La Castanyada: Catalan tradition

Due to the origins of this holy day, it was common belief that on the eve of All Saints the souls of your ancestors would return to the places where they used to live.  Keep in mind that far from being viewed in a negative light, the notion of being reunited with your ancestors was looked at positively.  These souls were considered trusted family members who protected their homes and looked after their descendants, and so the eve of All Saints would traditionally have seen family parties to mark the occasion.  Until recently in many places it was the custom to put an extra plate on the table and leave an empty seat for deceased relatives.  To help the souls find their way home, villagers would place oil lamps on the doors of their houses, and candles were lit in the kitchen in their memory. 
From the culinary point of view, it is known that man has fed on castañas - chestnuts – and bellotas - acorns – since prehistoric times, and that due to their organised cultivation by the Romans, these nuts became an autumn staple.  The exact beginnings of the traditional Catalan festival of Castanyada are lost in the mists of time, but it is known that by the early Middle Ages, the Nit de Tots Sants would see families gathered at home, roasting chestnuts in their fireplaces, spreading them on the table for everyone to eat, and washing them down with a cup or two of Mistela, a sweet home-made Moscatel or Garnacha wine.  On those Castanyada nights, the youngsters would be told not to eat all the nuts because they had to leave some for the souls, and if they didn’t,.the souls would come later that night and pull the children’s legs while they were sleeping.  The children would leave a chestnut or two at the foot of the bed, in some of the nooks or crannies of the house, or even on each step of the stairs … and the following morning, the chestnuts would have turned into chestnut jam.
The eighteenth century saw the appearance of Castanyeras, women who brought chestnuts from the countryside to the cities and who roasted and sold the chestnuts in rudimentary street stalls around this time of year.
Along with roasted chestnuts and sweet wine, another Castanyada tradition is to serve panellets, a sweet prepared with soft almond and sugar marzipan, moulded into shapes and covered with nuts typical of the Mediterranean climate – almonds, pine nuts and hazelnuts.
Today these culinary customs remain and Castanyada is usually celebrated en familia, eating roasted chestnuts and sweet potatoes, munching panellets – home-made or bought from bakeries – always accompanied by a sweet wine like Moscatell.
There are also Castanyades Populares in Barcelona also in all Catalonia, street versions of the Castanyada organised by neighbourhood associations, with music, dancing, “coques”, and the usual roasted chestnuts, panellets and moscatell.  These have little in the way of religious celebration but much in the way of ancestral pagan fun!
If you are interested, here is a recipe for Els Panellets

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