Foraging – Green Walnuts

Ever heard of a green walnut? When people talk about green walnuts they’re just referring to young unripe walnuts and they could be referring to any member of the Juglans genus. The most common walnut found in North America is the native black walnut (Juglans nigra) and the most common species in the world is the Persian (aka English, Common) walnut (Juglans regia) which is the commercially grown walnut.

green english walnut

English Walnut (Juglans regia)

Update 2013-08-27: Turns out the City of Vancouver’s street trees database is not entirely accurate. I did a bunch of work identifying the walnut trees that I see all over the city and it seemed that they were black walnuts, but after further investigating that is not the case. Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) are VERY different and overpoweringly aromatic. The nuts, leaves and bark look very different as well. So, the nuts I have been collecting are actually English walnuts! The life of a forager <sigh>. Of course, I saw a real black walnut a few days after posting this article and wondered what the heck it was and began researching it. It took this long to be sure about what was what. I still have to kick the city in the butt about the inaccuracies in their database. Be aware that there is a lot of confusion on the internet about the difference between a black walnut and an English walnut. They are often lumped together within one article (making it seem like they are very similar) and many images are mislabelled.

Black walnut trees produce a delicious aromatic nut with a richer flavour than the common Persian (a.k.a. English) walnut, but they are not well known because they are difficult to use commercially due to their incredibly hard shells. Black walnut trees are planted all over Vancouver.

Walnut trees are planted all over Vancouver. Most of the trees are English walnuts, but there are a few black walnuts. There are several confirmed large ones on the grounds of Point Grey Secondary along East Boulevard. Check out http://fallingfruit.org/ to find out where there are walnuts planted by the City of Vancouver as street trees – the street trees are fair game. Having observed many walnut trees in Vancouver over the past few years, it seems like they don’t manage to produce mature nuts. I have noticed loads of English walnuts planted in private yards and I doubt that most people with one on their property know how useful they are when they’re unripe and green.

The genus name “Juglans” derives from the Romans and means Jupiter’s nut. I thought it was dirty, but the gods feasted on walnuts while humans ate acorns, so they’re simply nuts worthy of the gods.

The young green English walnuts are used in France and Italy to make a thick, dark brown, espresso-like liqueur called Liqueur de Noix and Nocino, respectively. Both countries have a long history of adding green walnuts to macerate in wine or spirits to produce amazing liqueurs. And…..they pickle them.

My first attempt at making nocino was in 2012 and it was super delicious. This year I bought a 5 litre jar so I can make a giganto batch of the stuff. What’s really fantastic about making nocino is that you can make a second batch from the “spent” walnuts that produces a lovely lighter version and after that you can use the walnuts to make a delicious chutney as an amazing accompaniment to Christmas dinner.

nocino

Nocino on the left. Crabapple on the right.

I have not yet pickled whole green walnuts, but that is next on my list. I had some left over from nocino, but several days passed before I was ready to start brining them and they dried out hardening the shell inside. Oopsie. In many parts of the world, including the US, people buy green walnuts at markets and even on-line, so I thought they would keep longer. I should have kept them in the fridge. Either way, they really need to be used within 2 days of picking. Immediately if possible.

The perfect time to pick them varies from region to region and also from tree to tree. There is a tree in Kitsilano with huge walnuts that were ready for picking early June, but my local tree was a month behind it.

They’re ready for picking when the green walnut is about the size of an average apricot and it should be easy to cut through. You can still make nocino when it’s slightly difficult to cut through, but you get a better flavour profile when the inner shell is soft and just beginning to form. In Italy green walnuts are traditionally harvested on June 24th, so early June is a good time to check your local walnuts by picking one and cutting it open. You don’t want to miss your window! The past two years I have collected green walnuts around July 15th, but some trees will be behind the curve and you can often harvest up until the end of July.

I have never seen a fully formed mature English walnut in Vancouver. They just don’t seem to mature properly and shrivel up, so using them when they are unripe and green is a wonderful idea!

Caution: If you cut open a green walnut its juice will stain everything yellow. Use gloves (unless you want that authentic tobacco-stained-fingers look for a Bette Davis costume) and rinse cutting boards as soon as possible.

If you’re interested in trying the rarely eaten Black walnut, there is a great article in Edible Vancouver Magazine from Autumn 2012 about them and where to get them. Ambercott Organic Acres in Cawston (ambercottacres@telus.net) may be the only local grower who sells black walnuts to the public. They do sell at some farmer’s markets, so get in touch if you’re interested.

I have only found two green walnut booze options available locally and both can be found at Legacy Liquor: a classic Nocino made in Italy by Russo Antica Distilleria,  and Vista D’oro’s “D’oro”, an award-winning fortified green walnut wine. Vista D’oro is a winery in the Fraser Valley where they also grow walnuts (not sure what kind) which they use to produce green walnut preserves as well as the aforementioned wine.

Nocino Recipe

Nocino is considered a digestif, which is drunk in a very small glass after a meal. It can be served chilled or room temperature. Pour it on top of ice cream or add it to your homemade ice cream mix.

Ingredients

Makes 1 Litre

  • 1.9 Litre Jar (a canning jar is perfect). Equivalent to 2 quarts/64 ounces/half a gallon.
  • 1 Litre of 40% ABV vodka. Don’t use expensive vodka. I used the cheapest of the dirt cheap the first year and it was great. When you’re adding this much flavour to alcohol, you get very similar results regardless of the quality of vodka. I now use Vikingfjord vodka since it’s the most inexpensive (almost the same price as get-your-eyesight-back-after-two-days vodka) high-quality potato vodka available in the US (not in BC). I cross the border and buy 1.75 Litres for $30 (including tax) at Safeway in Washington state.
  • 24-30 green English walnuts quartered
  • 1/2 vanilla pod split
  • zest of 1 organic lemon (peeled in large strips)
  • 4 cloves
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water

Notes: Some recipes use allspice instead of cloves. Some add nutmeg, and some don’t add any spices at all. Some use white wine as well as vodka, and some use brandy instead of vodka. Most recipes add the sugar at the very beginning, but I prefer to add it to taste after the walnuts have been strained out. I have even come across one recipe that used maple syrup instead of sugar which sounds pretty darn nice.

Instructions

You’ve been eyeing up a few English walnut trees in your neighbourhood and watching the little walnuts grow. Pick a sample nut at the end of June before you do your full harvest. The perfect nut will be easy to cut open (rather than require a Dexter style kill-room) and you should be able to see the squiggly walnut just starting to form inside. If the stars have aligned and you’ve got your vodka and jar ready to go, pick about 30 walnuts. Keep them in the fridge overnight if you’re not quite ready to get chopping. They keep best on the tree, though, so don’t pick until you’re ready.

  • Add the desired spices and lemon zest to the jar (remove, add, change quantities to your preference/instincts) and pour about a cup of vodka in the jar.
  • Get a glove on your nut-handling hand and quarter the walnuts adding them straight to your jar.  I did 25 nuts, but you can add a few more if there’s space.

Caution: be careful when cutting the nuts.  They get slippery and the knife will slide off if the inner shell is starting to harden at all. Not an appropriate cocktail party activity – it needs your undivided attention. Use a large solid chopping knife, not a dinky paring knife or anything that wiggles.

  • Add the rest of the vodka, topping up to comfortably fill the bottle. Screw on your lid (2-piece canning lids are great because they are tight enough to prevent any alcohol evaporation).
  • Stick the jar in a corner and leave for 6 to 8 weeks, shaking every now and then.
  • Watch as the colour turns an other-worldly green and eventually darkens to deep brown.
  • Some people keep it in the sun, but I don’t like that idea since UV degrades some plant constituents. There are lots of old country recipes that do it, though, so it’s up to you as long as you have a tight fitting lid to prevent alcohol evaporation.
  • If the colour doesn’t go very dark, the lid is a bit too tight. Some oxidation is necessary. I had good results with a canning lid, but not with a rubber seal and latch. Some people actually leave the container open, but an occassional vigorous stir does the trick.
  • Pour through a mesh strainer into a bowl.
  • Set the “spent” walnuts aside in a 1L glass jar.
  • Rinse out the jar and pour the almost-nocino back in, put the lid on and set aside while you make the sugar syrup.
  • Add 2 cups water and 2 cups sugar to a medium pot. Stir over medium-high heat until all sugar is dissolved.
  • Continue to heat for 5 minutes more, stirring regularly. Do not boil.
  • Tip: To prevent crystallization of the sugar and ensure it stays blended with the alcohol, add a teaspoon of lemon juice or 1/4 teaspoon of citric acid to prevent sugar crystals. You can skip this step, but it is possible to have problems with a sugar syrup coming out of solution with the alcohol and into suspension forming a weird cloudy layer. This happened to me once because I was too impatient when heating the syrup. That’s chemistry for ya.
  • Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
  • Add syrup to jar of nocino and shake well to blend.
  • Leave for 2 days and taste.
  • If you don’t think it’s sweet enough, add more syrup.
  • Leave for a 6 to 8 weeks to mellow.
  • Find a pretty bottle and pour it in.
  • If there’s sediment you can strain it through a thick layer of cheese cloth first.
  • Have a taste! It’s delicious chilled or room temperature.
  • The longer you store it the better it gets. Some people store it for years before drinking it! I will never be one of those people.

Nocino “Lite” Recipe

  • Fill a 1 litre glass jar with the “spent” walnuts and spices. I didn’t actually save all of the leftover solids last year, but I will next time which will require a bigger jar. Since I did it with a 1 litre jar, I’ll give you the steps that I wrote down for that.
  • Cover with vodka.
  • Leave to sit for 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Strain out the walnuts and spices and set put them in a glass container and store in the fridge.
  • Make a syrup of 1 cup water and 1 & 1/3 cup water. Heat to dissolve sugar and then heat for another 5 minutes.
  • When syrup has cooled to room temp add to vodka.
  • Shake well.
  • Leave for another 4 to 8 weeks.
  • Nocino “Lite” (or Nocino II as I often call it) makes a great Christmas gift. I filled 100ml brown glass medicine bottles for gift baskets.

Green Walnut Chutney Recipe

Ingredients
  • The leftover nocino walnuts (approx 3 cups)
  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 Tbsp fresh ginger (shredded)
  • 10 peppercorns (in a cheesecloth bundle)
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 6 juniper berries
  • 2 shallots or 1 yellow onion
  • 1 & 1/3 cups brown sugar (or a blend of brown, coconut, palm, evaporated cane, etc.)
  • 2 apples coarsely chopped (about 2 cups). I used some foraged apples which were soft fleshed and sweet.
  • 1 & 1/2 – 2 cups of organic apple juice
  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar (enough to cover)
Instructions
  • Put the walnuts into a big pot. Remove the spices, but set aside the vanilla bean.
  • Smash up the walnuts with a potato masher until they are of a consistency that you find appealing for chutney. I like it a fairly chunky.
  • Add the vanilla back in and all other ingredients.
  • Bring to a boil and simmer  for 2.5 – 3 hours. Keep the lid on for the last hour.

I managed to eat the whole lot over Christmas with various dinners and as part of cheese platters. It is so insanely delicious with cheese. You could certainly can (or freeze) some for safe keeping and gifts.

Tell me more about walnut trees?

Persian walnut (Juglans regia), also called English or common walnut, is originally from Central Asia, but has been a desirable nut since ancient times and is now grown throughout Asia, Europe and North America. Unripe English walnuts and leaves are pleasingly aromatic and quite heavenly.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra), also called Eastern black walnut, is a flowering tree and is native to the eastern United States. Unripe black walnuts and leaves are extremely aromatic and reminiscent of some kind of soap.

All parts of walnuts contain juglone (5-hydroxy-1,4-naphthoquinone), plumbagin (yellow quinone pigments), and tannin.

Juglone is an aromatic organic compound with herbicidal actions and is part of what produces the dark brown colour in nocino. It is used as a natural colour in food. Black walnuts have a long history of use as a dye for wool and other fabrics, as the tannin acts as a mordant for the dark brown colour.

Are walnuts safe?

There are very rare instances of contact dermatitis amongst people sensitive to juglone. More common are allergies to the black walnut tree’s pollen in the spring.

Most members of the Walnut family (Juglandaceae) produce an organic compound called “juglone” which occurs naturally in all its parts. Black walnut produces the largest quantity of juglone and can cause toxic reactions with a number of other plant species that grow in their vicinity. It essentially exudes its own herbicide to prevent other plants from growing near its roots and taking precious resources from the soil.

So, this is an important note for gardeners! Some plants and trees are resistant, but generally you do not want to plant gardens under or near a black walnut tree. The roots may extend 50 to 80 feet away from the outer canopy of a mature walnut tree. This can be an issue for people trying to grow a veggie patch next door. You will need to use raised garden beds to provide protection from juglone toxicity and a liner if there’s any possibility of roots reaching into the bed.

Other tips for gardeners:

  • Juglone from decomposing black walnut roots can persist in the soil for more than a year after a tree has been removed.
  • Raked up leaves, twigs and husks from walnut trees should be composted for one year to ensure all of the juglone has broken down prior to spreading into gardens or used as mulch around sensitive plants.
  • Young walnut trees do not appear to cause toxic reactions with sensitive plants until the trees are 7-8 years old.
  • Some walnut trees are grown on black walnut rootstock because they are resistant to frost.

All walnut trees produce juglone but the most commonly planted trees are English walnuts rather than the black walnuts which produce higher levels of juglone.

Medicinal Uses of Black Walnuts

Black walnuts are prized by herbalists for their anti-fungal properties (especially as a candida treatment). I suspect that we have juglone to thank for this effect (it is a herbicide after all), but I haven’t read anything that specifically states it. Generally, it is the dried black husk used for medicinal purposes, and it can be used internally or externally.  If it is the juglone providing this action, then (since green English walnuts also have juglone) I think a glass of nocino is an excellent way to get your anti-fungal medicine!

How do I identify a walnut?

English walnut trees are quite distinctive. When they’re bare in the fall, they remind me of a fig tree because they have kind of spindly whitish-grey limbs. But they’re much larger than fig trees. They sprout in a similar way to the fig trees as well, with the green shoots coming from the end of its branches. The fresh leaves are very large and soft, shiny and green.

The leaves and green walnuts have a heavenly scent! If you just squeeze one or tear off a bit you will always know what an English walnut smells like. In fact, if you just stand underneath one you should smell the intoxicating fragrance. This is the same fragrance that we’re capturing in the nocino! Now you know why people put these funny green nuts in alcohol.

Black walnuts have a much rounder shape and feathery looking leaves and both are powerfully aromatic. You will take a sniff and then your brain will go into sensory overload. Seriously intense! English walnuts have a delightful smell, while black walnuts are not so delightful…but distinctive. They’re a little industrial cleaner-like.

black walnut tree

Don’t forget to look up. You might find a walnut tree!

Check out my Homemade Liqueurs post for more tips, recipes and inspiration.

Other Recipe References:

Agrarianista – Green Walnuts

David Lebovitz – Liqueur de noix: Green Walnut Liqueur

My Man’s Belly – An Easy Nocino Recipe

Danish  Schnapps Recipes

Edible Vancouver Magazine, Autumn 2012, “A Tough Nut to Crack” by Katie Lysakowski