Cracking Nature’s Finest

Macadamia Nuts

Macadamia nuts are notoriously hard to crack but well worth the effort – with a creamy taste and a satisfyingly smooth crunch. The Australian Macadamia Society estimates that there are around 6,000,000 macadamia trees, from those newly planted to over 40 years old, throughout the country covering an area of 17,000 hectares…

Pre-European settlement, the Aboriginal people considered macadamia nuts to be a delicacy and would gather on the eastern slopes of the Great Dividing Range to collect the nuts. Aboriginal women would crack open macadamias by laying them on indented stones and then striking at the nuts with a larger stone. How do today’s processors crack open the macadamia nut, which is the hardest nut in the world, without damaging the precious kernel inside? Besides using some incredibly strong, state-of-the-art machinery, the secret lies in the drying stage. Macadamias are Australia’s only native food crop that is widely traded internationally and are a true ‘tree to table’ success story.

Iconic Native

The macadamia belongs to the Proteaceae family and two of the ten different species grow best as a commercial crop: the smooth-shelled Macadamia integrifolia and the rough-shelled Macadamia tetraphylla. Australia is the world’s largest producer of macadamia nuts. Hawaii was once the leading producer of macadamias and celebrity actress Roseanne Barr (who starred in the hit 90s sitcom ‘Roseanne’) famously lives on a Hawaiian macadamia farm. Macadamias are also grown in Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Kenya and South Africa. While the macadamia is a subtropical rainforest tree, in Australia macadamias are cultivated primarily from Nambucca Heads in NSW up to the Atherton Tablelands in Queensland.

The first European to discover the macadamia nut was English botanist and explorer Allan Cunningham in 1828. In the company of British botanist Walter Hill, German botanist and one-time Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller named the genus after his friend prominent Scottish scientist, doctor, teacher and politician Dr John Macadam in 1858. Quite ironically, Dr John Macadam never got the chance to taste a macadamia in his life but the name stuck nevertheless. Over the years, macadamia nuts have been called by many names including the ‘Bauple nut’ after Mt Bauple near the Mary River district where Ludwig Leichhardt recorded the trees growing in 1843, the ‘bush nut’, ‘maroochi nut’, ‘Queensland nut’ and the decidedly regal ‘queen of nuts’.

Long before the arrival of the Europeans, the Aboriginal people had many names for the macadamia nut including ‘boomberra’, ‘burrawang’ and ‘gyndl’. Macadamia nuts were an early trade item between Aboriginals and European settlers. The first commercial marketer for macadamias was Aboriginal entrepreneur and leader of the Yugambeh people, Bilin Bilin. The Yugambeh people resided from the Tweed River to Beenleigh in Queensland. From the mid-1850s, Bilin Bilin had his people collect macadamias that he then traded with the settlers and missionaries for items including tobacco, tomahawks and rum.

The commercial development of macadamias was a slow process in Australia because the nuts have such hard shells encased in fibrous husks. It was not until 1954 that the first commercial macadamia processing plant was established; the industry really started expanding in the 1970s.

Naturally Nourishing

Australian macadamia farmers and processors have stringent quality standards and have maintained an excellent reputation for food safety. There are seven stages of processing macadamias which are harvesting, dehusking, drying, cracking and sorting, roasting and packaging. Between March and September each year, the mature nuts fall to the ground. Pinwheel harvesters gather the macadamias at regular intervals. The outer husk of the macadamia is then removed by machinery and is usually recycled as organic mulch. The drying stage takes three weeks and is an important part of processing macadamia nuts. At harvest, the nuts can have a moisture content of up to 30 per cent. When drying, the kernel will shrink away from the shell, reducing the moisture content to approximately 1.5 per cent, which allows the shells to be cracked without damaging the kernel. The machines used to crack the macadamias either have a combination of rollers and a base plate to compress the shell or a fixed blade and a cutting blade. Once the shells have been removed, the kernels are then inspected for quality and sorted by hand or machinery. The macadamias may then be flavoured, roasted or simply packaged raw.

Macadamia nuts are cholesterol free and are ideal for snacking. The kernel is a pale yellow colour and is a rich source of healthy monounsaturated fats. In decades past, macadamias were available raw or roasted, salted or chocolate coated and there was a time when chocolate coated macadamias accounted for over 85 per cent of world consumption. Today, macadamia processors are experimenting and value adding with flavours like abalone and wasabi to target the tastes of Asian markets although chocolate coated macadamias are still a premium gift item in Japan. Butterscotch macadamias are now available as well as savoury flavours like chilli and garlic, honey mustard and parmesan, although many consumers still enjoy the buttery, silky taste of raw macadamias.

Macadamia nuts are good for the body inside and out. Macadamia oil, which is mechanically extracted from the nuts before being purified and bottled, is now used for more than just cooking. Some of the world’s most famous cosmetic and body care brands like Jurlique, L’Oréal and LUSH use macadamia oil as a product ingredient. LUSH only uses organic macadamia oil. Macadamia oil is highly moisturising and is an emollient, which means that it will actually bind moisture to the skin. Pure macadamia oil is marketed as being an all natural product that has rejuvenating, anti-ageing properties. In May of this year, television news program ‘A Current Affair’ aired a story highlighting macadamia oil as “the new buzz in skin care” and “one of the most affordable skin care products on the market”.

Tongue Tied

The macadamia industry is a vibrant part of Australia’s heritage and has huge potential for further development. There is still plenty of room for growth for the macadamia industry, which currently represents around one per cent of world trade in tree nuts. Bundaberg in Queensland is the second largest growing region for macadamias after the Northern Rivers; however, with current rates of production Bundaberg may be set to overtake within the next five years. Bundaberg is also home to the largest processing plant for macadamias in the world. Australia currently exports macadamias to over 40 countries worldwide and the world’s appetite for the native nuts is only increasing. In under a decade, demand from Europe, mainly in Germany, has increased from 600 tonnes to almost 6000 tonnes.

On the other side of the world, there has been a tremendous rise in demand from Asian markets, which is the largest export region for macadamias. Eating habits in Asia have become more westernised to a degree, particularly with the next generation moving away from traditional rice and fish based foods. In Taiwan and Korea, the demand for Australian macadamia nuts is still developing but demand for nuts in shell from China, which has a growing middle class, has skyrocketed. There has been some confusion in China about the origins of macadamia nuts. In Mandarin, the term for macadamia nuts translates to ‘Hawaiian nuts’. In February earlier this year, the then Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd (who speaks fluent Mandarin) received a tweet from MP Janelle Saffin, the Federal member for Page, asking him to support local growers and help educate the Chinese on the true origins of macadamias. Mr Rudd agreed to discuss the subject in Canberra.

While the current demand for macadamia nuts outstrips supply, Australian scientists are busy working on breeding macadamias that are drought and disease resistant, have a higher yield and have thinner shelled nuts to make cracking easier. Researchers from the University of Queensland are collecting DNA strains of wild macadamias with the goal of finding new genetic characteristics, which if introduced could improve Australia’s current commercial crops. Since wild macadamias only exist in Australia, this kind of genetic research is not possible anywhere else.

While the project is definitely a long term initiative and may take 30 years to commercialise, it is worth remembering that crops like citrus, apples and plums have been developed over 2000 years to produce what is available in the greengrocers and supermarkets today. The study will also help preserve the DNA of Australia’s wild macadamias which are under threat from agricultural development and land clearing in areas of Queensland and NSW. It will be interesting to see whether scientists can one day make the hardest nut in the world a bit easier to crack and farm. In the meantime, Australia is proud to claim the macadamia nut as one of its tastiest and healthiest exports, grown on the land by farming families.

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December 16, 2018, 6:42 AM AEDT