Friday, November 18, 2011

Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts
black walnut tree, showing nuts in husk, leaves,
and deeply furrowed bark

     I've a new found respect for squirrels. I've always liked them, and we even have one who's practically a pet. Her name is Mama Squirrel, and she comes around about as often as we're moving about outside. She even comes in th' house when we let her. Last year she was badly maimed by a blue jay, and we fed her nuts while she was recovering, while she could barely walk. It took her about six months to heal, and even now she itches a lot, and has a bald spot just above her back right leg. We've seen her have two litters of babies, watched the babies grow up and move on, but mama squirrel stays around. She takes nuts out of our hands, and sometimes lets me pet her.
Mama Squirrel

      And, what has earned her my new found respect, she cracks black walnut shells with her teeth. You may not think much of this feat until you try to crack into a black walnut yourself. I think they're quite possibly th' hardest thing on th' planet. Exaggeratedly so of course. But still, they're so hard that if you try to use a common nutcracker to crack them, it may just come alive for a moment and laugh at you. But enough of th' wise cracks.
Hey! Come back here with that nut!

     There's a lot of black walnut trees around here. Most of them have been planted as ornamentals many years ago, and now a days th' walnuts usually just fall to th' ground for th' squirrels and stain peoples lawn mower blades. Suffice it to say that most folk are happy to part with them, all you need do is ask. Some times they'll even help you gather them, or at least offer you a bag to put them in. 
    Th' husks are green, somewhat larger than a golf ball around here, and have a sensational citrus like scent which repels insects, but attracts squirrels and myself. You can use th' husks to make ink, which was a common usage in medieval Europe, or a dye color anywhere from an olive green to a dark black. I've rubbed th' husks fresh over a sinew backed longbow and it made a nice natural camoflage. If you want worms for fishing, just run some water over a pile of fresh husks in your yard and "voila", instant worms. A guy that frequents th' bike shop where i work tells me he used to soak th' fresh husks in a bucket of water, then pour it into a stream or lake to catch fish. They'd rise to the surface stunned, and he'd scoop 'em up. I'll leave you to judge th' morality behind that one.
     The wood of the tree, like th' nut itself, is very hard and is a common fine furniture wood. It also makes good bow staves, and i've made a couple of arrows from walnut wood as well. 
wagon load of walnuts

     So, once you get your nuts gathered in their husks, you want to get them out of there asap, th' more th' husks dry th' harder they are to remove. A lot of folks will tell you to run them over with th' car, and some people even do it! But if you, like me, find the idea of driving on your food a little repulsive, and maybe even sacreligious, don't worry, there is a better way.
mashed husks and nuts

     If possible, i just mash them with my feet where they are, or use a log stomper, this way i can get many more in th' same amount of space, as th' husks are about half of their volume. You'd be surprised how efficient this method is, and how much less ridiculous you'll look than if your were driving back and forth back and forth over something you're gonna eat. When we can't husk them right there where we find them, we take them home, find a spot in th' back yard where th' ground is firm and mash them with a log, usually a bow stave that's curing. Fynn likes this th' best, as we can get "Black Hands" together. 
Fynn, mashing log, nuts in husk and de-husked
      This is really my favorite part of th' whole process, me and Fynn smashing walnut husks, about six squirrels fighting to get at 'em, and us getting black hands. Oh, it makes us smile. And Bethra in th' kitchen bakin up somethin good. This is livin i say. 
"Black Hands!"

Fynn getting black hands
     I work at a bike shop, so black hands are acceptable, most people just think it's bike grease and never wonder about it. For those who don't jump to that conclusion, it's a great conversation starter. But, if black hands aren't your thing, you'd better not touch these buggers with bare hands, it won't wash off. Also, it makes your hands very slippery for a few days, like there's soap on your finger tips and you can't seem to hold on to nothin. But one bite of that nut and oh it's worth it. 
     After we de-husk them, i rinse them well, them spread them evenly in a shallow cardboard box, and anytime i'm in th' back yard i'll put them in th' sun, but with mama squirrel around, i can not leave them alone even for a minute. Even with us out there she manages to get some, often with a daring leap from incredible distances. So anyway, let 'em dry for about two weeks. If you open them young, they're kinda jelly like, and reminiscent of a brain. Due to th' close resemblance of th' nut to a brain, th' Doctrine of Signatures would say they're good for your brain and mental functions. And th' Doctine of Signatures is very often correct. 
black walnuts and acorns drying in th' sun
(note th' squirrel tail in there) 

     Once they're dry, they're ready to crack and eat. And here's where it's just work. There's no shortcut to cracking black walnust as far as i know, and that's OK. All my life my family has sat around cracking pecans together. It was fun, it was something we did together, and it was work. Black walnuts are th' same. Though their shells are much harder, once you find your technique and practice a bit, it really doesn't take much longer than cracking any other nut. But it does taste better. So far i've only talked to one person who's tried them and didnae like them. She had about twenty pounds of them from her tree, ate one, and then brought us a bag full. Everyone else i've shared them with has liked them so far as i can tell. 

     What works best for me is to sit down near a small hole in my driveway (which i don't drive on, by th' way), which just holds th' nut up so i don't have to, then hit it a couple of good whacks with our river stone pestle.  
pounding stone and divet for nut
     At first i had th' tendency to pound them too hard, reducing them to bits and mixing up th' shells with smashed nuts. Trust me, you don't want to bite a shell
same picture with nut in place
when you think you're eating a nice soft nut. Anyway, once they're cracked, i use a small flathead screwdriver, or a nutpick to help break th' inner shell apart more and pry th' nutmeat out. Do this for a while and you have a nice bowl of black walnuts to eat. I've also cracked some by placing them in a vise with th' seams towards each jaw, and that works pretty well too, but being th' primitivist that i am, i prefer pounding them with a rock. 
a good cup of tea aids th' cracking process
cracked nuts, showing meat and shell

     I've read that black walnuts make excellent additions to baked goods, and we do have plans to try them, but so far we can't seem to stop eating them long enough to have any left over for baking. They have a very exotic flavor, nothing at all like an english or persian walnut. It's similar to a pecan, yet so vastly different as to defy all attempts at comparing it to any other nut. Give it a shot, it just may be th'  best thing you've ever tasted.   ~Rico 
Mama Squirrel

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this!
    Humorous, informative, and very interesting.