Nuts About An Alpine Autumn
Autumn is a wonderful time of year to explore the Victorian Alpine region. The Autumn colours are at their most vivid right now and in the late afternoon sun the poplars take on the look of giant golden torches against the soft dusky grey green of the hills. More common are the liquid amber trees which border the Great Alpine Road from Gapsted to Bright, glowing bright pink, orange and various shades of red. The Victorian alps are not just a feast of colour at this time of year but a feast of wonderful Autumn produce. Walnuts, almonds, chestnuts and hazelnuts are all harvested now and feature in autumnal dishes, like rabbit ragu with chestnut pasta (Ox and Hound), mushroom pizza with rocket and roasted hazelnuts (Bridge Road Brewery) or beetroot tarte tartin with honeyed walnuts (Feathertop Winery). It is great to drop into a farm gate wherever you see a sign on the road and purchase some fresh nuts of the season for your own cooking enjoyment. Last weekend I did just that, turning off near Gapsted to visit Valley Nut Groves at 180 Schlapp Road. The shop at this walnut farm has 500 g, 1 kg, 5kg and 10 kg nets of whole nuts ranging in size from large to jumbo to mammoth as well as two or three different varieties. Behind the shop is the processing shed which is full of historic equipment from previous generations of the Schlapp family. It may all look ancient but each machine including the 1920’s drying kiln appears to do the job well in what is still a pretty labour intensive production. The owner is happy to explain the ins and outs of producing walnuts starting from the fleshy outer covering of green walnuts which usually split and drop while still on the tree. Removing any of the outer husk remaining is done at the washing stage, where nuts are tumbled and sprayed with water. The nuts are hand sorted to remove duds and then hoisted by a conveyor to the top of the drying kiln, where they are then shifted as they dry by a series of intricate traps from the highest and hottest position to the lowest and coolest position over the course of a few days. The sacks of dried walnuts are then sorted according to size in a trommel screen which spits out small, standard, large, jumbo and mammoth nuts into the appropriate sacks below. Magic. Valley Nut Groves do not use any pesticides or chemicals on their trees and nuts are not bleached as imported ones tend to be. These local walnuts are just as nature intended and the cockatoos certainly think so too. In addition to nuts, Valley Nut Groves produce walnut oil, great for salad dressing, and a range of walnut extract hair shampoo and conditioners. If you want to immerse yourself in this nut grove idyll the owner has some converted tobacco kiln cottage accommodation for rental as well.
Don’t be put off by unshelled walnuts. Buy a good nut cracker and approach the task in a relaxed fashion, nibbling a few healthy nuts instead of wicked temptations when hungry. After a day of touring in the fresh Alpine air there is nothing more satisfying than cracking nuts while sipping a local Beechworth wine or King Valley Italian varietal in front of an open fire.