STORY & PHOTOGRAPHY BY RICHARD CORNISH
It’s the final days of the chestnut harvest and a battle for the last of the crop is being waged between the cockies and the drones. Scores of Sulphur Crested Cockatoos descen on the 65 trees of Catkin Grove Chestnuts in Glenlyon ripping into the prickly husks and taking a few bites out of the chestnuts before going onto the next. Until the drone flies in. With the image of a hawk under its V-shaped wings it scares the bejesus out of the feathered raiders sending them squawking into the forest nearby.
This is the country home of Henry and Christina Kovacevic and their daughter Monica. For most the year Henry manages big bands and Christina is a researcher. They described themselves as accidental farmers buying the small grove in and gold rush era cottage next door over a decade ago. Today they are passionate chestnut aficionados selling chestnuts at the Daylesford Sunday Market and delivering door to door to local homes. From the time the chestnuts flower until the autumn harvest they keep a vigilant eye on the crop.
Christine’s eye light up when she tells the about the life and reproductive cycle of her chestnut trees. “They flower in the New Year,” she says. “Great yellow fireworks of pollen covered catkins! The air is heady with the aroma and the full of bees who come and help pollinate the flowers,” she explains. From then on the nuts slowly develop inside a spiny protective casing called a burr. In late autumn the burrs fall to the ground with the chestnuts inside. The burrs often open by themselves revealing the chestnuts that are harvested, dried, cleaned and stored. “The trees love the deep rich soil here at Glenlyon,” says Christina. “They also love the cold.” They sell a lot of chestnuts to people who have trees but who can’t keep the cockies off. They also sell them to people who sprinkle them around the base of their trees and invite friends and family to come for a harvest lunch.
Christina advises to keep the chestnuts in the crisper in the fridge. “It annoys me to see grocers keep them out on the shelves. They are a fresh product and need to be kept very cool,” she says. Chestnuts can be roasted, boiled, steamed or even microwaved but it essential to place a slit in the base of the chestnut with a sharp knife otherwise steam can build up inside the leathery shell until the chestnut explodes. Boil, steam or bake for between 20-30 minutes or until soft. Allow to cool enough to handle then open the skin with a sharp vegetable knife and peel off the outer skin. Throw into the compost. Use finger nails to remove the dark and bitter membrane and use the tip of the knife to winkle out any of the membrane that is caught in the creases. Serve in winter salads. Add to cakes. Cook with Brussels sprouts, speck lardons and wedges of apple. “People are either passionate about chestnuts or ambivalent,” says Christina. “It’s one of those foods where there is no in between.”
For home delivery of chestnuts call
(03) 5348 7899