In focus: nuts

Categories: Expert guidance

Paula McIntyre, author, broadcaster, Borough Market demo chef and Slow Food UK director for Northern Ireland, on native nuts

What’s in season?
For me nuts are a real sign of autumn. There are a few that grow in the UK: hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts, walnuts and cobnuts. ‘Wet’ walnuts (commercial walnuts are just dried versions of these) have a very particular season, which starts around the end of September and lasts for about a month. Cobnuts are another of those things you can only really buy during the short period when they’re in season—there’s a real sense of occasion when they arrive each year. Fresh nuts have a completely different taste to their dried counterparts, particularly walnuts and cobnuts—the latter are almost creamy in texture and herb-like, they’re so fresh.

How should we use them?
I would say I use nuts in savoury dishes 75 per cent of the time—though there are few things nicer than making praline and stirring it through caramel ice cream, or a pancake with hazelnuts, slow roasted damsons and a dollop of cream.

Most nuts really stand up to spices, particularly walnuts and hazelnuts. The freshness of cobnuts works well with fish, in a crust with breadcrumbs, say. I bought cobnut oil last year and it’s lovely in a dressing, or even just drizzled on sourdough toast with honey. I love romesco sauce made with walnuts instead of almonds, or muhammara which is roasted peppers, chilli, walnuts and pomegranate molasses.

I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but wet walnuts with goat’s curd or blue cheese is lovely, as is a walnut salad with salty meat—a really nice bit of coppa with grilled radicchio, morels and good balsamic vinegar. Roast pumpkin with shaved walnut or hazelnut is nice, and I use dukkah a lot, which is hazelnuts, sesame seeds and spices—I like it over chargrilled leeks with a dollop of yoghurt from Hook and Son.

As for chestnuts, I love them just roasted—it really reminds me of London at Christmastime—or chopped up in gnocchi, with pork shoulder from The Ginger Pig in a ragu. If you can get hold of chestnut flour, that makes excellent gnocchi instead of 00, and it’s gluten free. You can slice roasted chestnuts like truffles, too—thinly over a lovely roasted celeriac soup it looks pretty and adds texture.

How should we store them?
If you keep them in a cool dry place, they do keep for a while. Maybe wrap them up in newspaper and keep them in the garden shed, though make sure no animals can get at them. The Italians submerge them in honey, which is great for preserving and just a lovely dish in itself with some toast or blue cheese. You could make a nut butter and freeze it, or you can pickle nuts in cider vinegar: one part water, one part vinegar, one part sugar. Then you could add some aromatics, maybe cinnamon, coriander seeds, star anise, ginger. You could caramelise them, make them into a praline powder and jar it up—just make a caramel with sugar and a bit of water, put it on to parchment paper, let it set completely then whizz it up. Or invest in a vacpac machine.

This year I plan to roast and dehydrate hazelnuts and make them into a kind of salt, to sprinkle over venison with some fresh thyme. Spiced nuts are always really nice—they keep quite well and make lovely Christmas gifts.

Where can we buy them?
Paul Wheeler Fresh Supplies is a reliable source of wet walnuts, as is seasonal trader Nut Farms, which will be at the Market throughout September and October with a stock of homegrown Kentish cobnuts, walnuts and cold pressed nut oil.