Charles of Food & Forest on the arrival of English walnuts from their beautiful Kent orchard
Words: Ellie Costigan
Images: Guillaume Valli
About now, Charles Tebbutt and his team at Food & Forest will be in a field in Kent picking the first of the season’s walnuts, verdant and juicy with milky sap. For the most part, the walnut trees have been left to do their thing over spring and early summer, their surroundings left to re-wild much like the hair on our heads. For Charles, though, this wasn’t an unwanted by-product of lockdown. Instead, it was part of his commitment to farming in closer harmony with nature while spreading the word on the benefits of agroforestry—a broad term that essentially means farming with trees.
“In an ideal world we’d also like to get some animals grazing in the orchard, a type of agroforestry called wood pasture. But there are things we can do without getting other people involved, which could have a big environmental benefit,” he explains. “Common practise is to keep growth right down, mowing it every month or so, but we’ve let it grow up with bluebells and anemones early in the season—it’s looking very healthy as a result.”
Charles took on two of his own orchards around 18 months ago: the walnut orchard and a cobnut orchard just outside Sevenoaks. The walnuts are grown in partnership with the East Malling Trust, a research centre set up after World War Two to look at viable crops for UK agriculture. “They planted a testbed of 130 varieties on the avenue as you go into Bradbourne House. There are some really unusual varieties, which is something I like to showcase on the stall. Just like with apples, you get huge variations and differentiation in terms of flavour profiles—in all nuts, hazelnuts, almonds, not just walnuts. I like to be able to show people that.”
For this summer’s green walnut season, Charles has teamed up with the chefs at Elliot’s, the Borough Market restaurant which during the Covid-19 crisis transformed itself into a deli and wine shop. They’ll be using the nuts to create a walnut liqueur known as ‘nocino’, which is typical of the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. You’ll also find green walnuts in natural form on the Food & Forest stall—put an order in advance on their website and they’ll be freshly picked the day before you visit the Market. “That’s ideal: the fresher they are, the better.” If you can’t make it to the Market, you can also order a home delivery.
A haul of cobnuts
Come October, green walnuts will be out and wet walnuts—fully formed walnuts which have yet to be dried—will be in, alongside the second orchard’s first haul of English cobnuts, a native variety of hazelnut. The orchard is managed in partnership with Jillian Johns under license from the National Trust. Cobnuts are a speciality of the region: “The reason so many are grown in Kent is to do with the climate—it’s the Garden of England after all—though there are producers elsewhere,” Charles explains. “The reason it’s not more commonly grown is, the nut has a peculiar shape and a very tight husk which makes it quite difficult to process mechanically. This adds an extra stage to the processing that you don’t get with other varieties.” The fact that they have to be picked by hand also makes harvesting cobnuts hugely labour intensive, “whereas the hazelnuts we get from Italy can be hoovered up by machine. We can allow them to mature and fall to the ground and not have to worry about squirrels taking all the crop, as there’s less of a squirrel population over there.”
Charles’s commitment to growing and selling these uncommon kernels stems not just from a desire to offer his customers something uniquely delicious, but to preserve the tradition of growing them. “It’s also about sustaining rural livelihoods,” he says. “Cobnut growers tend to be of an older demographic, so I want to make sure that tradition is continued.”