We are blessed with a large and shady walnut tree in our garden and as summer progresses, I scan the branches anxiously and wonder what the harvest will be like. When the rest of the garden starts to fade and the few remaining flowers hang their heads dejectedly, I start to look forward to the harvest and welcome the strong autumnal gusts that scatter the nuts onto the grass under the tree. My enthusiasm remains undimmed by the bending, stooping and crouching involved in picking them up from the ground. In fact, I see this as a welcome side benefit: a wonderful workout without even noticing! I brush off the black lace or slime, depending on the weather conditions, then spread them out to dry on a garden bench. After a few hours, I gather the nuts again and take them indoors to dry properly on sheets of newspaper. They have to be turned regularly and after a week or two they can be stored in their shells in net bags until needed. If the weather is good, I give these an extra airing or two outdoors on the garden benches. My husband has remarked (only half-jokingly) that the only thing left for me to do is to load them into the children’s old pram and take them for a walk. But my care is usually well rewarded and they rarely become mouldy. They last me until the next crop comes around and even though I use prolific quantities, I rarely have to resort to shop bought walnuts.
Our district boasts several walnut-lined lanes, dykes and paths and locals make a sport of gathering the nuts as soon as they fall. The less scrupulous lend nature a helping hand and throw sticks and stray branches into the trees to bring on an instant harvest. On Sunday afternoons in particular, one sees entire families out on walnut gathering expeditions. They prod and poke at the long – usually wet – grass and pounce on any finds with great enthusiasm, depositing them in plastic carrier bags before moving on quickly to ward off potential poachers. Last Sunday, out for a walk, I saw a particularly well-prepared crew. They had brought a folding ladder with them! Father was high up in the tree, shaking it for all he was worth, while the rest darted back and forth to pick the nuts that rained down.
When not under the trees, these enthusiasts can generally be recognized by their hands. Walnuts are housed in fleshy green pods and they generally fall in two ways. Usually, the ripe green pods simply crack, allowing the nuts to fall to the ground. These usually have shreds of cream-coloured lace clinging to them and once removed, you have a beautiful and clean nut. However , the lace is not as innocent as it looks and stains the hands and nails dark brown. If the pods remain hanging for longer, they turn brown and subsequently release nuts covered with black lace. The black lace stains equally effectively. The worst stains are those obtained from gathering nuts in wet weather, when the black lace turns to slime. I have seen people come very well geared: with surgical gloves. That is not for me. Stains or not, I prefer to use my bare hands and my initial embarrassment at the beginning of the season is short-lived as most people get it in one and the enquiry ‘Been at the walnuts again?’ is commonly heard.
One year we had an extended dry spell and literally bucket loads of olive-sized nuts fell prematurely to the ground. Fearing that hardly anything would be left, I decided to take action: I watered the tree every afternoon with the garden hose, to the extreme merriment of my family and neighbours. When I responded with a variant of my Little Red Hen act, threatening to eat the whole harvest myself, this elicited even more hilarity. I know the doubters among you will say that my precautions were unnecessary, even useless, as the roots are deep enough to find their own water supply. Don’t spoil my fun. The dear old tree did not disappoint me. My care was rewarded with a bumper crop and if the nuts were a little smaller than average, they were still as delicious as ever.
My harvest is now safely indoors, waiting to be turned into walnut bread, baklava, Gerbeaud Slices, Potica and much, much more. For those of you not similarly blessed, buy the more expensive French walnuts instead of the cheaper Indian or Chinese ones. The flavour is far superior.