There’s a box of dirty-looking bulbs that’s been sitting in the ysfp office for over a year now. A while ago I asked Daniel what they were: wild black walnuts, foraged by a friend and given as a gift. I left them on the shelf; maybe they were there for a special reason.
Every time I came back to the office, they were still there, the box still on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, the piles of dark lumps unshifted. Finally I asked for a few to take home.
(That’s dried lemongrass in there too, also from our crop harvested earlier in the fall. We made it into tea.)
Why did I not try these before now? Probably because all I knew about them were that the nuts are notoriously difficult to remove from the thick shells intact, and that they stain your hands black. At some point, though, I had an au-contraire moment, and was suddenly and eagerly up to the challenge – and the unexplored flavour.
Black walnuts are native to eastern North America. They are prized for their flavour, but Persian walnuts remain the most popular because they are much easier to remove from their shell intact and are therefore much more commercially viable. Nonetheless, black walnut trees have been cultivated for their wood and nuts for centuries in North America. The hardwood is excellent and highly valuable, and the nuts have been used in all sorts of dishes, both sweet and savoury. The pigment from the shells was even used historically to dye people’s hair.
I had no trouble understanding how they’ve maintained their ‘commerically unviable’ status. Their shells were like the hardwood in their trunks. No mere nutcrackers were going to do. That’s when the hammer came out.
But it was worth the extra elbow grease. As soon as I cracked open the first, this intense, heady perfume erupted into the kitchen, a smell like an old red Bordeaux, structured and detailed and a little musty, shimmering with a sort of darkness, a handful of blackberries just before they’re ripe that you crush and inhale.
I spent time separating fragments of flesh from those of shell, teasing out the rest of the stubborn shards from their strict caverns. But it only took a small fragment to release a rush of impressions, almost like tripping down the rabbit-hole and drowning in claret. It tasted like green apple at first, then very strongly of wine. Tannins. And lingering like black currants.
And this is a nut we’re talking about!
Needless to say, one was, ah, not enough.
I didn’t open them all, though. Some were saved. And there’s always that big box of them up at the office. It should last the rest of the year. Hopefully.
I was going to serve them for dessert that night for a dinner party as my last night in town, but amid cheeses and honey and actual wine and great company I entirely forgot. But I did finally meet Susan, one of Kenneth’s friends from Paris; she’s a poet and a sommelier and was staying with us while she did some research at the Beinecke for her dissertation. She brought a great wine to dinner. So it was a very wine sort of day. Something I’m always fine with.