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April 2011

A Cracking Good Time

We head to Byron Bay to discover why the world is going nuts for Australia’s macadamias

A Cracking Good Time

WORDS CLARE BRUNDLE

What springs to mind when you first think of Byron Bay? Sun, surf and hippies, probably. Macadamia nuts, probably not. Few people know that this popular holiday destination is in fact the natural home and a cultivation hub of the much-loved macadamia — the only native Australian plant to have been developed and traded internationally as a commercial food product.

Growing naturally in the region’s rainforest, macadamias were probably an important part of the bush-tucker diet of the Indigenous Aboriginal communities. But the hard-cased “kindal kindal”, as they were known, were overlooked as a fresh food source by European settlers for a good century or so. However, this has changed in the past 40 years with the transformation of a local cottage industry into a AU$120 million industry that now produces 30% of the world’s macadamias, and exports to more than 40 countries.

“Macadamias are the teenagers of the nut world, with production only getting serious in the early 1970s. Being the home of the world’s finest nut gives us a significant competitive advantage,” explains Jolyon Burnett, CEO of the Australian Macadamia Society.

“Australian macadamias are grown in the rich soil and high-rainfall coastal areas that are still home to the original native species. Australian farms and processors also have high production standards, with a proven ability to produce a superior kernel.”

But why the sudden boom in production? A significant boost in the number of producers, from a passionate small group to about 850 growers, and major technological advancements in the production process played major parts. The barriers to entry appear lower than many other types of farming, and it can’t hurt that the trees thrive in some of the most beautiful parts of Australia, along the eastern seaboard of New South Wales and Queensland — with 65% of cultivation in the stunning Northern Rivers area.

Daniel Harris of Piccadilly Park Macadamias agrees. “Everyone who visits this area tends to wonder how they could stay, and the growing of macadamia nuts is a way to live in this beautiful area in a sustainable way,” says Harris, who convinced his father Rex and brother Carl to move to Byron in 1998, and convert a cattle property into a macadamia farm after falling in love with the region during regular surf trips.

The Harris’ 200-acre Piccadilly Park is run like a model macadamia farm. They try to cultivate in a “green” way, while adopting all the latest tricks to improve yields from their 17,000-odd macadamia trees. Pests are controlled as naturally as possible: micro bat and barn owl boxes stud the orchard area to help keep rats away, while a native wasp is used to limit damage by other pests and nut borers. The latter’s introduction has made a huge difference to the industry, and exemplifies how Australia leads the way in macadamia cultivation and production R&D.

Such improvements have seen a 10-fold growth in production over the past 20 years: up to 10,000 tonnes of kernels last year. But where are all these nuts going? Around 45% will end up in snack packs, 23% in confectionaries, and 21% in bakery items like Byron Bay Company’s more-ish gluten-free, white-choc chunk and macadamia-nut cookies. And that’s not to mention all those “imperfect” kernels from which macadamia nut oil is extracted, using a process developed 24 years ago by Macadamia Oils of Australia’s Suzanne Allen and two other local families.

While everyone might think of macadamia nut oil as the fragrant, golden cooking oil, Allen reveals this accounts for only 10% of their sales. The other 90% is from cosmetics companies such as L’Oréal and Lancôme, who use the clear, odourless cosmetic-grade oil in the formulation of anti-ageing skincare creams and as a carrier oil for aromatherapy.

“Macadamia oil has a unique compatibility with the skin that no other plant oil has,” Allen explains proudly.

And while more than 60% of macadamias and their oil will be exported, there’s no denying the local love affair with the king of the nut, for both its flavour and recognised nutritional value. Among the nut’s fans are Byron’s paddock-to-plate chefs, such as Gavin Hughes, head chef at The Byron at Byron Restaurant.

“I love macadamias. They give a lovely, crunchy texture and buttery sweetness — my favourite dish is honey-roasted macadamias in a salad of warm duck or quail,” says Hughes.

Another big fan is Aussie swimming champ and reigning champ of Celebrity MasterChef, Eamon Sullivan, who’s on a mission to promote the benefits of eating and cooking with macadamias. He’s even developed recipes for the Australian Macadamias Society. “As an athlete, it’s important for me to have a healthy diet with protein, complex carbohydrates and good fats; and a handful of macadamias is my perfect snack,” says the Olympic medallist.

“Since visiting the orchards here last year, I’ve drawn a few comparisons between my own career and the macadamia industry — the amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes, the unrivalled research to make a better product (or swimmer, in my case). And of course — the fact that macadamias are native to Australia, just like me!”

King of the Castle

Get your taste for Australia’s top nut at Macadamia Castle. It’s open daily, 8am to 5pm, and offers a café and gift shop where you can taste and take away the delicious nut, and many other local specialities. There’s also a fun animal park where you can pat the animals, ride a train or play on the huge treehouse playground. 1699 Pacific Hwy, Knockrow, tel: +61 (2) 6687 8432.

Raspberry, White Chocolate and Macadamia Muffins

Ingredients:
• 2 cups self-raising flour
• 100g white chocolate buttons
• ½ cup macadamia nuts, roughly chopped
• 2/3 cup raw caster sugar
• 1 tsp baking powder
• 1 egg
• 125g butter, melted
• 2/3 cup milk
• 1 cup frozen raspberries

Steps:
1. Preheat oven to 200ºC.
2. Combine all ingredients together (except the frozen raspberries) in a large bowl.
3. Gently fold in the raspberries.
4. Grease a six-muffin baking tin with butter, and evenly portion out the mixture into the baking tin.
5. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until golden brown, or when an skewer comes out clean when inserted.






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