Black Walnuts: Wild Bounty And More Lore
My mother and father both loved to go “nut picking.” As a result, I love native nut trees – especially the toothsome black walnut. Now is the time to beat resident squirrels (or other aficionadoes of the delectable wild crop) to the bounty.
Officially called Juglans nigra, the eastern black walnut is a native species valued for its fruit, encased in a green-husked orb.
“Nuts continue to come in as thousands of people pick up the ‘cash’ that’s now laying on the ground,” according to David Hammonds, vice president of marketing, Hammonds Products Company of Missouri. “The buying of wild black walnuts from 190 hulling locations in 12 states will continue through October 31.”
Hammonds, a family-owned company, is the leading processor and supplier of black walnuts in the United States – and sells pure nutmeats by the pound or in the shell. (Visit www.black-walnuts.com for a huller location or for ordering information.)
Farms often have stands of nut trees along pasture walls and property lines – valued for the wild food they shed and as timber. Some homeowners view the tree as “messy” – the hard nuts will chew up a lawnmower and shoot like projectiles from the blades passing over them.
The process to get to the nutmeats only begins with the gathering. Time and persistence is required as the green-black covering must dry and then be removed to get to the walnut. As they naturally decay – if left to dry – small white grubs or worms aid the procedure.
Try to remove the green covering by hand and the tannin-rich husks will impart a long-lasting stain to your palms. At this point many people just chuck the whole idea; it’s not for the faint-hearted. For those who persist, the hard-shelled ebony walnut emerges. Since the moisture-rich tree embryo (that’s what a nut is after all) is fresh, more drying – and time – is necessary. Age improves the rich distinctive taste.
A black walnut is a tough nut to crack. Really. It takes patience and practice to learn the art of a hard whack to split the shell but not crush the treasure inside. The goal is to cleave each clean in half. (Imperfect shells can be picked over by using a large opened safety pin – my mother is an expert in getting every edible shred possible.)
“Black walnut – the words themselves have the ring of quality like sterling silver, hand-carved, virgin wool, bone china, genuine leather, pure gold . . . and a few other terms used to distinguish what is rarest and best in our catalogue of material treasures. Only a persistent few people ever progress to the cracking of that very tough nut, and many even scuttle the project at that stage. As rare as the nut meat itself is the heroic individual who finally emerges with it.” – Patricia Penton-Leimbach, author
“About 65% of the annual wild harvest comes from the U.S. state of Missouri and the largest processing plant is operated by Hammons Products in Stockton, Missouri. The black walnut nutmeats are used as an ingredient in food, particularly ice cream, while the shell is used commercially in abrasive cleaning, cosmetics, and oil well drilling and water filtration.” – Wikipedia
A grove of black walnuts? Treasure, indeed. Note: The trees do produce a substance known as juglone, which deters some plants within its drip line. For more tips, recipes and news about native nut crops and black walnuts, visit Hammonds Nut Emporium, www.black-walnut.com, which includes a dollop of dry humor as well about home harvesting.
Black Walnut Fancy Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
A Hammons recipe
1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup shortening
2 cups sugar
5 eggs, separated
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups black walnuts
1 3-ounce can flaked coconut
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup butter, softened
1 3-ounce package cream cheese, softened
1 10-ounce package cream cheese, softened
6 3/4 cups powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
Cream butter and shortening. Gradually add sugar, beating until light and fluffy and sugar is dissolved. Add egg yolks and beat well. Combine soda and buttermilk: stir until soda is dissolved. Add flour to creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Add vanilla, Black walnuts and coconut: stir thoroughly. Beat egg whites (at room temperature) with cream of tartar until stiff peaks form, then fold into batter. Pour batter into three greased and floured nine-inch pans. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, then remove from pans and finish cooling. Ice with cream cheese frosting. Optional: sprinkle top of cake with black walnuts.
Frosting – Cream butter and cream cheese, then add sugar gradually and beat until light and fluffy. Add vanilla.