It’s ‘hedgehog season’ in Spain when windfalls of spikey chestnut husks splatter winding mountain roads and the Copper Forest of the Serrania de Ronda puts on a show of fall foliage to outrival New England’s.

Countrywide, from this month on, you can enjoy chestnuts roasting on open fires as Nat King Cole never imagined… in the balmy Spanish sunshine weeks before Christmas!

October transforms the sleepy white villages of the Genal Valley. Dormant, like their chestnut trees, through the quiet, cold winters, avoided by tourists during the long hot summers, the rhythm of life revs up with the popping of the first ripe chestnut cases to reveal their glossy treasures.

Then it’s everyone’s hands to the rake to bring in the harvest. And they do rake it in with poles, nets and (gloved) hands, the way it’s always been done in the Genal.

In Galicia, Spain’s top chestnut-growing region, they’re vacuumed off the trees. While for those lucky enough to own a chestnut finca – as practically every Tomás, Ricardo and Javier in these parts has for generations – money really does grow on trees! One tree can yield 300 kilos of nuts @ €2-4 per kilo – hedgehogs from heaven! It’s a business worth €10 million annually to the Genal.

There’s a forest the equivalent of 3,500 rugby pitches to cover, none of it flat, and a full bag of chestnuts can weigh 60 kilos. The average age of villagers is over 50 but they’re fitter than most teenagers, used to scaling the vertiginous streets of their Moorish hilltop pueblos on a daily basis. However there aren’t many of them left, due to the Silicon Valley-style exodus of its young people to jobs on the coast. The head count at Igualeja’s primary school has dwindled from 260 to 60.

Thus sons and daughters are recalled from the Costa fleshpots and, infants, grandparents, everyone mucks in. It’s Europe’s earliest chestnut harvest and it’s all over in four weeks. For years the mail service in Cartajima was pants in October because the postman’s nuts came first.

So constant is the flow of chestnut-laden lorries along the ribbon-thin mountain roads that town halls put up warning signs. Be patient, enjoy the autumn landscapes and don’t look down! The Genal Valley Chestnut Cooperative in Pujerra processes some 75,000 kilos a day and the queue of locals waiting to cash in their harvest, crammed into cars, 4x4s, tractor trailers and strapped to the back of bikes lasts way past sunset.

Most people are surprised that chestnuts grow in Spain, confusing them with the horse chestnut whose toxic nuts were used by schoolkids for rowdy games of conkers in pre-PC Britain. The sweet chestnut, castanea sativa, hails from Turkey. Thanks to the travels of Alexander the Great and the Romans, who planted chestnuts for timber and made porridge from the nuts to feed their soldiers, the Iberian Peninsula is Europe’s largest exporter today.

The Genal’s microclimate is perfect for chestnut trees which thrive on its hilly slopes and acidic soils and some of its trees may well have been planted by Romans as they live to a ripe old age. The Holy Chestnut of Istán (girth 14 metres, pending Natural Monument status) is close to 1,000 years old.

In fact the hedgehogs are heaven-sent all round. Boutique lodgings and authentic restaurants are springing up in villages that until relatively recently had no telephone lines or running water and chestnut tourism is becoming a vital branch of the local economy.

From this month all the way to New Year it’s high season, and everyone will be working their nuts off!

The Chestnut Villages

Strung out along a loop route between San Pedro and Ronda, there are too many to choose from but you can do these four comfortably in a day. Bring binoculars for eagle and vulture spotting at the miradors en route.

Pujerra Andalucía’s chestnut capital boasts a Chestnut Museum (don’t miss the free Open Day during the festival) and an artisan bakery making bread and cakes from chestnut flour. Produced only from October to January at La Pujerreña bakery, the fruit and nut bread has to be tried.

Igualeja The largest pueblo with a relatively humungous 950 residents lies at the source of the River Genal, said to be the cleanest in Europe. The water springs from a limestone cave into a series of picturesque pools – a popular picnic spot. Igualeja is also the birthplace of two nefarious bandits who terrorised this notorious smugglers’ region during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Alpandeire Perched at kilometre zero, this miniscule village boasts a Cathedral-sized church, a famous son beatified by Pope Benedict XVI, a cute boutique hotel (La Casa Grande) and one of the best restaurants in the entire valley. Visitors flock here to follow the Fray Leopoldo pilgrim trail and make a beeline for the Bodeguita Cueva de la Higuera whose star attraction (after the home cooking) is the spring in the dining room as this charming spot is, in fact, a cave! (Open for lunch Saturdays and Sundays only, reserve on Facebook).

Juzcar Everything in this former white village, including the cemetery and the bank, was painted blue for The Smurfs 3D movie in 2011. The novelty factor brings in a very lucrative 250 tourists a day.

It’s Beginning to Smell a lot Like Christmas

After the harvest comes the festival and chestnuts mean el tostón (magosto in Galicia, amagüestu in Asturius). In a nutshell, it’s the traditional roasting of chestnuts over a bonfire in the woods ( or, these days, an electric brazier in the plaza). Usually free or subsidised by the town hall, the chestnuts are served piping hot in paper cones with a chupito of choice (cider in Asturias, muscatel in Catalunya, sweet aniseed mistela in Malaga).

Most festivals are held during the All Saint’s Day (November 1) puente but Pujerra’s three-day shindig, coinciding with its patron saint’s day, is the biggest. Expect stalls heaving with home-baked chestnut goodies, the best marching bands in the valley (officially) and lively demonstrations of los fandangos, Pujerra’s unique traditional folk dance.

The tostón tradition has spread to the Costas and on any day in October you can enjoy the surreal juxtaposition of chestnuts roasting on an open fire in front of a sun-drenched beach!

Chestnut Champs

The Ancient Greeks waxed lyrical over its medicinal properties… and the flatulence brought on by eating too many! And for centuries remote villages with scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts for carbs. In some parts of rural Spain, chestnuts are still referred to as ‘pan del pobre’. But castanea sativa is being rediscovered as the new superfood. Chestnuts are packed with potassium, iron, calcium, folic acid, B and E vitamins, have zero gluten and are the only nuts containing Vitamin C – ideal vegan food. They’re also great for weightwatchers – high in fibre, low in fat, salt and calories, filling not fattening.

Chestnuts are gaining credence in the classiest of kitchens where they’re being added to stews and stuffings, pureed into soups, preserved in syrup, ground into flour, baked into cakes and turned into creams and jams for the fillings. It’s hard to believe that a wrinkly, white, bland-tasting nut that looks like a mouse’s brain wihout its glossy brown shell could be so versatile!

Galician Marrons Glacés

Candied chestnuts have been a royal favourite since Louis XlV sat on the throne and France and Italy still fight it out for copyright to the original recipe. But who knew there was a Galician version? José Posada, an industrial chemist known as ‘maestro of the Galician marron glacé’ opened the first factory in Ourense in 1980 to simplify the complex manufacturing process of over 20 steps. Posada described the peeling process as “something like undressing a geisha, adding that ‘between the chestnut and the marron glacé is a road as long as the one it took Beethoven to compose the Ninth Symphony or man to set foot on the Moon.”

Chestnut Ham

Iberian pig farmers in the Genal have been adding chestnuts to their animals’ diets for eons but Jamón Ibérico de Castaña is finally getting the recognition it deserves as an ‘artisan’ product. Although chestnuts only make up 10 per cent of the animals’ diet, it’s enough to give the ham a taste and texture that’s out on its own. It’s also ‘healthier’ than Jamón de Bellota because it contains more protein and oleic acid and less fat than ham from acorn-fed pigs.

Beast from the East 113

Genal Valley chestnuts are under threat from a tiny wasp from China. The chestnut gall wasp has been blamed for a 30 per cent drop in production since it arrived here this century. Known as an avispilla in Spain, the winged destroyer nips growth in the bud where it lays its eggs and compromises the health of the entire tree. With no natural predators, scientists are looking at introducing another invasive species to see off the eastern critters as burning infected trees could lead to mass deforestation.