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Get to know the macadamia nut


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The macadamia nut began life 60,000 years ago in the rainforests of northern NSW. Today, its most common appearance in the average Australian household is at Christmas time, covered in chocolate or bundled into a bag of mixed nuts to be cracked at the table.

For many of us, the macadamia has always been a tough nut to crack: we grew up breaking open the hard, brown shell with a brick on the verandah and now spend our time justifying the special treat of a handful of roasted “macas” after dinner.

The good news is the macadamia nut doesn’t have to be a guilty pleasure. Yes, they are a high source of fat, but that’s almost entirely healthy monounsaturated fat, shown to aid heart health and cholesterol management, like avocados.

The growers behind Australia’s macadamia industry are keen to tackle the perception that this nut is just for the Christmas stocking, with a commitment to continuing to provide Australians with a high-energy source that really is good for you.

Where they come from

There are more than 6 million macadamia trees in Australia, and the Northern Rivers Region of NSW is home to 8400 hectares of those plants. The rich, fertile soil and high average rainfall of the area’s subtropical climate is ideal for macadamia trees, which take eight to 10 years to reach the point of nut production. That’s a long-term commitment and a long time before any revenue is seen.

What has emerged over 40 years since the industry began is a tight community of growers who are committed to their practice and to their product. The region surrounding Ballina, Byron Bay, Alstonville and Bangalow is home to roughly 500 growers who work together as a community, funding research and development through the Macadamia Conservation Trust.

Local grower Ian Hotson says the farmers used to be called “nozzle heads”, because of the amount of pesticides sprayed on the trees. These days, the trees on his Thebian Farm are fed by a healthy compost made from a combination of the husk of the nut, wood chips from macadamia trees milled on-site and chicken litter. “We’re not organic farmers but we try to be biological farmers. We do use pellet fertilisers but we mainly rely on composting …” His motto is “healthy soil, healthy trees, healthy people” and, as we see on a tour of his 56 hectares, the trees are flourishing.

Next to neat rows of macadamia trees are pockets of rainforest. Ian and his wife Elizabeth planted 10,000 extra trees to add to the lush forests. On the edges of the rainforest are eight beehives, all stocked with indigenous Australian bees. Buzzing around the orchards, the bees help with the pollination of the macadamias.

Rainforests & pests

The rainforest regeneration is now part of a pest management project aiming to combat Fruit Spotting Bug. Farmers bring in parasitic wasps, stapling cards of wasp eggs onto trees on the edge of the rainforest in the hope that they will hatch and eat the eggs of the Fruit Spotting Bug.

The introduction of pest management through the “goodie” insects, as Ian calls them, caused quite a stir at the local post office. His wife Elizabeth had to rush down to the post office when they first arrived because the staff weren’t too excited about receiving bags of wasp eggs. With many of the local growers taking part in the program, the postal workers have become used to these very special deliveries.

The rainforest has also led to another avenue of business for the Hotsons. Their son Anthony runs Rainforest Foods, a range of native fruit jams, sauces and, best of all, macadamia nut spreads. At the Byron Bay markets, his rows of roasted nuts, jams and spreads draw regular local customers and tourists alike.

Anthony is strict that the nuts for his spread come just from the family farm. A set amount is put aside each harvest and processed at a small plant because the larger grower-owned plants harvest everyone’s produce together.

Ian and Elizabeth embrace the approach of adding value, ensuring the intrinsic value of the nut goes as far as possible.

Back on the farm, Ian is keen to show off his nursery. He’s growing new macadamia trees in sand, simply plonking the nut still in its brown shell into the sand, keeping it well watered and waiting for the seed to germinate. It’s a labour of love with the whole family involved.

From seed to serving, the farmers treat the macadamia nuts like babies, keeping an eye on their crops, watching as the flowers germinate into tiny nutlets, which take six months to mature into full-size nuts.

From seed to serving

Anthony Hotson isn’t the only local farmer value-adding to macadamia nuts. Back in 1989, Pam and Martin Brook moved up from Melbourne and in 1999 decided to plant their farm with macadamia nuts to begin what would become the hugely popular Brookfarm label. “As farmers we’d learnt that most of the macadamias were being taken overseas for other people to do other things with,” says Pam, who worked as a dentist before establishing the brand Brookfarm.

With the aim of running a value-adding business, Pam and her husband Martin set about creating their muesli. “At first it was just the two of us. We’d go to the food-grading factory in Ballina and blend all the product there, then we’d put it all in buckets on the back of the ute and drive to the bakery. The local Brumby’s said we could use the ovens between midnight and 4am. Our boys would help us label the bags and we’d sell at Bangalow Market.

“We came up with something that tasted really good. We roast it to bring out the flavour — flavour that’s there because of all the good fats in macadamias.”

From a staff of two, Brookfarm now employs 42 people and, in 2009, opened a new bakehouse in Byron Bay. It all began with the Brookfarm muesli, which Pam says came from her childhood. “My dad always had 17 jars of different ingredients all around the kitchen, so we used to make muesli all the time.”

The Walkabout snack packs are another big seller in the Brookfarm range; again, inspiration came from Pam’s father, who was an avid hiker and often used to make the trail mix scroggin. The mixes take the humble hiker’s scroggin to the next level, with local Australian nuts and just the right amount of carbs, good fats and proteins for a post-recovery boost or even just a nutritionally sound snack.

Raw or roasted

Local naturopath and nutritionist Janella Purcell is an advocate of the health benefits of macadamia nuts, choosing to activate them herself. “I soak them for 3–4 hours in filtered water, make sure the nuts are covered, sprinkle on some Himalayan salt, and then I put them in my dehydrator for 12 hours.”

The dehydrator is a tool commonly used in raw-food diets. “The nuts aren’t nice once they’ve been activated because they’re soft and soggy. The dehydrator dries them out, puts the crunch back and doesn’t lose any of the good, raw qualities you lose when roasting,” she says.

If you don’t own a dehydrator, dry roasting macadamias in the oven or in a pan on the stove works well.

The common misconception about nuts is that raw is best. You do lose vitamin C when you heat food above 55°C, but roasting does not change the nutritional value of the nut as long as it’s dry-roasted. In the past, nuts were often dipped in oil and then roasted, and that’s still the case with many imported products, but these days it’s an uncommon practice in Australia. If you’re buying imported or roasted nuts, check they’re dry-roasted and that there aren’t any added oils in the ingredient list.

When you activate or roast your nuts, you’re actually making the nut easier to digest. The fat is more likely to be used by the body instead of being stored. If you are roasting your own, don’t add oil — the high oil content in the nut itself makes that unnecessary. Just make sure you keep an eye on the nuts and, if heating in a pan, shake the pan regularly to make sure the heat is distributed evenly.

Good fats

Macadamias have a healthy fat profile, with 84 per cent monounsaturated, 13.5 per cent saturated and 2.5 per cent polyunsaturated fats. They’re a balanced source of energy and good fats.

Studies have shown that eating a handful of macadamias each day is beneficial for heart health, helping to reduce clogging of the arteries and lowering cholesterol through the presence of plant sterols.

The nut can also assist with weight management. As an excellent source of protein, macadamias will stop you craving sugar and refined carbs. Janella Purcell is keen to point out that macadamia nuts can’t just be added into a high-fat diet; they need to be replacing junk or highly processed foods. “People are very fearful of nuts. There’s this perception that any type of fat, even ‘good’ fat, will make you fat,” she says.

“The people with a phobia of nuts are the same people that will have chicken schnitzel on Turkish bread with mayo. They eat lots of low-fat yoghurt, which is packed with sugar. They get to the afternoon and have cravings and cave in and eat sugar. They hate themselves and the whole cycle starts all over again. But if they ate better, whole food, they wouldn’t be craving.”

Good oils

Aside from eating the whole nuts, there’s amazing nutritional value in using macadamia oil. Pam Brook is quick to promote the value: “The balance of omega-3:omega-6 is 1:1. That’s the best ratio there is.” This ratio makes macadamia oil one of the healthiest oils to cook with.

The high smoke point of 210°C is winning over Byron Bay’s local chefs, who keep the oil on hand in their kitchens. Gavin Hughes, head chef at The Byron at Byron, uses macadamia oil in marinades, dressings and cooking. “The high flash-point is fantastic and, even if you’re not cooking with it, the flavour is great,” he says.

The oil’s sweet, buttery flavour doesn’t dominate foods like other oils do, and is highly stable. Macadamias can be used in more than sweets and baked goods: drizzle the oil on salads for a healthy dressing or incorporate it into savoury dishes. Hughes’s popular recipes include chilli prawns cooked in macadamia oil as well as steak marinated in a macadamia pesto.

The oil has plenty of other uses, too, especially when it comes to skincare. The Spa at The Byron in Byron use macadamia oil in massages as it’s close to the skin’s natural oil and is great for anti-ageing.

L’Oréal began using macadamia oil more than 25 years ago. Suzanne Allen from Macadamia Oils Australia met with the marketing manager from L’Oréal Paris, who flew out to meet her and inspect the oils. Her macadamia oils are now used in skincare lines by the likes of Chanel, Lancôme and L’Oréal. Locally, her range of Macadamia Naturals oils and body lotions is used by beauticians, doctors, podiatrists, nursing homes and skincare clinics.

Allen and her late husband began using the oil when they were asked to process some macadamias. “We were crushing the macadamias in a shed with a wooden floor. We saw how much oil was falling and seeping into the wooden floors and decided to do something with it.”

Free from solvents, chemicals and fragrances, the Macadamia Naturals oil is often used in high-end anti-ageing treatments because of its high levels of palmitoleic acid, but it’s also great as a massage oil or moisturiser. It’s great for babies and adults alike and has been shown to work wonders on post-surgery scars and burns.

Whether it’s under a brick on the verandah, in high-end Beauty products or in the kitchens of chefs around the country, you’ll find the macadamia in all sorts of places. Wherever it’s used, the beautiful buttery flavour and the amazing health benefits of the macadamia are undeniable.

  • For more information, see the Australian Macadamia Society, macadamias.org

 

 

Lisa Perkovic is a Sydney-based travel writer and photographer who edits Expedia’s Out There Starts Here blog. She returns home from each trip with too many cookbooks and plenty of recipes to re-create.