It’s chestnut season, the busiest time of the year for Rita and Baden Franceswilliams of Ruefleur Chestnuts in Olinda, Victoria. With the changing of the leaves comes a flurry of activity on their property as the glossy nuts ripen and fall from their burrs, ready for harvesting. Here they take us into the orchard and share what life’s like at Ruefleur.
**Tell us how you came to be chestnut farmers? **
By chance – we were looking for a tree-change and a property on the outskirts of Melbourne that could provide us with a home and hobby business, and unexpectedly came across this property for sale.
**What are three things most people don’t know about chestnuts? **
Chestnuts are a more like a fresh food product rather than a 'true' nut, so need to be stored in the fridge in a partially closed container to maintain optimum freshness and firmness. Left at room temperature, chestnuts quickly dehydrate and become soft, thus losing flavour and texture.
Chestnut are at their best and most plentiful in autumn, not winter.
Medium size chestnuts are typically sweeter in flavour than the largest ones. Once cooked the texture is starchy, similar to a potato.
What does the year look like at Ruefleur Chestnuts, season by season?
In December, catkins form on the trees to be pollinated by insects and the wind. Male catkins form on the lower parts of the shoot and the female flowers are found toward the tip of the shoot. The pollinated flowers eventually fall and the chestnuts slowly form. Each prickly burr usually bears three flowers and may yield three nuts. The small burrs continue to form throughout the summer, nourished by rich mountain soil, sunshine and rain.
This continues until the end of March/April when the nuts become ripe and their inner shell becomes hard and glossy brown. They will then drop from the burr onto the ground ready for harvesting. The harvest is a busy time with pickers collecting hundreds of kilos of chestnuts which are then sorted and graded according to size on a conveyor machine, packed in mesh bags and refrigerated at 0°C to maintain optimum freshness. The orchard is open for business for another wonderful season!
By late autumn, the nuts have all been harvested and the chestnut leaves turn bright gold and fall to the ground, leaving the tracery of beautiful bare branches that remain throughout winter until sunshine again bursts through the greyness, and nature begins her sojourn into spring – bright green leaves form to begin another season and the cycle starts again.
**How many chestnut trees are in the orchard and what sort of yield do you produce? **
We have 100 producing trees. The yield varies year to year depending on weather conditions, but the orchard can produce up to six tonnes.
Where do you sell your produce?
We sell at the farm gate as well as u-pick by appointment only. We’re open to the public 7 days from 10am to 4pm by appointment only during the season in April and May. Bookings can only be made by phone and are essential due to limited parking facilities. We also provide large quantity orders for private businesses and restaurants, and we welcome enquiries to supply fresh chestnuts for fundraising activities, chestnut roasts, fetes, social club and sports clubs events and field days.
**What is the most delicious way to eat chestnuts? **
Enjoy fresh chestnuts roasted over hot coals, peeled and eaten hot.
**What are the health properties of chestnuts? **
Chestnuts are packed with high levels of manganese, potassium, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, and iron. Zinc and calcium are also present in small amounts. Various vitamins, such as vitamin C, B6, thiamin, folate, niacin, and pantothenic acid are found in chestnuts. Like all other nuts, chestnuts can help to prevent heart diseases and conditions and provide energy, along with being very low in cholesterol and high in dietary fibre.
To learn more about Ruefleur Chestnuts, head to chestnutfarmvic.com