Last Sunday, I attended a Melbournian tradition. Looking to feel like a local, my boyfriend Jack and I drove an hour to the Kalorama Chestnut Festival in the Dandenong Ranges. Mind you, by the time we had slept in and lazily got ready, we arrived at 2.30pm. It was later than expected and I was worried that we would be confronted with sold out stalls or dealing with intense crowds. Once we arrived however, it was nothing like that. A huge oval was surrounded by little white stalls and a small but steady crowd. Stalls ranged from homemade bake goods, trinkets and other goodies. The entire festival is held, not only to celebrate the chestnut season, but to raise money for the Dandenong Preschool. It has been a longstanding tradition for over 30 years with locals and foreigners alike.
We realised pretty quickly as we stepped out of the car that it had been raining. A lot. Most of the lawn had turned to mud and a slipping hazard. Definitely had not been a good idea to wear by new fluffy slip-on shoes I’d bought the day before. Jack was in just as much peril with his grip less thongs. Before long, there was mud everywhere, up the back of my jeans and under my feet. Worst of all it was all over the underside of my new shoes! However, as much as we struggled and slipped to get into the main area, where the main chestnut stall was, we were in high spirits. Maybe it was stubbornness from the long drive and the fact that we hadn’t eaten lunch yet but the smell of chestnuts and other food kept us pushing through.
The line for roasted chestnuts was by far the longest and they were struggling to keep up the demand with only one griller. After paying for 500g of roasted chestnuts, we decided to go get some extra food nearby at any of the other stalls while we waited 15 minutes for our chestnuts to be roasted. We waddled over to the German Sausage stall that Jack had eyed off while we’d stood in the chestnut line. The little black box of a stage to our left as we walked over was livened with a one man band. His music gave the whole festival a folksy vibe while his jokes and overly joyous personality made the overcast sky seem brighter.
Next door to it the bright yellow German Sausage stall was a spiralled deep fried potato stall. It smelt like deep fried heaven. To help Jack avoid the emotional turmoil of which would be a better option, I agreed that he could have half of my potato spiral. A few minutes after the bundle of young kids in front of me were done ordering their potato spirals, I overheard that the older women running the stall had run out of small change. The woman was short and slender with the softest looking long white hair tied back. She was wearing an apron like a figment of every grandmother stereotype. She was constantly smiling despite the amount of time she must’ve been working in that tiny booth. I quickly ushered Jack over who had just finished paying for his sausage, and grabbed six dollars out of his hands to replace the twenty that I had. As the last kid left, I passed over the change for the spiral potato. “Exact change! That’s always helpful” she said happily.
“I overheard you’d run out, didn’t think you’d need another 20” I replied, glad I could help in the smallest way.
“Strange how much the weather can change” she said making small talk while I waited for my potato to finish frying. I nodded smiling as she explained how it had been so warm and sunny that morning and had depleted to overcast and freezing. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had been curled up in bed up until a couple of hours ago. Five minutes later, we were headed back to the chestnut stall while desperately trying to balance and simultaneously stuffing our faces. The potato spiral tasted light, salty and crunchy, and surprisingly not too oily. Apparently the German Sausage that Jack had bought was just as good which I didn’t doubt as he inhaled it. We struggled , constantly almost falling over as our feet slipped across the muddy oval, to fetch our chestnuts.
The line at the chestnut stall had grown to about 8 people. We stepped to the receiving side of the stall and waited to get given the steaming paper bag with my name on it. Meanwhile, an older looking man with a strong and hearty laugh demanded to know if my potato spiral was as good as it looked. He was the type of man who looked and sounded like the stereotypical Australian bloke, with a flannelette shirt and strong well-fed physique. “It has chicken salt on it too” I replied, telling him it was the best decision I’d made all day, to which he laughed that deep throated bloke chuckle.
The woman at the stall suddenly looked at me with wild eyes, clearly overworked and not remembering who I was. I told her my name, to which she jumped and said “Oh, it’s you!” and went to grabbed the roasted chestnuts from the table on the other side of the tent. “Sorry about the name” she stated, to which a penned mark labelled that the bag was for Breeah. Which in all honesty, I preferred better than my actual spelling. I applauded her for getting the ‘h’ in the name, which most people don’t expect. She seemed very glad about that.
We went searching for the chestnut beer that had been advertised on the multiple sites of the festival. But upon realising that it was starting to sprinkle with rain again and the ground growing increasingly slippery, we decided to leave. As the chestnuts cooled down a bit on the drive home, I had the job of peeling them for the driver. Which was fine as I had already started to feel ill from the oil in the potato. We demolished half of the bag and both agreed that we’d bought far too many. By the time we got home, I had definitely overdosed on chestnuts, to which I promptly decided it was time for a nap.
When I woke up I found Jack eating even more chestnuts. We definitely decided that the Chestnut Festival was going to become one of our Melbourne autumn traditions. The people, the atmosphere and the food surrounded by the beautiful Dandenong forest left a lasting impression on both of us. We’ll just have to remember to wear better shoes next time.
-Naomi V 9/05/2017