Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pickled Walnuts

I’ve been working up to this post in some of my previous posts (“Walnut Catsup,” “Ketchup and Vinegar,” and some notes about the progress of our own walnuts). I hope you’ll bear with this fairly long entry, given that blog entries are “supposed” to be quick little “thots” only 800 words long. Don’t worry, I’m breaking it up with pictures.

So: remember that 1880s recipe I gave you in the post for Walnut Catsup—apparently pickled walnuts, which could be ground up into a paste? Well, it turns out that one small, family-run company here in Missouri makes the pickled walnuts for you. So you can try it first without going to all the hassle of picking, pickling, and processing the nuts yourself.

The company is called Barnicle Farms—it’s Tony and Lorraine Barnicle, down in Mary’s Home, Missouri. They have a Web site, so you can learn more and order your own pickled walnuts. Easy to remember:

Their story is pretty simple—they were visiting friends in London in 1981 and had some pickled walnuts there. Pickled walnuts are an English tradition; Evelyn Waugh and Charles Dickens, for instance, mentioned the food in their writings (the Barnicles quote the passages in their promotional literature).

Of course, the walnuts that the Barnicles ate in England were English walnuts, a.k.a. Persian walnuts, the kind labeled here in America as just “walnuts.” But the type that Missouri is so famous for is the black walnut, whose nutmeats have a much richer, stronger, darker flavor. So the Barnicles did their homework, experimented with traditional recipes, and pioneered the process of pickling Missouri’s black walnuts.

As of 2003, they were approved by the USDA and received certification with the Agri-Missouri program of the Missouri Department of Agriculture. They’ve appeared at the annual Walnut Festival held down at Stockton. You can find their product increasingly throughout the state.

Of course . . . the moment of truth is when you taste the pickled walnuts! Realize: if you’ve grown up around black walnut trees, you’re going to have a deeply ingrained idea that all parts of the walnut tree, except the true nutmeats, are decidedly inedible. Or at least kinda gross.

Remember, black walnuts give off juglone, a respiratory inhibitor (to plants) that keeps other plants (such as tomatoes) from thriving near a walnut tree. As a kid, I simply came to the conclusion that walnut trees must be kinda toxic.

All the green parts of the tree smell funky, and the new growth of shoots and leaves can be sticky and resinous. If you have a walnut sprouting up in your flower bed (thanks to the squirrels) and pull it out with your hands, you’ll smell the walnut juice immediately.

The green husks that surround the shell give off a sap that stains everything it touches dark brown. As a kid I usually had brown hands and knees in the autumn from playing in the backyard under the walnut tree.

So the idea of eating one of these little suckers whole is bizarre, to say the least. But here is my verdict, in a nutshell (pardon the pun): Very good, when combined with other foods, but probably not something you’d want to eat by itself.

They are very pickled-tasting, sour and sweet and funky. For some reason I cannot name the flavor that predominates, though it tastes familiar to me. Is it alum? Is it mace, or cloves? Sue says she thinks it is the flavor of the actual walnut juice. Hmmm.

So they are pretty strong, and they have a grainy texture, which I think comes from the green hull (it all turns black once pickled). I personally wouldn’t want to eat a whole one. Slice it first.

In England, pickled walnuts are often eaten as part of a cheese and cold-cut/sausage tray. I think the nuts are generally sliced when served this way. I would imagine that the cheese tray could naturally contain some traditional British cheeses—cheddar, stilton, and so on. I’ve tried the walnuts with sharp cheddar, and the combination is terrific.

The pickled walnuts are also supposed to be good with roasted or grilled meats (Dickens’s character asks for “a mutton chop and a pickled walnut”). I can see where you could grind up the pickled walnuts, mix it with some of the juice, and make a kind of relish out of it. A “catsup,” if you will. I’ll bet that the dark sharp bite of the walnuts gives some excellent zip to steaming meat. You can also marinate a roast in the pickled walnuts. Look for this as the “next thing” at highfalutin big-city restaurants.

The Barnicles suggest grinding the pickled walnuts and using them “in a dip, in a salad dressing or sprinkled on a salad,” adding that they are also “great with eggs and egg dishes. Sprinkle ground nut in deviled egg mixture and add some on top before serving.”

I would suggest that they are an excellent gift and something to start a conversation over. Of course, I am supporting our local made-in-Missouri products, but you can also tell that I’m sort of a “foodie,” and I find this a wonderful new flavor to play around with.

By the way, they’re not exactly cheap: Down at Columbia’s Root Cellar, they sell for six seventy-five for an eight-ounce jar. But if you stop and review the complicated process for preparing these little suckers, you’ll understand why the Barnicles sell them for so much.

And once you’ve tasted them, you might find yourself with a brand new little addiction. In fact, you might even start doing things that really piss off the local squirrels.

Photo comments. Throughout this post, the photos show the pickled walnuts, whole, cross-sectioned, and sliced and served on crackers. The pickled walnuts are the black ones.

I’ve also included pictures of some fresh walnuts from our tree, taken last night, with the good ol’ Missouri quarter to show how they’ve grown since last time. The fresh walnuts are green. Some pictures show fresh and pickled walnuts together, with cross-sectioning. They are about the same size; I’ll bet the Barnicles are down there in Mary’s Home right now harvesting the same-size immature walnuts for their pickles. I’ll bet their squirrels hate them.

The picture of the “hatpin-through-the-walnut trick” is to show you that our walnuts are indeed still at pickling stage: The shell inside isn’t yet hard enough to prevent the pin from penetrating.

The photo of the jars on the shelf was taken at Columbia’s own Root Cellar, purveyor of Missouri-grown, farm-fresh produce, meat, bread, and milk (814A East Broadway): local, local, local! They were kind enough to let me take pictures in their shop: Thanks a lot!


Anonymous said...

have you found a pickled walnut recipe that you could share?

Julie said...

Hi there! I've done a few posts on "pickled walnuts" or "walnut catsup." But here's the one that provides a recipe for doing it yourself. I can't vouch for how good they are with this recipe, because I've never made them.

Note that at the top of that post, I provide a link to an online verson (Googlebook) of "The Hearthstone" by Laura C. Holloway (1883), where I got my recipe (pp. 515-16).

I've found several other versions on the Internet, and the techniques are all pretty similar. You might particularly research British recipe sources (including old books in actual libraries).

By the way, I don't know where you're writing from, but it's way past time to begin this project in the Northern Hemisphere, as the walnuts must be harvested while they're still forming--ca. May-June in Missouri.

But if you're thinking of attempting this, it's not to late to begin planning. It looks like a real, um, PROJECT!

I urge you to contact Barnicle Farms for more information! They spent some time perfecting their recipe.

And thanks for writing! If you pickle some walnuts, let me know how they turn out!


Lapinbizarre said...

This is an old thread, but I see from your most recent post that you are still in business, and so a question. Do you know if the green pecan, which quite closely resembles the green English walnut, can successfully be pickled in the same manner? I am a British expatriate, living in South Carolina, fond, in moderation, of pickled walnuts. Imported ones are expensive and not particularly good, but green English walnuts are unobtainable, so I wondered about the possibility of pickling pecans. Plenty of pecan groves down here. Nervous about the cyanide content of the green fruit, but green walnuts have the same problem and evidently brining neutralizes it.

Any thoughts?

Julianna Schroeder said...

I'm sorry, Lapinbizarre, but I have no idea if young pecans can be pickled. It is in a different genus (Carya, the same genus as our hickory trees), so at least botanically (and probably genetically) it's further removed from walnuts (genus Juglans). Sometimes things like this serve to maintain some regional distinction in this otherwise so shrinking world. I'd be curious to see what you think of a pickled *black* walnut!

fencepost said...

Just as a sad note, it seems that Tony Barnicle (of Barnicle Farms) passed away in 2015 and the site is now gone. Some versions of the site still exist in the Wayback Machine, but their main content was in .DOC files ("Droppings") that are not archived.

There are quite a few posts on pickling walnuts available online; the ones I saw didn't particularly distinguish between English and Black walnuts and are overall pretty similar with only a few differences in spice quantities, malt vs cider vinegar or how long to leave the walnuts out to dry and blacken after the brining is over.

Julianna Schroeder said...

Thanks, Fencepost, for the update. I'm sorry to hear that Tony Barnicle passed away and that Barnicle Farms is history. Maybe someone will grasp the baton of pickled walnuts and run with it! I've found you can buy preserved English/Persian walnuts in international stores, but those are can put them and their syrup on your ice cream! But pickled walnuts--black or English--are hard to come by. Here in Missouri, someone ought to fill that vacancy!

Thanks again for your information,