We have five old English walnut (Juglans regia) trees down in our fields, all of them producing such excellent fruit that locals would gaily offer to help harvest in the hope of being allowed to take some home, according to Gigi, our memoria storica born in our house over 90 years ago. These days, three of the trees are so tall and spindly that there’s no way we can pick the fruit; but the two we can get reach produce more than enough to keep us going.
I’ve been harvesting the nuts for eight or nine years now, learning by painful trial and disastrous error how best to handle them.
It’s such a lovely idea, plucking your own walnuts. The reality is far more prosaic: neck ache from peering into the tree, hands stained black by the mushy husk (hull), nuts stinking of rotting corpses because inadequately cleaned, nuts giving you stomach ache because you’ve eaten the kernals before they’re sufficiently dried.
I remember the first year I harvested my fine crop, taking them proudly down to our flat in Rome. I spent days afterwards searching for the putrefying carcass that was making the air unbreathable. It was the tannins from the husks, stinking more strongly each day.
Another year I painstakingly de-husked a bumper crop, left it out to dry, then brought the nuts inside and placed them around the living room in baskets. Weeks later I noticed the walls were alive with tiny little wiggly milky-white worms, all making their determined way up towards the ceiling. The baskets were heaving with them.
Now I’m brutal in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. I have streamlined my method… which doesn’t mean it’s not labour-intensive and really rather dull. But a big basketful of home-grown walnuts, ready year-round to crack for the delicious nutrient-rich kernel inside, repays the tedium: there is no comparison between the shop-bought type and your own.
Pick the walnuts when the outer husks have started breaking open, and nuts have begun falling from the tree. Here in Umbria, this is generally early September. Mine tend to turn black before they fall which is a shame because the cleanly cracked green husks leave far fewer smelly black fibrous threads clinging to the nut inside the hull. Armed with long long sticks, and big sheets to spread on the ground, I go at the trees to knock the fruit down – not too indiscriminately or violently but with enough force to dislodge as many walnuts as possible. I do this in one heroic session; others prefer to do it in successive tree visits.
Now comes the messy bit, for which I use a small, sharp paring knife and a large plastic container, deeper than it is wide: a rubbish bin (trash can) is perfect. Fill the bin with water, arm yourself with the knife, wear old clothes, protect yourself with tight-fitting disposable gloves and start scraping as much of the hull as possible from each nut, dropping the nut into the bin when you’ve done. My ‘cleaned’ walnuts get progressively dirtier as I go through the wheelbarrow load: this requires a lot of patience.
You’ll notice that some (most, hopefully) of your cleaned nuts bob to the surface. These are the ones you want to keep. The ones that sink straight to the bottom are, in all probability, worm-hatcheries. When you have deposited all your nuts in the water, take a large sieve and scoop off the floating ones. (Obviously, this can be done in stages if your receptacle isn’t large enough to hold them all.) Set the floaters aside and discard the dirty water, complete with all those nuts that have sunk.
Refill the bin with clean water and put the floater-nuts back in it. Now you’ll need to scrub the remaining fibres off. Dedicated purists (those with small crops, I presume) will do this nut by nut with a steel brush or steel wool – a terrifying idea. I am less thorough, but arguably more efficient.
I have a long paint-mixing attachment, purchasable in any hardware store, for my electric drill. I tie a cloth around the head of this to avoid doing too much damage to the walnuts, plunge it into the bin, and knock off as much of the fibre as I can with that. When the water is black, I scoop out the floating nuts (more will sink to the bottom with each wash) and discard the dirty water with the walnuts that have sunk to the bottom.
This process I repeat two or three times. The water should be cleaner each time, and ditto the nuts.
This year I think I discarded almost 50 percent of the walnuts I picked, which may seem like a terrible waste after all that neck-cricking and stick-wielding and nut-scraping. But in order to avert a wall-climbing worm incident, it is truly worth it.
Next you’ll need to lay the walnuts out to dry – outside if you have a damp-free, squirrel- and mouse-less spot; or somewhere inside where you can spread the nuts in a single layer on a sheet for two weeks or so.
There are different schools of thought about what to do with them next. Some say they should be kept in an air-tight container; I’ve heard people recommend freezing (presumably after removing the kernels from the nuts?) But I put ours in a big basket and sit them in the larder. Or the kitchen. Or the living room, or wherever. Properly treated and thoroughly dried, I find they keep with no trouble at all through the year.
©Anne Hanley, 2014