There was something missing from our backyard when I last made one of my too-rare visits home: the walnut tree had gone. Chopped down, my mother told me briskly, without sentiment – but to me it felt like the uprooting and the disappearance of yet another part of my past.
Splendid trees are walnut trees, though as splendid are their fruit. Walnut season is
about now: now they are at their loveliest and should be acquired, still in their shells for maximum freshness, and cracked for immediate consumption or for cooking. The two main growing regions in Australia are the NSW Riverina (whose warmer climate produces a nut mirroring the California-style walnut) and Tasmania, where the cooler climate orchards and longer growing season result in a nut similar to the French style.
The Latin name for walnut is Juglans, meaning Jupiter’s acorn or, figuratively, a nut fit for a god. Of the seventeen or so separate species, only the so-called Persian (sometimes referred to as English) and the Eastern black are of commercial interest. The first historic mention of walnuts cites Babylon as their provenance: the Ancient Greeks used them to press for their oil, whereas the Romans, toward the end of the 4th century BC, consumed them with fruit for dessert. The Persian species is considered to be finer in flavour than the black, whose purpose these days is largely confined to it use as providing excellent timber.
Walnuts are rich in Omega-3 essential fatty acids, their health benefits ranging from cardiovascular protection to promotion of better cognitive function. Their anti-inflammatory properties assist in conditions such as asthma, rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory skin diseases – they even contain an antioxidant compound which supports the immune system and appears to have several anti-cancer properties.
Funnily enough, however, the notion of popping a handful of walnuts into my mouth, raw or roasted, never calls out in the way that other nuts like peanuts or cashews or macadamias or almonds do. Unless I fill a baking dish with walnut halves and coat them with a mixture of butter and olive oil, a scattering of paprika, salt and lots of fresh rosemary leaves and roast the lot in a lowish oven until they are golden brown, fragrant and ready to be toppled into a dish to serve with drinks. They really are nuts made for cooking. in place of dessert serve them toasted alongside a little pot of Stilton cheese you have whizzed in a food processor with half its weight in soft butter and enough port to make it mellow. Next time you make lamb cutlets, marinade them for two hours in walnut oil, crumbled bay leaf and thyme before dipping them in flour, beaten egg and a blend of finely chopped walnuts and breadcrumbs; chill briefly then fry until golden. For vegetarians, heat sesame oil in a wok and stir-fry finely sliced ginger; add walnut pieces and several minutes later broccoli florets. When bright green, slosh in soy sauce and strips of red capsicum then serve. Make an old-fashioned Waldorf Salad: chopped celery, apple and walnuts curled through creamy mayonnaise. For gnocchi or other pasta, combine in a food processor fresh ricotta cheese, its weight in walnuts, garlic, basil and parsley, salt and pepper and enough olive oil to make a smooth paste. And I haven’t even started on desserts, cakes and biscuits! so will content myself by offering up my dearest friend Amanda’s recipe for Walnut Strips, in her words ‘melt-in-the-mouth crunchy…very good with coffee’ – a recipe, furthermore, conducive to freezing.
Beat together 250 gr. softened butter, 1/3 cup sugar and 1 tsp vanilla essence until creamy. Beat in 1 tbspn water. Mix in 2 cups sifted plain flour and a pinch of salt and 1 cup finely chopped walnuts. Chill until firm, form into finger shapes 6 cm. long and bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned, about 20 mins. Dredge thickly with icing sugar, cool on wire racks and roll in extra icing sugar.