"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.