As fall begins in Malaga, Spain, the smell of roasted sweet chestnuts fills the pedestrian streets of the city center. Chestnut trees were brought to Spain by the Romans thousands of years ago, and now grow all over the Iberian peninsula. In the mountains above the small town of Istan, the ‘Holy Chestnut’ has grown for a thousand years.
Located in a mountain forest alongside oaks and younger chestnut trees, the Holy Chestnut takes its name from an encounter with the Catholic King Ferdinand II in 1501, when he stopped his army beneath it during an expedition to squash a rebellion in Marbella. There, he performed an action of Thanksgiving the night before the coming battle. Unlike the American and Canadian holidays, this action of Thanksgiving did not involve turkey dinners, but was rather a way to show appreciation to God by giving thanks for life’s blessings. Afterwards, the tree was labeled the Holy Chestnut Tree.
Even 500 years ago, the tree must have been an impressive sight. Ferdinand, along with his wife Isabella I of Castile, had sponsored Christopher Columbus on his journey to America less than a decade earlier. A hundred years before that, the region was one of the last strongholds of Al-Andalus, a medieval Moorish territory that once covered nearly all of the Iberian peninsula. The Holy Chestnut Tree continued to grow through all of this, outliving any kingdom or empire that laid claim to the soil beneath its roots.
Although there is no plaque or information nearby, the tree is unmistakable, with an enormous 13 meter (42 foot) perimeter trunk. Due to erosion, some large stone retaining walls have been built on the south side of the tree, which is fortunate considering it is located on private, unprotected land. Should the land pass to less concerned owners the tree may once again come into danger. Luckily, the tree has been designated a natural monument by the Andalusian government, and is well known to conservationists in the area.
Humans aren’t the only ones who appreciate the local chestnut trees. In late October and November chestnut leaves begin to change colors and fall to the ground along with the ripe chestnuts themselves, attracting wild pigs from all around. They dig for chestnuts, acorns, and other goodies with their astute snouts.
In fact, there is a type of the Spanish delicacy jamon Iberico (cured ham) from the same area that is unique because the diet of the Iberico pigs is supplemented with local chestnuts. All Iberico pigs are free range, and Malaga’s hilly landscape keeps them fit as they forage for food naturally, leading to high quality marbled meat. Jamon Iberico is rare as it is, since it isn’t industrially produced and the origin of the pigs is carefully tracked, but only 500 patas (legs) of this special chestnut jamon Iberico are produced each year. The small quantity is sold out before even produced, and it’s available exclusively in Malaga capital’s most famous restaurant and bodega, El Pimpi.