Its nutty season again! I have been reminded of the fact by the intermittent plopping noises outside my window and the mass of fuzzy hazelnut balls that are burying the front porch. These Turkish hazelnuts are plentiful for sure and easy to collect, but they are small and tedious to crack. But luckily nature provides so plentifully and these are not the only nut trees in the area. We are blessed with some walnut trees as well. Walnut trees, majestic to behold, are among my favourite trees and seeing them laden with nuts is a joy.
Walnut trees (Juglans regia) are acclimatized foreigners in our northern latitudes. They are at home in the warm, fertile regions of south-eastern Europe, northern Greece, northern Italy and France, where today they are widely cultivated. Walnuts arrived in the Low Countries north of the Alps in the pockets of Roman soldiers, yet it took several centuries before they really made themselves at home. They did not arrive in the Britain until the 16th century while teutonic tribes, who gave them their name, apparently regarded them as a foreign oddity as the name reflects: 'walnut' is derived from the Teutonic word 'welsh', meaning foreign. Although they have adapted quite well to the much harsher northern climes, their southern origin becomes evident in spring, when their vulnerability to a late frost can quickly ruin prospects of a good harvest later in the year.
In previous centuries walnut trees were considered so valuable that they were specifically itemized as part of an inheritance. A well producing grove could cover a good part of a family's livelihood. Also, anybody who planted walnut trees must do so with their descendents in mind as they take a long time to mature. Although they start fruiting from about 15 years of age they don't come fully into their power until they have reached the age of thirty. A mature tree can produce about 50kg of nuts per year.
In England the Roman nut became known as 'English Walnut', perhaps to distinguish it from the American walnut (Juglans nigra) or the Pecan nut (Carya illinoinensis). Despite the name, English Walnut does not grow wild in northern Europe, but usually has been planted, sometimes inadvertently, by squirrels. The American (Black) Walnut has the rather unsociable habit of emitting a chemical from its roots that inhibits and eventually kills other plants which are trying to grow nearby. Thus it has never been a very popular garden tree. Black Walnut can be found growing wild throughout the eastern United States.
The nuts are covered by a hard green hull that is exceedingly difficult to remove and besides, will stain your hands, clothes and work surface a quite persistent grubby colour. The trick is to harvest the nuts when they are ripe, which will be evident from the change of colour, but before the squirrels get them all (leave some for them, as it is one of their main sources of food to get them through the winter). The unripe husk is bright green, changing to a yellowish colour once they are ripe. Also, ripe hulls tend to split, making it much easier to remove the nut inside. The European walnut can be picked off the ground once the green shell has either turned into a black sludge that can be wiped away or has dried off and shrivelled enough to make removal of the nut inside an easy matter. Once you have removed the outer hulls wash the nuts well. It is best to place them in a bucket of water, which will naturally sort out the good ones from the rotten. Rotten ones will float, good ones will sink.
After washing the nuts you can either hull them or dry and store them for later use. If stored properly, left in the shell walnuts can keep for a year. Shelling exposes them to oxygen, which will cause them to turn rancid since they are rich in unsaturated (as well as saturated) fats. Keep them in a cool and dark place, where there is no danger of worms or vermin hankering for a free lunch. American Walnuts are much harder to crack than English walnuts. It is said that soaking them in water for 8 hours prior to cracking makes the job much easier. For English Walnuts this is not necessary as they readily split with the gentle persuasive powers of an ordinary nutcracker. Black Walnuts need more forceful treatment. Be prepared for blisters.
Walnuts are very rich in oil - 2kg of nuts will yield about one litre of oil, which unfortunately is not easy to obtain for the forager, except from the store. Native Americans used to boil the nuts to extract the fat, but this also destroys some of their nutrients. Pressed walnut oil has a delicious nutty flavour and is excellent in salad dressing or added to home backing to impart a delicate nutty flavour.
The inner kernel on the half-shell vaguely resembles a brain, surrounded by the protective cover of the cranium, which is why the ancients, applying the principles of the doctrine of signatures, declared walnuts to be beneficial for that part of our anatomy. But when the age of reason dawned such ideas were quickly ridiculed. But recently, scientists are finding that there is indeed a correlation between the omega-3 fatty acids (of which walnuts are a rich source) and the mind. Omega-3 fatty acids among other things, can help deal with stress and counteract depression.
Native Americans have used various parts of the tree, not just for food, but also as medicine. The leaves and root bark is used in anti-parasitic preparations and to treat skin diseases. The root bark is very astringent and makes a good anti-inflammatory wash that can be applied to herpes, eczema and scrofula. Taken internally it stops diarrhoea, stays the flux and dries up the flow of milk in nursing mothers.
The leaves deter insects and can be used as an ad hoc insecticide. The hulls, husks, leaves and bark are all used as vegetable dye stuffs to yield a colour range from yellow to dark brown or black. The oil is drying and has been used for oil paints as an alternative to Linseed oil. Recently, powdered shells are found to give new types of designer paints interesting textures or, used in floor paints, an anti-skidding effects.
Foragers appreciate walnuts most of all for their delicious meat, which can be added to both sweet and savoury dishes. My mouth is watering as my mind is conjuring up the smell and taste of Banana and Walnut bread, or walnut chocolate chip brownies and similar delicacies - but there are dozens more exciting things one can do with walnuts. Here are just a few:
To pickle walnuts don't wait until they are ripe- by that time they will have become woody. You must pick them in June, when they are still green and soft inside. This may be tricky, depending on the size of the tree, since walnuts will not voluntarily come off the tree at this time of the year. You will have to get a ladder to get at the fruit.
Prepare a brine: 6oz salt to 1 quart of water.
Prepare a spiced vinegar with:
Add some dried chillies or coriander seeds if you like. Lightly crush the spices, place in a muslin bag and simmer the bag in malt vinegar for 10 minutes. Let the vinegar cool down before you remove the spices. Pour the vinegar over the walnuts so the liquid covers them and close the jar tight. Macerate for another 6 - 8 weeks before tasting them.
Walnuts make an excellent stuffing for mushroom, marrows or filo pastry parcels.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Clean the mushrooms and remove the stems. Heat the olive oil and butter in a small skillet. Add the onion and cook over medium heat, cover and sauté until soft.
Add walnuts and cook for another minute. Add the spinach and stir continuously for another 5 minutes. Take off the heat and cool slightly. Stir in cheeses, dill, nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange the mushrooms, cavity side up, in a baking dish. Plop a wallop of the spinach and walnut mixture in each mushroom cap and place the baking dish in the upper third of the oven. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes or until the filling turns brown and the mushrooms are thoroughly heated.
In Italy and France a liqueur made with walnuts is considered a regional speciality. Nocino is the name Italians gave their traditional brew, though there are many versions of the 'original' recipe. The idea is simple: macerate green unripe walnuts in a blend of clear flavourless alcohol, (e.g. grain alcohol), and syrup.
Pick a bunch of green walnuts in June (traditionally on St. John's Day=Midsummer). Wash and quarter the nuts. Remember to wear gloves when handling them!
Fill a large jar with the nuts and add an assortment of spices, such as a couple of cinnamon sticks and a few cloves and perhaps a vanilla bean. Chop up an organic untreated lemon (or orange if you prefer) and add to the mixture. Pour in about 1 ˝ pounds of sugar and cover with 3 litres of grain alcohol. Cover tight and steep for about 6 weeks in a warm dark place.
When you open the jar, taste the liquid. If it is too strong dilute it with spring water as necessary. Strain through filter paper and fill into bottles. Store in a cool place.
To preserve green Walnuts in Syrup - from Mrs. Grieves
'Take as many green Walnuts as you please, about the middle of July, try them all with a pin, if it goes easily through them they are fit for your purpose;
Walnuts are incredibly versatile - even if they are not the star ingredient of a dish, they never fail to give it a refining note. I like to sprinkle some in the salad, or to use them instead of pine nuts in a pesto blend. They are also fabulous in almost any sweet dish.
People who are allergic to nuts should stay away from walnuts and all products derived from them or containing them. Likewise, people who are scared of calories should treat this nut with respect. However, replacing some of your normal dietary fat with walnut oil can be a very wise choice as walnut oil has an excellent nutritional profile and can help to fight free radicals and lower cholesterol levels. Walnuts are a good source of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids.
Always wear gloves when handling walnuts - especially when they are still green.
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