Story telling from Australia
No wonder they looked like chestnuts. They are chestnuts.
The tree at the front of our house is a Moreton Bay Chestnut, a Blackbean (Castanospermum australe). It’s an evergreen Australian native.
When I discovered that, my fear and loathing (which let’s face it was perfectly rational given the size and weight of the seed pods that regularly slam onto the front path) turned to joy and delight. Chestnuts! Never mind that visitors to the house risks being flattened by the equivalent of hobnail boots being flung at them, a chestnut tree means free food!
I gathered all the seedpods that had fallen since the last clear up and salivated at the thought of sweet chestnuts roasted over an open fire (not that we have an open fire). I remembered the roast chestnut soup I used to make after autumn walks in the woods in England and I googled a recipe for roast chestnut stuffing with apples and cranberries (not that I have anything to stuff.)
Let me digress for a moment and tell you about the time I was researching a feature for Australian House & Garden magazine on timber furniture. I wanted to find out more about eucalyptus trees so I googled blackbutt – which as most Australians know is a common native hardwood tree – only I thought the word had a space in the middle. Please don’t try it. A warning flashed across the screen and I was immediately reported to the HR department for “inappropriate use of company internet facilities.”
A similar thing happened when I belatedly thought to google, Can you eat chestnuts from a Moreton Bay chestnut tree? The answer was a resounding no, the warning so severe I half expected the computer screen to flash red and shout STOP! The seeds are toxic. “If eaten with out preparation, these seeds can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and dizziness,” said funtrivia.com
The Queensland Museum concurred (no offense, funtrivia, but sometimes the internet can give you a bum steer) and so did Terry Rankmore, who established a bush tucker garden at Lake Illawarra High School and who wrote Murni Dhungang, a fascinating book about aboriginal bush tucker. His advice was stark. “Moreton Bay chestnuts can be deadly,” he wrote. They contain cyanide.
And yet, for twenty thousand years or more, Aboriginal people ate them. Queensland Museum explained that Aboriginal people would crack the seeds and soak them in water then they would grind the seeds into meal, use the meal to make cakes and, finally, roast the cakes. No short-cuts there then.
But why go to such lengths? If a food is poisonous surely it’s better avoided? I kept reading Terry’s book and was floored by what I discovered. Moreton Bay chestnuts, when properly prepared, were used to reduce cancerous tumors in people. The Australian National Herbarium agreed. “The beans contain alkaloids, which have some resistance to cancers as well as HIV AIDS,” their website stated.
I stand in awe of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, who lived so successfully on this land for many thousands of years, and who somehow learned to survive, with extraordinary ingenuity and respect for the land, by using only what nature provides.