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Appreciating Walnut Season

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As a child growing up on the farm, I would tell people that we had every kind of fruit tree one could grow—except bananas. And every one of those fruits represented a season. Winter provided oranges and lemons and spring heralded cherries and loquats, followed by the first crop of figs. Early summer proffered an orderly succession of plums, apricots, nectarines and peaches, while late summer blessed us with almonds, apples, pears and grapes, plus another more abundant crop of figs. The season pretty much came to an end with a shower of rain and the falling of walnuts.

And, of course, with all those wonderful delights of nature came picking, processing and preserving. Cherries were baked into pies, figs were stewed into jam and peaches were canned or frozen to bolster us through a drab and otherwise fruitless winter. As a kid, I took all those chores in stride (although my mom might disagree) and pitched in to help sustain our large family. I would stand on a fruit box at the sink next to my mom, peeling peaches or at the stove stirring the apricots into jam. 

By the end of the season, when the walnuts began to fall, I was done. Maybe I was just plum tired or had too many other things going on, but I would do my very best to get out of the horrible ritual of picking walnuts. No, let’s be honest—I absolutely, emphatically and fervently abhorred picking walnuts. So much so, I would go to the extent of actually disappearing when my dad began dislodging them from their boughs with the knocking pole. By the time my mom took over, raking the offending nuts into piles, including, leaves, twigs, gravel and dirt clods, I was holed up in the closet with a book, or on the lam, riding my bike up the road to my friend’s house.

I hated picking walnuts so much that I once spent the entire day—and nearly into the night—in the middle of the corn field. I don’t recall exactly what I did all day, but just watching ants crawl in and out of their hole in the ground for eight hours would have been a more welcome pastime. I also don’t remember the consequences of shirking those bucolic duties, or whether or not my parents took action with reprimands or punishment, but I still feel a smidgeon of guilt for not grabbing my bucket and joining my siblings on the ground. After all, my poor parents not only worked the farm but worked full-time jobs as well just to feed our family of seven.

As much as I hated picking walnuts, I couldn’t imagine eating a chocolate chip cookie and especially my mom’s famous apple cake, without them. Baked into banana bread or chopped and sprinkled over brownies, they raise desserts and confections to another level. And there is no better pairing than the two seasonal companions, apples and walnuts, in a retro but still relevant Waldorf salad. Cracked fresh out of the shell, they are a most delicious, not to mention nutritious, snack. How many times I snatched up a handful from the burgeoning bowl of nuts my mom had just cracked, I can’t even say. 

Originating in the Mediterranean region, walnuts have been part of the human diet for thousands of years. There are several edible species, but we are most familiar with the English or Persian varieties. Spanish missionaries first introduced the English walnut to California in the 1700s and commercial walnut production began in the mid to late 1800s. Almost all walnuts grown for their nuts in the United States are produced in California, particularly from the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, although a small proportion of walnuts are also grown in the Midwest. According to the University of California at Davis’s Fruit and Nut Research, in 2012, 627,921 tons of walnuts were produced on 312,323 acres in California with an estimated value of $1,802,586,000.

Favored for its lighter skin, the most cultivated variety of walnut is the Chandler. However, having both the softer-shelled Chandler and the hard-shelled, dark-skinned Eureka varieties here on the farm, I prefer the Eureka for its sweeter-flavored meat. The Red walnut variety has only been available in the commercial market for a few years but it’s rapidly gaining popularity. It was first developed at UC Davis by naturally grafting a cutting from the Persian red-skinned walnut onto the creamier-tasting English walnut tree. The skin of the meat is vibrant, cherry red and the meat itself is a very light-colored cream. It is larger and sweeter than other varieties and boasts a less acidic flavor with higher oil content.

All varieties are rich in omega-3 fats and contain higher amounts of antioxidants than most other foods. Research suggests that eating walnuts may improve brain health and prevent heart disease and cancer. In addition to providing fiber and healthy fat, walnuts also offer a healthy dose of protein. Walnuts are an excellent source of manganese and copper, providing half your daily needs. They also supply magnesium and phosphorus, along with smaller amounts of iron, calcium, zinc, potassium, selenium, vitamin B6, folate and thiamin.

Maybe if I had known all this valuable information about this most lauded fruit when I was a kid, I would have been more amenable to walnut-picking season. NOT. It was a dreaded chore way back then and it still is today. But instead of hightailing it off up the road or hiding out in the cornfield, I take on the responsibility in a more mature fashion. Instead of eschewing the bending and stooping, stretching and reaching for every last nut, I treat the seasonal affliction as an opportunity for exercise. Besides, if my octogenarian mom can still get down on her knees next to me and fill a bucket quicker than one can say carrot cake, then I can suck it up and really appreciate the season.

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