Every 11th November Portugal celebrates Dia de São Martinho (the day of Saint Martin). On this day, families and friends come together to eat, drink and be merry. Annual slaughtering of the fattened livestock provides meat for the table and the celebration ties in nicely with the first tastings of the year’s wine. A happy coincidence.
But who was São Martinho? In popular folklore, Martinho was first a Roman solider and in later years baptized and became a monk. Legend has it that while riding in a particularly bad snowstorm, Martinho came across a beggar dying in the cold. Martinho cut his cloak in half and wrapped up the beggar upon which time the clouds parted and the pair was bathed in sunlight. It’s impossible to know whether any part of the story is true, but what we do know is Martingo was a kind man who preferred to lead a quiet life.
Though St. Martin’s day is celebrated throughout Europe, the Portuguese enjoy the day with gusto, doing good deeds for friends and family. Traditionally, chestnuts are wrapped in newspaper, sometimes with dry fruits, and cooked in clay pots called assadors over an open fire or cooked with pork in the oven. There is a significance to chestnuts. Before potatoes were brought from the New World, chestnuts provided a much need source of carbohydrate. A good harvest would see the family through the winter.
The wine produced in the months past is uncorked and tasted for the first time. A liquor called jeropiga is produced by adding a local firewater to the grapes during the fermentation process and gives the drink a warm kick. Another popular low-alcohol alternative is água-pé (literally translating to ‘foot water’), a juice made by mixing pressed grapes with water. While the drink has been banned from commercial sale, locally produced água-pé can be found in small shops.
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It’s no surprise then that the saying associated with São Martinho is ‘É dia de São Martinho, comem-se as castanhas, prova-se o vinho’ or ‘it is the day of Saint Martin, let us eat chestnuts and sample the wine’.
Crowds huddle together keeping warm around a bonfire eating and drinking. Some dare to jump across the fire at least three times (it must be an odd number) which is said to ward off evil for another year.
Though the festival is celebrated throughout the country, try to visit a smaller town or village for the best experience. The north tends to favour outdoor gatherings. Look out for posters advertising a magusto (a word derived from Latin magnus ustus, meaning great fire). Here you’ll find delicious food, plenty of wine, a bonfire and good company. In Lisbon, there are many parties throughout the city and chestnut vendors ply the streets.
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