I guess it had something to do with growing up in a part-European household, but when I was a kid there always seemed to be walnuts in the cupboard.
I’m not suggesting that there’s anything wrong with that, quite the contrary. Walnuts were a staple ingredient in my carrot cake, in the dense apple and chocolate cake mum made on occasion, and in muffins when they appeared.
But that’s my point. Walnuts only ever seemed to emerge when some form of baking was involved. They were kind of a mature nut, a grown-up nut.
Think about it, nuts have personality. Hazelnuts are the well-travelled rich family up the street, while cashews are the dilettante uni student quoting Kafka without understanding it. Almonds are the suburban mum constantly working without complaint, macadamias are gluttonous, pistachios are gloriously eclectic and peanuts are the local barfly.
But walnuts, well they have an elegance and importance about them that goes beyond simple flavour. I guess it’s no surprise that the common walnut is actually known as the ‘regal walnut’. Sounds about right to me.
Walnuts are native to the northern Mediterranean, particularly France, Italy and Croatia, although these days the largest crops are in California. There are several varieties grown throughout the world, and not all are of an equal quality. The best walnuts are the ‘English’ varietal and should be dark tan in pigment, evenly-coloured and aromatic. Cheaper walnuts (usually the ‘Black Walnut’) will usually have dark or black spots and no identifiable aroma. Black walnuts are perfect for making Italian-style liqueurs, but have an acidic and bitter aftertaste when consumed raw.
We don’t grow a lot of walnuts in Australia, but there are some farmers in Victoria and southern NSW making a go of it. The big issue is de-shelling. If you’ve ever tried getting a walnut out of its shell in one piece you’ll know what I mean. The machinery used drops each nut into a small compartment around which six metal arms pierce and pull until the shells falls away. A final arm splits the twin lobes and remove the internal pith. Sounds simple? Not quite.
But for all that work, they are delicious!
Waldorf pasta with smoked trout and capers