I’ve written about walnuts before, but that was in May when they were unripe. June is the time to pick the unripe green ones for walnut wine (see my post about it, here). October is when the nuts start to fall.
Walnuts are complicated fruits. The kernel (in two parts, joined together) is surrounded by a woody shell, which in turn is covered with a green fleshy protective coat. At the end of September, the green coats start to crack and eventually open up so that the nuts fall to the ground. The fleshy bits usually fall too but go all slimy so you have to scrape them up or they ruin the lawn.
There’s something primevally satisfying about gathering nuts. I love pulling aside the fallen leaves and finding the light brown nuts nestling there, still slightly damp from their green coats. It’s backbreaking work, though, especially in years when there’s a glut.
Outside, we compete with the squirrels, woodpeckers and nuthatches to get there first. Last year, the squirrel got the lion’s share (as it were). This year, it has decided that discretion is the better part of valour: our new cat patrols the garden and even climbs to the top of the walnut trees.
Inside, the mice have been unable to believe their luck and plundered our boxes of nuts until we shut them in a cupboard (the nuts, not the mice). This is what we found when we decided to re-organise our books.
We also found that a nocturnal visitor was filling our gardening shoes, which we leave inside by the kitchen door, with walnuts. We would empty them back into the box only to find them filled up again the next morning. Presumably a mouse, you have to admire its persistence.
Most of our walnut trees are wild and produce small, round walnuts. We also have two trees that have been grafted and produce much larger, egg-shaped nuts. They are normally very prolific, except for last year, when the drought caused them to go black and fall early and the squirrel got the rest.
This year, we were afraid that the dry weather from late June onwards would affect the crop. A lot of this year’s nuts are indeed no good – they have gone black while on the tree. However, there are still many left, so this year’s crop looks like being good. We have already picked three boxes’ worth and there are plenty more to come down.
Walnuts were highly prized in times past. French country novels or memoirs often reminisce about the veillées (evening gatherings), when country folk would meet in each other’s houses and spend the evening gossiping and telling stories while shelling nuts. It was a way of turning a chore into a pleasant tradition. The nuts were then taken to a local mill and pressed for oil, which was used in cooking or preserving.
I know of at least two oil mills that still work in this area. It sounds a nice idea to have your own walnut oil manufactured. However, you have to shell large quantities of walnuts, take a certain weight of kernels to the mill and then pay to have them pressed. So we haven’t done it. In addition, I’m told that walnut oil goes off after a few months. Probably simpler to buy it in the shops.
Walnuts are at their best around Christmas. However, if you want to make walnut tart, one of our local specialities, the fresh bitter ones (or wet walnuts) are best, since they contrast well with the sweet filling. Here’s the recipe.
Tarte aux noix de Quercy (Quercy walnut tart)
Serves 6 greedy or 8 normal people
225g sweet shortcrust pastry
100g salted butter, melted
300g soft brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
300g shelled walnut kernels, roughly chopped (but not too finely)
Zest of 1 lemon
A few drops vanilla essence
Preheat oven to 180C.
Bake pastry case blind for 10 minutes. Leave to cool.
Beat eggs and salt in a large mixing bowl until mixture lightens. Add sugar, honey, lemon zest and vanilla essence and continue beating with a whisk till well incorporated.
Add the walnut kernels and melted butter and mix carefully so as not to break up the nuts. Pour the mixture into the prepared pastry case and place a few whole kernels on top. Bake for 25 minutes until the tart filling is springy when pressed. Allow to cool slightly, then remove from the tart tin. Cool completely before serving. Serve with walnut wine.
Some other culinary uses for walnuts:
- Delicious made into jam with figs and lemon. This is an excellent accompaniment to cheese, especially goats’ cheese.
- An excellent salad ingredient, walnuts have a particular affinity with Roquefort (or other blue) cheese and sliced ripe pears.
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