It’s the Season again, so keep an eye out for roadside stalls selling the cones.
We bought this one at Blackbutt last weekend. The sellers saw us coming and immediately changed the price - from $2.00 to $1.00! The people were tired of tending the stand, and just wanted to get rid of the 60-cone yield of their tree. This classic Australian food is ridiculously under-valued!
It is one of our best "bush tucker plants", and a great choice for people wanting to do environmentally friendly Australian permaculture.
This cone was 24cm long, 18cm in diameter, and weighed 3.5kg - a larger and heavier item than your head.
It contained 56 nuts.
Cones can be even larger than this, with up to 80 nuts. Under a bunya tree is not a good place to loiter, in the season. Neither is it a suitable place to park your car!
To gather the nuts, it is most usual, these days, to wait till the cone starts to fall to pieces. Fresh-fallen cones can be jemmied apart, however - and Aborigines used to climb the trees to collect unripe cones, whose tender young nuts are said to be an outstanding delicacy - sweet and creamy.
Aborigines also ate old nuts. They would to bury them (in their shells, in string bags) in the mud of creeks, to preserve them for later eating. They would dig them up again once they had sprouted. As with all sprouting seeds, this increases their vitamin content. Bunya seeds treated this way also developed a very offensive smell, which was passed onto everything that touched them - but were considered to be a gourmet treat. All who enjoy garlic will sympathise with those who considered that the subsequent bad breath was worth the taste sensation.
Modern cooks, however, might prefer to preserve their bunya nuts in the fridge This is said to sweeten the flavour, as also happened with the buried nuts, but presumably doesn’t let them develop their full odour. Lovers of blue-veined cheese might like to try the burying option!
The nuts can also be frozen.
According to Wikipedia, their nutritional content is: 40% water, 40% complex carbohydrates, 9% protein, 2% fat, 0.2% potassium, 0.06% magnesium. They are gluten free. They have a healthy glycaemic index (GI) rating , variously measured at 50 - 75. By contrast, other tree nuts have 50-75% fat and under 20%carbohydrates. Bunya nuts have more in common with cereals than with other nuts.
The traditional “whitefella” way to cook bunya nuts is to boil them for 30 minutes in their shells, in salted water, having first cut or slit the shell, so it won’t explode. Some would add salt to the water - and boiling them with bacon bones is a particularly delicious alternative.
The boiled shells are tough and fibrous. They are easier to peel than raw nuts, but not much. Long-nosed pliers, washed to kitchen-clean standards, are a useful tool.
Modern cooks have since invented may more complex, interesting and exciting ways of opening and cooking them, using such tools as secateurs, microwaves, blenders, bread knives, machetes, wooden blocks and a need for leather gloves. See the internet for a multiplicity of methods.
However, for those (like me) who just want to cook the things and eat them in various delicious ways without making heavy weather of the whole procedure, the old way is still the best.
So, you’ve got hold of a Bunya Cone.
What do you do?
Take care. Those prickly points are sharp!
The easiest way to get the nuts out is to wait until the cone starts to break up of its own accord.
Then you free them from their husks. A sharp knife helps you peel them back from the tip.
While they are still a bit damp from the cone (or have been saved in a plastic bag in the fridge, so they won’t dry out), you hold them with one hand and tap them with a hammer to split the tips open.
This is best done outdoors on bricks or some such, and done rather scientifically so as not to damage the kernel. You’ll notice that the nutshells have a seam down each side, and this is where you should hit. All that’s needed is a gentle tap, to produce a tiny split at the point.
Then roast them for 30 minutes. An oven at 200° Celsius does the trick, but I imagine it would also work well as a campfire activity.
You’ll notice that the splits in the shell increase as the nuts cook.
Give them five minutes to cool. (The now-crisp shell cools fast, the kernel only slowly.) Then hit them gently with a hammer again, concentrating on those side-seams.
Once you have the knack, which doesn’t take long to acquire, you’ll find the shell falls open into its two parts, and the nut can be lifted out whole.
You can eat it at once. It has a mild, slightly nutty flavour and a waxy-floury texture.
You can also subject it to a great variety of culinary processes - marinating, cooking in soup, or serving with a sauce or a dip are my favourites.
Many of our early settlers had a horror of eating anything their European forebears hadn’t brought to Australia with them, so tended to undervalue this useful and tasty food. They even invented the myth that the little green shoot within the nut is poisonous. In reality, it is just as edible as the rest of the nut, and only adds to its nutritional value.
Growing Bunya Trees for Nuts.
Fresh seed germinates easily if kept damp. The plants grow best if subjected to ordinary good gardening practices - watering, mulching, and fertilising. Ordinary balanced fertiliser, as for veges, is best, (as for all Australian native plants of rainforest origin). Don't use special “native plant” fertiliser, as this may be too low in phosphorus for them
Young trees produce only male flowers, which are at the end of the branches. Then at around 15 years they begin to produce female flowers on the inner third of their branches.
They will produce more nuts if grown in groups. They are wind-pollinated, and this female-over-male flower arrangement is designed to prevent the female flowers from being fertilised by pollen from the male flowers of their own tree.
For more on Bunya Trees see Jan 2008 and April 2009.