One of the most interesting autumnal ingredients to emerge from English woodlands
Though we may mourn the loss of light evenings and warm afternoons, there’s no doubt that when it comes to English produce, autumn is an exciting time; a time of wild mushrooms, amazing squashes and unusual fruits that have to rot a bit before you can eat them. One of the most interesting ingredients to emerge from English woodlands at this time of year is the wet walnut.
One of two fresh, native varieties of nut to appear in autumn (the other being cobnuts), these seasonal treats are just beginning to arrive at the Market. “Every year we get a load in from Oxford,” says Paul Wheeler of Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies. “But they will only be around for a month, so you’ll need to be quick.”
Wet walnuts are just that—walnuts that haven’t been dried. They may be the same in form, but the flavour and texture are something quite different. “They’re sweet, nutty and almost juicy—they have a very distinctive flavour that’s quite difficult to define,” says Noel FitzJohn of Fitz Fine Foods. “They’re very similar to fresh cobnuts really, but with an ever-so-slight almondy flavour.”
A bit surprising
Once the hard, brown shell is cracked open, you’ll find inside a softer, creamier kernel than its preserved counterpart, with a fine film coating. “When you first try them the ‘skin’ can seem quite astringent, and has a slightly bitter taste,” Noel continues. “It’s not unpleasant, just a bit surprising. You might begin by peeling it off, but eventually you’re sure not to bother!”
Europeans commonly use them to make walnut oil. “By the time you’ve shelled and squeezed enough it can be quite time-consuming and it’s quite expensive to buy, but it’s really very nice,” says Paul. Another common way to preserve wet walnuts is to pickle them. “We’ve got a lot this year that we already have bottled up on the stall,” says Noel. “Pickling season is July, as you have to do it before the shells form.”
To bring out the best of their flavour, Noel suggests lightly roasting or toasting them. “The French often toast them to sprinkle over salads,” he explains. “I’d have them with a lovely strong cheese or broken up onto yoghurt or muesli for a real treat.”
Sweet and savoury
As with most nuts, wet walnuts make for a delightful addition to both sweet and savoury dishes, and they can be used interchangeably with ordinary walnuts. Try substituting the dried for the fresh variety in this quick and easy penne with raddichio and gorgonzola, or if you’ve more of a sweet tooth, whip up an autumnal walnut and honey tart.
Borough Market demonstration chef Tom Hunt is looking forward to incorporating wet walnuts into his cooking this autumn. “I’ll definitely be using them,” he enthuses. “I do a dish with wet walnuts and the long, Turkish-style pickled aubergines from Chegworth Valley, drizzled with a nigella seed sauce. They’re nice and crisp, and add a freshness to the dish you don’t get from the dried version.”
Alternatively, Tom suggests using them to make a variation of waldorf salad, or for a really seasonal treat, “try roasting a pigeon in elderberry cordial then sprinkle with crushed wet walnuts. I do it with cobnuts at the moment, but as soon as I get hold of some wet walnuts I’ll be using them instead. It’ll be absolutely delicious.”