Good food does not only rely on the art of the chef, but also on the quality of commodities. As part of their commitment, chefs are regularly investigating in order to track down the right providers. This is how Richard Moxham and Alison Saunders happened to meet Janet Jeffs, one of the leading chefs in Australia, who is manager of the Kitchen Cabinet at Old Parliament House in Canberra: “We sent 100 leaflets to restaurants in Canberra and we got one phone call. This was Janet explaining to us that she wanted to work with local producers.”
Richard and Alison grow walnuts and chestnuts, but at first it was not for the nuts and their use in food, but for the beautiful trees. Twenty years ago, when they bought the property, these two rural scientists hoped that in planting more trees on it they could raise public awareness for biodiversity, educating the public in forest ecology. “Now, roasted chestnuts are also a delicacy that we enjoy with a glass of red wine.” Richard laughs, inviting me to such an experience on their property set in the small New South Wales village called Sassafras, 45 km south-west of Nowra and about 130 km from Canberra on the Nowra-Braidwood Road.
Australia’s experience with chestnuts is linked with the gold rush. At that time Europeans and in particular Chinese brought trees from overseas. They need a wet and cool climate to thrive. The ideal region should be located between 650 and 850 metres above sea level. As a matter of fact, those conditions are all found in North East of Victoria, where almost all orchards have been developed. Each year, about 3000 tons of chestnuts are produced in that area.
The chestnut crop, like the grape harvest, has not been not abundant this 2012 season. Richard Moxham explains: “We made 5 tons, half as much as usual. Unfortunately, the rain has affected the pollination.” However, the quality met our expectations, particularly for the late varieties.
“We sell our nuts at the Sydney central market. People from Italy, Greece, Spain, Croatia and Macedonia are fond of those nuts as it reminds them of their European background”, says Richard Moxham. At harvest time, which is in April in Australia, families come equipped with buckets to pick up nuts and enjoy a day out in the country under the canopy.
Some customers buy the flour, especially to prepare Italian specialities, but mainly it is just a winter indulgence, eaten simply roasted. “Well, it also unleashes a fantastic sweetness in soups and casseroles. Like potatoes it is full of carbohydrates”, Richard tells us. A soft taste to savour as a reward for enduring the scratches caused by the spiky shell when picking them up.
Last Sunday, at Janet’s Jeff’s kitchen Cabinet in the patio of Old Parliament, Richard and Alison introduced hot chestnut peeling to a captivated audience. During that presentation, Janet was roasting goat’s legs on the barbecue with greek music. “We hope that more and more people will learn how to enjoy chestnuts.”
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