Interview with chestnut farmer: Richard Moxham
From planting to the plate, what is the life span of a chestnut?
Chestnuts can be planted to grow new trees, but if you want good eating chestnuts, you must graft proven varieties onto the seedling trees. After that it may take up to 7 years before you get a crop of chestnuts so it is not something that can be rushed. The really good news is that chestnut trees are very long lived and will survive for hundreds of years if they are kept in a healthy condition.
It terms of the chestnut itself, the nuts start to fall towards the end of March each year and depending on variety chestnuts continue to fall until late April. Once a chestnut falls it should be picked up as soon as possible and then kept at 0 to 3 degrees (in the crisper of your fridge) to keep them fresh. If stored properly, chestnuts will last up to two to three months but I am a firm believer in eating them in season.
Where do chestnuts like to grow and when are they in season?
Chestnuts are quite particular about their growing requirements. They prefer to grow between the altitudes of 650 to 850 meters above sea level where cold winters help fruit to develop. They demand a well-drained acidic soil of around pH 5.5 and because they develop their nuts over summer, they must have good summer rainfall (or irrigation).
Something interesting about chestnuts that we may be surprised to learn?
Chestnuts are a member of the Oak family of trees. It is the European chestnut that most people associate with chestnuts in places like France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. However, other species from Japan, China and America are equally important for their contribution to a chestnut culture.
The chestnut was probably one of the first foods eaten by man and dates back to prehistoric times.
In Australia, chestnuts arrived with immigrants of the goldrushes in the 1880's. Very old trees from the goldrush times still remain around Beechworth, Bright, Stanley and Wandiligong and these areas remain as the stronghold of the industry today.
Relatively unknown to most Australian households - about 2000 tonnes of chestnuts are produced each year in Australia.
Where did your interest in farming come from?
Alison and I both come from farming families in the central west of NSW. Alison has a background in forest ecology and I am agricultural scientist. We wanted to pursue an interest in farming using ecological and permaculture principles as a sideline to our professional life in Canberra.
What is the best part about being a chestnut farmer?
Undoubtedly the best part of our farming life is working with our chestnut trees to ensure their continuity and to be part of the seasonal change which directs different tasks throughout the year.
Inviting our customers to pick from under our trees in season has really brought that important connection between the customer and where their food comes from. For us this has also brought us in touch with the importance of this nut to so many different cultures that really celebrate food in season.
The worst part?
The sharp prickly burrs that encase the chestnuts of course. “Ouch” is often a word exclaimed at harvest time. Fortunately these prickly burrs help protect the nuts from the kangaroos, wombats and birds that also like to chew on the odd chestnut.
As a chestnut farmer, the worst part has been the millennium drought which saw our rainfall halved and trees dying from stress and disease. We have steadily replanted and grafted to the best varieties of chestnuts so we have become quite committed to this ongoing effort to retain our orchard. Whilst we have thousands of trees we watch each one quite closely and enjoy seeing them flourish into strong and productive trees.
Your favourite way to eat chestnuts?
Roasting chestnuts with friends over hot coals with mulled wine.
Richard and Alison Moxham own and run Sassafras Nuts, a commercial chestnut and walnut farm located at Sassafras in the Budawang Ranges, 50 km south west of Nowra on the NSW South Coast. They grow and sell a variety of chestnuts and also open their farm for picking season, where they invite people to pick their own chestnuts and enjoy a picnic under the colourful, autumnal trees. We took a trip out to meet Richard and Alison and tour their farm. They showed us around sharing their genuine love for farming chestnuts and gave us a most hospitable Saturday lunch welcome - roasting chestnuts in their Swiss designed roaster, followed by a chestnut soup cooked on a wood fired stove to share on the farm for lunch.
coming soon: a recipe for chestnuts