The Yarra Valley is full of characters. Interesting and passionate people with stories to tell. Ex-chef/passionate hunter and local lemon farmer, Walter de Laps is one of these characters. Supplying the Valley with lemons and limes, most deliveries don’t go without a story or two, full of colourful descriptors and punctuated with a hearty laugh.
Born in Brussels, Walter served his time in the army then headed to Australia “because it was the furthest place from Belgium.” Though there was no initial intention to stay, after two-years “I was naturalised” he says. Starting in a kitchen in Sydney he was soon invited to join the Taverna Hotel group in Melbourne. In the peak of his cooking career Walter was managing 12-15 kitchens as part of the group.
33 years ago, Walter and his partner Debbie bought their property in Healesville. “There wasn’t a tree on it.” They reflect. The couple planted 4000 lemon trees and 500 lime trees, plus a one-acre vineyard of Sauvignon Blanc cared for by friend and neighbour, winemaker Timo Mayer. Their label, Clos Riant is French for ‘happy small vineyard’, and on a warm autumn evening with a glass of wine in hand, it is a happy place to be.
Walters business, Lemon Time, employs one orchard manager part-time and during the lemon season that runs from October-February, there will be up to 12 people picking and packing. Everything else is handled by Walter and Debbie. Walter speaks of the difficulties of fruit farming, “Besides the weather, the biggest issue is the markets expectations of a perfect looking lemon. In Europe they don’t care, you go to a market and the fruit has marks and spots.” Doing most of the deliveries direct into the regions kitchens, Walter knows a thing or two about the goings-on around the Valley. Often stopping for a glass of wine at the Meletos bar, he tells us of his love for the menu and great respect for our Executive Chef Neil Cunningham.
A big passion of Walter’s is hunting. He simply has to walk out into his backyard and the hunt begins. “I’ve felled many a deer in my orchard. I shot a stag once, and when I cut it open, it’s belly was full of lemons!” There’s more feral deer in Australia than Europe, but he hate’s it when people just kill a beast and leave it. “Venison is a beautiful meat, some of my favourite meals have been with venison.” He goes on to explain the differences in hunting back home. “In Europe it’s the aristocracy that hunt. Very upper class. In Australia it’s the opposite.”
A few years ago, while on holiday in France, Walter pulled into a small town for some supplies. “There was this group of well dressed locals drinking their morning coffees. I overheard these guys saying, ‘Hey, did you hear Pierre shot two hare yesterday.’ And everyone was amazed. I couldn’t help myself I said ‘Only two hare? Sounds like a quiet day to me’ They responded ‘What do you mean quiet?!’ I told them of my hunting trips back in Australia and they wouldn’t believe me. So I pulled out my wallet which has a lot of photos from my trips. Half an hour later I had most of the town gathered around me and we’re drinking cognac’s and telling stories.” He laughs.
Back in the Yarra Valley, the community of citrus growers is a friendly one. Every Thursday a small collective gather to tell some tall stories and drink some good wine. Many of the farmers also take part in Walters famed Hunting Dinners.
Like so many characters we meet in the Valley and visit for Seasoned, Walter has a host of skills and trades. Chef/hunter/lemon farmer/story teller. Our Walter, we love him!