Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Chestnut Mania!

"Nuts About Bungendore" is a hazelnut and chestnut orchard just outside Bungendore. You can pick your own chestnuts, or buy ready picked, at $6-7 a kilo. It's chestnut season, and I went with Slow Food for a tour of the orchards, including some nut-gathering, and then on to a chestnut-themed lunch at Le Très Bon.

We also stumbled on a tiny local market in Bungendore - a part of the Weereewa festival - and couldn't resist stopping for a bit of a shop. I came home laden with not only a huge bag of chestnuts, but also some glorious locally grown rhubarb and apples, and some intriguing local cheddar style cheese which I haven't tasted yet. Also I picked up some lillipilli jelly and pickled garlic - made by Fiona's neighbour out on Mayfield Road. I couldn't resist the garlic - unlike the Asian style I described last week, this is a classic English pickled onion recipe, except with very unEnglish garlic. I'll have to try it with the cheese sometime soon.

It was a beautiful day to be wandering around an orchard - sunny and mild. The view from the orchard stretched out to the distant hills, and a pair of wedgetailed eagles circled in the bright blue overhead. The way to collect chestnuts is actually to pick them up off the ground, when the spiky burrs have just fallen. The burrs should still be slightly greenish. If they haven't split open by themselves, you can roll them on the ground with your shoe to open them up, and then pick the nuts out with gloved hands. It's strangely addictive fun.

To actually use the chestnuts, you have to peel them. The classical choice is to roast them - orchard owner Stewart Deans here has a dedicated roaster, while Christophe used an old frypan with holes in, on the open fire. Cut a small slit in the shell, and toast them until they just start to burn. Peel and eat, trying to avoid burned fingers - delicious just as is. Some people like to salt them.

If you want to cook with them, you have to peel them. There are various options like briefly microwaving, or boiling. I haven't cooked any of this lot yet, but last year I made some chestnut gnocchi, and I found that microwaving worked best for me. Slit the shells, nuke 'em in a single layer in a covered container for 2 minutes, wrap in a tea towel and peel while still warm. It's important to get the inner brown layer off, as it's quite unpleasant - a small sharp knife is useful for the most stubborn pieces.

Fortunately for us, Christophe and staff did all this work for our lunch. We had our chestnuts several ways - as a puree mixed with potato; whole on the side with a venison casserole and a pear poached in red wine; and for dessert a crepe stuffed with a sweet chestnut puree, with another whole chestnut to garnish. It was a beautiful meal. Beth's vegetarian meal was a leek quiche, which was rich with cheese and cream, and quiveringly just set, fresh out of the oven. The only fault I'd find was with the rather weak and bitter coffee. The food was beautiful, and so was the accompanying Cotes du Rhone red wine.

Chef Christophe is well known to Canberrans as the former owner and chef of Christophe's in Manuka. If you've been missing him, this is where he went - off to the quiet country life in Bungendore, where his restaurant is much bigger than the old back alley shop in Manuka. It's a nice country themed space, with old French advertising posters for decor. The service for our group was unfortunately very slow, but I suspect this was not normal. We did drag him out from the kitchen to do his roasting demo and talk. I'd happily revisit there, when I get a chance. The regular menu includes a cassoulet and a pre-dessert French cheese course - very tempting! He also runs some French cooking classes about one morning a month, with lunch included, but I'm just too busy this year.


infoaddict said...

Hey, didn't the "Still Life With Chestnuts, Hazelnuts and Bird's Nest" turn out well? VERY speccy.

Thought you'd be rather chuffed to know that in a Googlesearch for "Nuts about Bungendore", this very post comes fourth in the list. Less than 24 hours to get on the first page of Google? NICE work :)

You're correct about the service; for ordinary groups of people, it's perfectly normal. Having a bunch of SlowFoodians ( lob in with a special menu probably throws things a tad. Esp. when one requires a quiche. And oh BOY that quiche was worth waiting for. Those who think quiche is just a solid pastry-enclosed egg pie haven't actually tasted the freshly-made, piping hot, flavour-rich wedge that turned up and was promptly sampled by all (sorry Beth!!). It was a definite rival for the fabulous venison us omnivorous types got.

Y'know, I reckon Le Tres Bon might need a Canberra Times review over the next few months :)

On the markets - I was too busy schmoozing the local suppliers to even get to the cheese!! More fool me!!

But I did get a huge bag of backyard "Delicious" apples for $5, which I'm currently crunching through. It's apples like this that make one wonder why people put up with the floury tasteless things bought in the supermarket, except that where would your average city person actually get the opportunity to compare? I despair at the demeaning of the "Delicious" apple, which should be crisp, streaky red-and-green skin, that gorgeous heart-shape, creamy white flesh, and so sweet as to be overpowering. Varying in size; from huge to snack-sized. The absolutely perfect ones (generally the larger ones) have a little core of translucent flesh; I don't even know if that's found in any other kind of apple.

Instead, the deep red horrors found for sale are tough-skinned with floury, crumbly flesh that has a bare faint memory of the acid sweetness it's meant to contain, evidently designed for their uniform look, pretty colour, and cute shape. They look nice piled up in a bowl. On the other hand, so do plastic ones.

It's heart-breaking, and it's why I never buy Delicious apples, particularly deep red ones, unless it's from the person who picked them within the last week.

Um, sorry, just the usual rant :)

Cath said...

I completely agree with you about the apples. I almost despaired of finding a good apple when we lived in Sydney. Canberra is so lucky with Pialligo orchards.

I just had one of those same red delicious at lunch, and how amazingly good it is. It's not the variety that's crap.

I still haven't opened my pack of cheese yet. Will report on the weekend, I expect.

BJ said...

so how was the cheese?

I'm looking forward to drilling holes in an old frypan at the coast, so I can toast me chestnuts on the open fire. if it's good enough for Christophe...!

do tell how your mash comes out. I don't have enough chestnuts to do more than one thing, but I guess we could go back and buy (pick) more..

Jennifer E said...

Thanks for the heads up! I worked for Christophe for quite a while when he was in Manuka, and knew of his plans to open shop but didn't know when/where it had happened. I'm glad that his famous cassoulet is still available, and amused that his coffee is as bad as it always was ;) The only problem is that Bungendore's just that little bit far for a poor cyclist :D