The History of the Royal Nut: the Walnut

Dating back to 7000  BC the Walnut has a long and regal history. It is the Romans who are credited with introducing and spreading the graceful walnut tree throughout most of Europe. The name English Walnut is somewhat confusing, with its other name the Persian Walnut giving a better indication of its true origins.

Whilst walnuts were introduced by the Romans from Persia, our climate changes bringing shorter winters and more sunshine are now providing perfect growing and fruiting conditions for walnut and so the name English Walnut is now more befitting than ever. The common walnut, Juglans Regia will grow happily in reasonable sized garden as long as it is planted in a sheltered position. Walnut trees do not weather frost and love the sun. So always position them in a spacious plot that is protected from Spring frost.

Whilst squirrels are a nuisance for stealing the nut crop they are doing their bit for walnut tree preservation as their tendency to steal nuts, bury them and forget where they are, means that new woodlands are being created.

A pickled walnut is one of those wonderful British, culinary quirks. Walnuts for pickling are harvested in late June, when they are still green and they can also be picked for making walnut schnapps at this stage. If you want nuts for eating though you’ll have to fight off competition from crows and squirrels and harvest them  in October to early November.

There is a phrase “A woman, a dog and a walnut tree; the harder they are beaten, the better they be”,  which is believed to have originated from the Continent where long poles were used for harvesting nuts. These long poles knocked down the nuts and the dead branches, making harvesting easier and also limiting the spread of fungal infections in the tree. The beating of the tree would also have  stimulated late-summer shoot formation and would have aided nut production for the following year as the walnut flowers at the tips of stems formed the previous year.

According to Ancient Greek legend during the Golden Age, the Gods lived exclusively on walnuts, whilst mortal men lived on acorns.  The Romans named the walnut Juglans Regia which translates as Jupiter’s nut or Jupiters  royal acorn, so the next time you decide to feast on walnuts you may want to adopt a royal pose.

For a walnut recipe that is fit for a queen Vin de Noix or Walnut wine is well worth the effort of making. It is rich,full bodied and will provide you with more warmth than a bear hug on a cold winter night.

Ingredients:

40 young  green walnuts that can be pierced with a darning needle, washed and quartered

1 litre brandy

5 litres red wine

1 kg  white sugar

10 walnut leaves

Zest of 1 sweet orange

 8 cloves

Method:

  1. Pick the walnuts in late June when the walnuts are well formed, but can still be pierced with a needle. Wear gloves to quarter the walnuts as they release a stain that will dye your hands and any surface it come into contact with. Place all of the ingredients in an non-reactive container with a lid. Store in a cool dark place for 8 weeks, shaking every two days.
  2. After eight weeks Strain the mixture through a sterilised cheesecloth into a bowl. Bottle and store in a cool dark place for a minimum of six months, meaning it is ready to enjoy in the winter.

After trying this deep, rich drink you will truly agree with the walnuts historical claim to eminence. However, if you need more convincing of the merit of this prestigious nut then you need to try this delicious tart.

 

Wonderful Walnut Tart

For the pastry

250g/8oz plain flour

175g/6oz cold, unsalted butter, cut into little cubes

1 whole egg

1/2 tsp caster sugar

 

For the filling

 

300g walnuts, shelled and pulsed

120g caster sugar

5 tbsp. double cream

2 medium-sized eggs

A few drops of vanilla extract

30g  unsalted butter, melted

 

Method:

Put the flour, butter and sugar into a food processor and pulse until it is like bread crumbs. Add the egg and blend once more; the pastry should gather itself into a ball. Try not to over work the pastry by blending or handling it too much. Also avoid adding too much water, as this will make your pastry tough, however, you may need to add a tablespoon of ice cold water if the mixture looks dry. Gather up and wrap in cling film or parchment paper and place in the fridge for 30 minutes to chill.

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Roll out the pastry and line a 10in tart tin. Prick with a fork, then cover the base with parchment paper and baking beans and blind-bake for 20 minutes. If you don’t own any baking beans then you can use any dried beans you have loitering in the back of your pantry.  Remove the beans and paper and return the tart shell to the oven for five minutes to dry out the base. Remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Turn up heat on the oven to 190C/375F/Gas5, in preparation for the next stage.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground walnuts, sugar, eggs, cream and vanilla extract. Stir together  to combine and pour in the melted butter.  Carefully pour the filling into the cooked tart shell and carefully return to the oven. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the custard is golden-brown and the centre is still slightly wobbly in consistency. Remove from the oven and allow to cool a little before devouring. Delicious  when served with clotted cream, lashing of good vanilla custard or a good quality ice cream.

Enjoy!