This is a guest piece by Bruna Costa.
Autumn in Melbourne, the season to rug up, stroll across damp grasslands and wade through brilliantly tinted leaves and breathe in the cool, crisp air. It’s a time to sit by a wood fire and watch flames curl around glowing logs. And it’s the season when we ogle our neighbours’ persimmons ripening on their fiery tree, or their pomegranates, bursting with juicy, red seeds.
It’s also the time when we wait for that phone call or text message.
‘The chestnuts are ready.’
The date is set for when we head for the hills equipped with gum boots, leather garden gloves, and loads of buckets and bags. Chestnut day encompasses all the magic that is autumn in the hills of eastern Victoria.
For one group of harvesters, the destination is Gembrook where morning fog, like a veil, obscures the rising sun and becomes trapped in the valleys, its whiteness a contrast to the display of autumnal colours on deciduous trees.
Pickers bring plates, fill the kitchen table with delicious home cooked foods, cheeses and wines, not to mention the sumptuous desserts waiting to be devoured. But before anyone tucks in, they must first pick chestnuts.
Young children, teenagers, parents and grandparents parade down the steep hill to where the chestnut trees line the paddock.
Trees bearing the best flavoured chestnuts are where to begin.
There are as many burrs on the ground as those clinging to tree branches, but it’s the fallen ones that bear ripened nuts ready for the picking. Burrs split open revealing three chestnuts snuggling within the spikes; in some instances, the nuts spill out onto the ground. Children are encouraged to collect the ripe nuts scattered loosely amongst the leaf litter.
The procedure for collecting chestnuts is to split the outer shell open by running your boot over the prickly burrs. Alternatively, a good pair of garden gloves will help to pull the casing apart to reveal its contents. The best of the three nuts are chosen, and sometimes, all three nuts are worth collecting.
The umbrella-like shape of the trees, with limbs hanging low, touching the ground, encompasses family, friends and newcomers that gather beneath their limbs. The closeness inspires light-hearted conversation. Voices rise up through the branches and drift uphill aschestnuts are rhythmically tossed into receptacles. Everyone is encouraged to pocket the largest chestnut for a weigh-in at the end of the harvest.
After a morning of foraging, the workers arch and stretch their stiffened backs before trudging back up the steep hillside towards the homestead. The help of a small tractor to transport the laden bags and buckets up to the shed is welcoming.
Everyone shares a hearty lunch, and then they gather for the weigh-in. A small set of brass scales is placed on the table on the decking, its weighing plates each barely big enough to carry one large chestnut. Excitement fills the air as everyone jostles for a position around the table. Children are first to test their prized chestnut, while the adults wait their turn. The bearers of the largest fruits receive a packet of lollies and their names are written on a trophy. All good fun.
Then it’s time to test the fruits of the day’s labour. An old frying pan with holes poked through its base is filled with chestnuts, their brown skins already split with a sharp knife. The frypan is placed on the open fire and the chestnuts are left to cook until the skins are blackened and the insides are soft and aromatic. They are wrapped in an old towel and allowed to sweat for a while. Everyone digs in, peeling back the two layers of skin to reveal warm, softened flesh.
In late afternoon, the panorama that is Gembrook is a view worthy of the drive. The sun’s rays penetrate amassing clouds and the colours in the sky compliment the fiery red maple leaves. It marks the end of a rewarding day.
The pickings are distributed and everyone leaves with quantities of chestnuts for themselves and to be shared with friends back home where they make a suitable exchange for the neighbours’ ripening persimmons and splitting pomegranates.
Bruna Costa has worked in kindergartens for 26 years, and currently works with a 3-year-old group. She is a member of Write Track Writers' Group in Box Hill, and enjoys bird-spotting in bushland and her local area.