Walnuts at Home and Abroad
Joan Morgan reviews Cooking with Walnuts by Ann Olley and also Following Walnut Footprints, edited by Damiano Avanzato.
This year – 2015 – proved an exceptional good one for walnuts. Across southern England, old trees and younger trees planted during the 1990s, a period of great interest in walnuts, have cropped magnificently to supply English walnuts to farm shops, farmers’ markets and food fairs.
Walnuts are at their most delicious, in my view, as fresh nuts eaten just after picking, but it is as dried nuts that we usually eat and use them in a wide range of savoury and sweet dishes. Cooking with Walnuts is a little recipe book written by Ann Olley to inspire the customers who buy walnuts from the Olley family business based in East Sussex and to encourage us all to eat more walnuts. Not only are walnuts tasty, but also very nutritious.
Olley’s recipes range from the traditional combination of walnuts with cheese and in salads to walnut breads and cakes. I loved the idea of pancakes filled with smoked salmon, chopped walnuts and crème fraîche, a pear tart using pastry made with the addition of ground walnuts and not least walnut and raisin butter for spreading on scones. This imaginative and useful book is perfectly suited to keeping close by in the kitchen. Bound in a ring binder, which allows a recipe (one to a page) to be open and easily consulted, it is well worth its modest price.
On a global scale, however, English walnut production hardly rates at all, although walnut trees have been admired and planted in Britain for centuries, as landscape and fruiting trees, grown for their beauty and timber, as well as a marketable crop. The Persian walnut (Juglans regia), as it is usually called and indigenous to an area stretching from Turkey to Central Asia, is now grown across the world in over 60 countries, 58 of which contributed to a walnut bible – Following Walnut Footprints. In these accounts, walnut specialists take us from Afghanistan, Albania and Australia to South Africa, the United States of America and Uzbekistan and cover the widest possible range of trees: native walnut trees growing in mountain foothills and sold locally, tended plantations of seedling trees marketed more widely and the most modern orchards stocked with named varieties, mechanically harvested.
China, for instance, is the world’s largest walnut producer, we are told, but the crops are mainly from seedling trees and, so, can be of variable quality. The USA, with California the main state, dominates the international market for standardised walnuts. Chandler is the leading American variety and very likely to be the identity of American walnuts on sale in the UK. It is a product of a breeding programme begun at the University of Davis, California, in 1938 and among the new varieties released in 1968 and 1978 . Chandler produces high quality, heavy crops and considerably heavier crops than older varieties because it has the trait of ‘lateral bearing’, that is, bearing fruits along the length of a branch, rather than just at the tip. Subsequently, American ‘lateral bearers’ were used in France’s breeding programme, begun in 1977, which gave rise to Lara, Fernette and Fernor. These latter three are favoured for planting in the UK, along with the Dutch Buccaneer and Canadian Broadview. The new French walnuts also have in their parentage Franquette, dating from the 19th century. This variety was honoured with the designation appellation d’origine contrôlée in 1938 as one of the walnuts of Grenoble, the oldest area of French production; it has also been planted in England. Many other countries, such as, Germany, Bulgaria, Slovenia and the Ukraine have selected the best from their main areas of production and raised new varieties, while similarly research institutes from Romania to Turkey, Iran and China have walnut improvement projects underway.
Country by country, each of the contributors surveys their walnut industry and in so doing embraces not only the technical details of cultivation, propagation, breeding programmes and mass production, but also the role of walnuts and walnut trees in that country’s history: in folklore, traditional medicine and the myriad ways in which every bit of the crop and the tree can be used. For instance, walnut shells are a charcoal, the interior membranes a confetti and the husks a source of natural dye for wool in carpet making. The walnut tree is regarded as the perfect shade tree and in the end yields prized timber for furniture, musical instruments, gunstocks and exquisite carvings. There is, inevitably, a certain amount of over-lap in the chapters, but in many ways this adds to the interest as one compares the customs, remedies and legends from places as far apart as Morocco, Nepal and Tajikistan.
Everywhere walnuts are certain to be included in the feast and served on special occasions. Centuries of association with walnuts have also given rise to numerous different and favourite ways of cooking with them. Baklava, layers of filo pastry filled with chopped walnuts, is a Middle Eastern treat, the Iranian fesenjan, duck or chicken cooked in a sauce of walnuts and pomegranate juice is said to date back to the ancient Persian kings and macdous, tiny aubergenes stuffed with walnuts, a speciality of Damascus. Young green walnuts are made into a jam - muraba - in Kyrgyzstan, while in England we favour pickling them in vinegar.
These days, the health benefits of eating walnuts are widely promoted, although walnuts have long been viewed as a remedy for heart and nervous problems, as well as an excellent food. Walnuts are rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, plus vitamin B, and a source of dietary minerals, trace elements and fibre. Many of these essential nutrients are also found in walnut oil, which is pressed out from the crushed nuts and universally viewed as precious and always expensive, whether it is to be used for dressing a salad or as a hair conditioner.
Following Walnut Footprints is a wonderfully informative and engaging book as well as an immensely useful contribution to what appears to be an increasing trend across the world – growing walnuts.
Cooking with Walnuts by Ann Olley; black and white line drawings; pp. 96; £8.00, plus £2.00 p&p; published by and available from www.westcottagewalnuts.co.uk
Following Walnut Footprints (Juglans regia L.); Cultivation and Culture, Folklore and History, Traditions and Uses, edited by Damiano Avanzato; pp 442; many illustrations; published by Scripta Horticulturae, 2014, Number 17. A publication of the International Society for Horticultural Science and the International Nut & Dried Fruit Council; cost 40 euros, plus 10 euros p&p, available from http://www.ishs.org/scripta-horticulturae/following-walnut-footprints-juglans-regia-l-cultivation-and-culture-folklore
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