November in Portugal is traditionally a month that heavily features the humble chestnut. Across the country, fairs and celebrations are held for Dia de São Martinho (Saint Martin’s Day), which is officially on 11 November, though events can last for days. Roasted chestnuts and wine are inextricably linked to São Martinho. In certain regions of Portugal, chestnuts are the main source of income for the majority of the population and the overall profit generated by chestnut sales and exports is today estimated at tens of millions of euros.
In Terras de Montenegro, Valpaços (Northern Portugal), chestnut production is a primary source of employment that provides an income to nearly 90 percent of families in that region. Annually it is worth an estimated €20 million in sales, being exported to countries including Brazil, Canada and the USA.
Flávio Sousa, head of the Regional Terras de Montenegro Farmers’ Association (ARATM), told Lusa News Agency that many producers from that region “survive only on chestnuts”.
“When a year is poor production-wise it is a miserable year for them”, he stressed.
Around 90 percent of the families from that region depend solely on income from chestnut production. As well as being sold on the internal market Portuguese chestnuts are exported to countries such as France, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Canada and the USA.
Francisco Tavares, Mayor of Valpaços Town Hall estimates that chestnut production is a business worth in the region of “€20 million in direct sales”. Chestnuts, according to Valpaços Mayor, are the “gold of the mountain” which the local population “knows how to make the most of”. They represent 50 percent of all agricultural production in that region, where other major products include almonds, olive oil and wine.
This harvest, though, producers have complained about a drop in production, a consequence believed to have been caused by the recent weather conditions with summers being very hot and dry which has stumped the fruit’s growth.
Nonetheless, according to Flávio Sousa, “the quality is better”, which has caused a rise in the price and currently sell at an average of two euros per kilo.
This year it is thought that production will total at around 7,500 kilos.
According to the Northern Regional Board for Agriculture and Fisheries (DRAPN), 30 percent of the ‘Transmontana’ region’s chestnuts are produced in Padrela.
Meanwhile, with advances in technology it seems the future of traditional chestnut-picking could be in jeopardy. Some producers from Terras de Montenegro are swapping man-power for machinery with the technology to pick in one hour the equivalent of what 20 hand-pickers can do in a day.
Flávio Sousa explained, “Man power is expensive compared to the income that we get and on top of that, there aren’t even people to do the groundwork”.
A local producer added: “There is a big lack of man power around here. Sometimes even foreigners come to pick chestnuts”.
Last weekend Valpaços was once again host to the fourth consecutive Castmonte 2010 fair, which took place in Carrazedo Montenegro.
Featuring around 60 exhibitors all relating to the chestnut, this year’s star of the show was a 600-kilo chestnut cake which was distributed amongst Sunday’s visitors.
Some €25,000 was invested in the fair, which saw an estimated 20,000 people visit it.