A November sunrise over our valley
A November sunrise over our valley

Off-grid and ignorant in Portugal – Saints and sunshine

So, what’s the connection between a Roman soldier, roasted chestnuts and a nice patch of November sun?

The answer is Saint Martin, and he’s also responsible for the death of many prophetic geese, Estonian children dressing as men and some competitive Polish croissant baking.

And St Martin’s Summer is fast becoming one of our favourite times of year in Portugal.

Verão de São Martinho falls around November 11, which marks the opening of the talha wine amphorae in Alentejo, the readiness of chestnuts to be roasted, and the current blast of warm weather we’ve all been enjoying.

At this time of year, all sorts of northern hemisphere traditions combine around the theme of change from light to darkness, from warmth into cold.

Martinmas, or Martlemass, is an ancient inspiration for modern celebrations like Halloween and Thanksgiving, of bonfire nights and lantern processions, of slaughtering fattened animals for winter and of celebrating the harvest.

In Portugal (as elsewhere), this is the time for roasting chestnuts – once a staple food in Portugal before the Discoveries brought potatoes, rice and pasta.

They’re full of vitamins, minerals and carbs, but low in fat, and clean the blood of acids produced by eating red meat.

Chestnut UNSPLASH SML
I’ve been topping up my roasted chestnut levels. (Photo: SARE/UNSPLASH)

We embraced Halloween when we lived in Los Angeles but now are making it our new tradition to head into the inner Alentejo to celebrate St Martin with wine and song.

For the last couple of years, we have visited Vila de Frades and the surrounding towns in Vidigueira, where they’ve been making wine the Roman way ever since the Romans did.

Portuguese talha wine has its own official classification and, to qualify, the natural wine has to remain in the clay pot where it fermented until at least St Martin’s Day.

That’s when the celebrations begin: taps are hammered into the pots and wine trickles out ready to be tasted, while traditional Cante Alentejano songs are sung.

Small adegas, or wine cellars, are scattered across Vila de Frades and nearby Vila Alva, and each year they throw open their doors when the wine is ready.

To wonder why “it turned out nice again” in November is to plunge down an historical and mythological rabbit hole and pose an as yet unanswered question about the timing of Armistice Day.

“Saint Martin and the Beggar” by Greek mannerist painter El Greco is perhaps the most famous painting of the story (c1597–1599)
“Saint Martin and the Beggar” by Greek mannerist painter El Greco is perhaps the most famous painting of the story (c1597–1599)

It all started when plain old Martin was born in what’s now Hungary in 316 AD and, while living in northern Italy, decided to join the Roman army.

The “God-fearing” man was heading back home from a battle in France on a cold and stormy day when he came across a beggar who asked him for food.

He didn’t have any, but instead took his red Roman robe and cut it in half with his sword to share with the man.

The rain stopped, the clouds cleared, and the sun shone – it was “as if God had forgotten it was autumn and summer returned for three days” – and it was known as the miracle of St. Martin.

The soldier is then said to have given up the army for religion and dedicated his life to spreading Christianity throughout Gaul, founding a church and becoming Saint Martin of Tours in what’s now France.

The day of his death in AD 397 was November 11 and St Martin’s story spread across Europe and beyond.

Christopher Columbus spotted land in the Caribbean on that day in 1493 and named it Saint Martin’s Island.

One of our favourite beaches on the SW Alentejo coast for a St Martin’s summer dip
One of our favourite beaches on the SW Alentejo coast for a St Martin’s summer dip

Next thing, Martin was patron saint of beggars, tailors, knights, soldiers and winemakers.

Across Europe, St. Martin’s Day started in France, but different countries took traditions and beliefs in different directions, and that’s where the prophetic geese come in.

St. Martin apparently hid in a goose pen while trying to avoid being ordained as a bishop, but the racket they made gave him away.

Now geese fear Martinmas as much as turkeys are terrified of Christmas and the threat of Thanksgiving.

 

Various depictions of St Martin and the beggar from an internet search page
Various depictions of St Martin and the beggar from an internet search page

St Martin’s celebrations across Europe

 

  • In Hungary, they say if the geese waddle on ice on Martinmas, it will paddle in water at Christmas – predicting an icy November will be followed by a mild December. That’s if there are any geese left to make a prediction: the other Hungarian expression is if you don’t eat goose on November 11, you will be hungry all winter.
  • The Czechs get through a lot of geese too, and in southern Sweden they mark Mårtensafton with svartsoppa, or goose blood soup.
  • But it’s probably more about preparing for winter, as fattened piggies also don’t do well. “Every pig gets its St Martin” is a euphemism in Spain, France and in Britain for their Martinmas slaughtering. In Switzerland, it’s pigs and..for five hours.
  • Bonfires and lantern processions mark Martinsfeuer (Martin’s eve) in Germany and Austria and kids go from house to house singing songs and getting candy…note the Halloween trick-or-treating and Bonfire Night connection.
  • Maltesers have less sugar…as children in Malta are given a bag full of nuts, figs and chestnuts known as St Martin’s Bag, and in Estonia children dress as men while going door to door asking for sweets.
  • In Wales, the Cwm Annwn spectral hounds who escort souls to the underworld have a “wild hunt” night on Martinmas where they are allowed to search for criminals and villains. There’s superstition about owls hooting and shooting stars. It’s another pagan link to Halloween.
  • In Poland, there’s competitive almond croissants baking; and in Ireland, they kill cockerels and spread their blood around the house.
  • In Croatia, they go big on the young wine, appointing a “wine bishop” to give a blessing and choose a godfather for the year’s vintage; in Slovenia, it’s similar but with a wine Queen; and in the Czech Republic, they start drinking the new wines at 11.11am. Now that’s a significant time that poses a question…
  • In the UK, it’s less about St Martin and more about Remembrance, but can it be pure coincidence that Armistice Day was chosen as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month? It’s been an important day for millennia – someone chose that time with some of these big ideas of change in mind. I’d love to know who…

By Alastair Leithead

Alastair Leithead is a former BBC Foreign Correspondent and freelance journalist now living in a remote rural part of Alentejo with his wife Ana. You can see a video tour of their building site on the blog “Off-Grid and Ignorant in Portugal” which he writes alongside “The Big Portuguese Wine Adventure.”