A Tough Nut to Crack

Fruit tree steward, neighborhood recycling guru, and overall swell neighbor, Barb Burrill, shared a recent adventure in the Wallingford urban orchard:

A couple of weeks ago while walking home from my son’s school, I noticed a bunch of lime-like fruits lying on the ground and sidewalk beneath a huge tree. Some had split open and looked like what might be black walnuts. I remember finding a funny-looking nut shell when I was a child and learning from my mom that it was a black walnut. I took two samples home and verified that, yep, that’s what they were.

I returned to the neighbor’s house, left a note asking if I could have some of the fallen fruit, and a few days later met the woman who lives there: Angie Dixon, a delightful tree lover, parent, Whidbey Island hayfield owner, and artist (www.angiedixonartist.com). Oh, and she collects children’s books.

I had in mind a local food company that might use local black walnuts in their creations, and I was hoping I could interest others, ideally in Wallingford. So I thought I’d figure out how to get to those nuts inside.

Through my web and email research I discovered, though, that black walnuts are notoriously difficult to shell. Tips I received ranged from driving over them with a car to using a cement mixer with gravel and water.

Undeterred, my  son and I visited Angie again and collected some black walnuts. I squeezed off the outer hulls if they were already split; if not, my son stomped on the fruit to open them. Our take was 11 1/2 pounds of nuts in the shell. I left the five gallon bucket full of husks at Angie’s house. An artist named Deb who lives north of Green Lake came by later in the week and picked them up to make textile dye.

Back home I  scrubbed and rinsed the nuts in buckets outdoors, creating my own stainworthy blackish water. Then I dried the nuts in my gas oven (pilot light only or 110 degrees) for 48 hours. Now the nuts are hanging in mesh bags in our basement where they will cure for two weeks.

But how to get these nuts open! A regular nutcracker is worthless against black walnut shells.  I used a hammer – but smashed the nutmeats. Then I found a  nutcracker on Craigslist that was guaranteed to do the job. Slow pressure, a metal gripper bar and the nut shells split neatly in two. Use a wire cutter to open up the inner compartments to remove the nut meats (excellent tip in a YouTube video from Ontario, Canada).

Angie and I want to plant some of the seeds to keep the tasty nuts coming. These are American native, long-lived, tall trees – don’t put them in the planting strip. Plus black walnut tree roots secrete a hormone that can harm many plants.

So – does anyone else have black walnuts to donate?  Or want to help shell them for a share of the nuts? Needless to say, this is not a task for the timid. But you foragers know who you are – it’s the thrill of the hunt.

Is it worth the trouble?  Let your taste buds be the judge. As for me, I’m making sustainably-grown, locally harvested incredibly yummy black walnut ice cream for Thanksgiving.

For more details on Barb’s process, see the Facebook page of the Burke Gilman Trail Urban Orchard Stewards.

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