or pine nuts. If using pine nuts, brush each with a bit of egg white. Place on greased cookie sheet.
If you want to flavor the cookies, separate a portion of the dough and with your hands, work in a bit of instant coffee flakes, candied fruit or cinnamon. Then make individual balls.

Bake cookies just long enough to brown the pine nuts - about 4 minutes. Remove immediately using a spatula before cookies cool.