Black Walnuts and Hickories


We have a number of Black Walnut (Juglans Nigra) trees on the farm, and like the chestnuts they are fruiting heavily this year. We have Shagbark Hickories, but they are deep in the woodlot and I haven’t been out to see. The squirrels are still burying pecans as well. One imagines that they may be doing this in response to the early drop in temperature. That  combined with the heavy nut crop makes one think perhaps they know something. We are glad we got a jump on the woodpile this spring when a number of trees came down.

The idea of nuts is appealing in winter; the rich oiliness and sweetness, and the comfort of sitting in your warm house and munching away, like a rodent.   Yet black walnuts make this complicated. You have to get off the eternally staining green husk and crack the extremely tough nut. Hickories politely husk themselves and are easy to see on the ground with their smooth, elegant white nuts full of sweet deliciousness. The nut is even easier to crack than black walnuts, but nowhere near as easy as a storebought English Walnut. Nonetheless on the Eastern Shore it’s all about Black Walnuts. Their strong flavor is fabulous in cakes and filled cookies. Says I.

So here’s what I recommend. Pick them up in a bucket and lay them in a gravel road where cars will crush the husk but not the nut. A paved road is likely to scatter and smash them more, but husking them by hand is a terrible job. You can them easily gather the nuts out of the mass of crushed husk, and store them until they are dry inside. I thought you had to store them for a few months in a paper bag in a dry place, but it must depend, because I have eaten nuts the same day I gathered them in Virginia. I don’t know how long they were on the road of course. So my best guess is check one from tie to time. Now, how to extract the nutmeats. They sell a lot of fancy crackers, but these were not available to native people. If you hit them with a hammer, they go everywhere. The perfect tool, to me, for walnuts and hickory nuts as well, is a rock. By the creek in Virginia where we camp, I found a flat piece of sedimentary rock and another rock that fit my hand, about the size of an oblong baseball. The weight is such that it sort of drops onto the nut and cracks and crushes it partially, allowing me to pick the nut apart and extract good size pieces without bashing it all to bits. It is a pleasant activity, sort of an atavistic pleasure I guess, sitting on the ground in the sunshine cracking nuts with a rock.

Black Walnut is good for a lot more than nuts. My brother in law, Robert Clickner, a doctor of alternative medicine in Charlottersville, gathers them for the terrible hulls. He learned the hard way to crush them wearing a good pair of plastic gloves. We used to make the medicine with whole nuts, but the crushed hulls make a much stronger tincture*.  This has been traditionally used for parasites, but it is also good for hypothyroidism. It looks and tastes like iodine. I take about 15 drops a day.

* If you want to know about tincturing, I will probably have something written by the time you read this, but I recommend Richo Cech’s Making Plant Medicine as the perfect introduction; enough to get you interested and  enough to get you started. Actually, despite his fun anecdotal style, he is really quite precise, and you will likely become a fan of his great seed company, Horizon Herbs.


What to do with apple trees


the sooty mold on the skin is absolutely harmless

Apples for applesauce, pies, cakes, dried apples, cider, wine, whatever!

This country is full of apple trees that nobody is paying attention to. Somebody planted trees and didn’t know what to do with them, or moved, or got  older. I love apples, and I know what to do with them, so I keep an eye out when I’m driving, and ask folks who are obviously not using their fruit if I can pick up the windfalls. Usually they will be happy to give me permission to do what I want and are surprised and delighted to get some applesauce, or a pie, or a gallon of sweet cider. So when I have our trees all picked I am not finished.

On our farm apples start and end early. It starts with the Early Harvest tree, whiuch is what Germans call a Klarapfel. It means a “clear apple,” because the peel is clear, so the apple ripens ivory colored. Ours ripens in late June. There is an old-timey fiddle tune called “June Apple.” as it is an instrumental, I always wondered what it was about; the fact that it is the first apple or that it is lousy, as apples go. It has a simple flavor, rather tart, and gets mealy textured as soon as it is ripe. However that is our first applesauce apple, so if you are looking for food you can store, as I am, no complaints.

Then come the apples that drop (called drops) because they have insect damage; right off the bat they are great if you are going to make your own pectin. It is possible to do this, but so far I find it difficult to control. If I did it more I could likely get it; what you do is cut them up, boil them until they get really soft and sloppy, and strain the results through a jelly cloth. This is a good thing to know about, so I’ll tell you right now:

Straining fruit for jelly: get a four-legged chair and flip it upside down on the kitchen table. Get about a yard square of white or light cloth. I have ripped an old t-shirt, used a cloth diaper, or a piece of worn sheet. Cheesecloth is fine but you really need to fold it thickly. Muslin is great. Drape it over the legs of the chair and attach to each leg with a strip of cloth, strings, or heavy rubber bands. You do NOT want this to come loose. Put a big mixing bowl on the upside down bottom of the chair, under the cloth. Pour hot fruit mixture into this cloth strainer and let drip. Overnight is best. If you want county-fair clear jelly don’t squeeze. OK?

But when I make pectin from green apples my jelly is often too firm. You can test it by pouring a little in a small glass of rubbing alcohol. The more it holds together on a fork, the stronger your pectin.

I get better results just throwing in half chopped wild crabapples and half whatever else. And while I try not to buy something I can make, Surejell and Certo are better than not enough elderberry jelly! Boy did I make a lot this summer!

The best apple cake

Back  to apples-Next come Winesaps and Cox’s Orange Pippins good enough to make applesauce, pies, and apple cake with. If you sign up for my newsletter I will give you the recipe for Apple Cottage Pudding, which is called pudding because it was once an English recipe, but it’s just a really awesome easy cake that pushes all the apple pie buttons….

Applesauce is about the easiest thing you can can. I make a ton because you don’t have to peel the apples as long as you have a food mill. I got a  Roma which is pretty fancy for Christmas years ago after I lost a piece from my old Foley. It works fine and is not aluminum! So worth it. You just cut the bad bits out of the apple with a small, short, unserrated knife, pushing against your thumb, and cut up the good apple into large chunks. You don’t even have to core it. There are so many good vitamins against the core and the skin that I’m coinvinced this is much better. Cut until your apples are finished or your pot is full, put a cup of what in the bottom of the pot to prevent scorching- no more, because you want your applesauce thick, cover and simmer until the apples begin to disintegrate.  Dump into the bowl of the food mill and crank away. I find the Roma needs another go at the apples; I put what comes out of the pulp strainer back through to get more applesauce. With the oldfashioned mill that fits over a bowl you just crank until you see that only cores, skins and seeds are left. Then you can it.

Once they get sweet and are less damaged, I can also start making bowls of slices that I can string up on button thread (strong thread) and hang in a hot dry place like my attic. They look like leis, and they dry rapidly so they taste perfect as a snack or you can rehydrate them for dried apple pies. I sometimes wish I watched TV so I could do things like that while I watch a show. If I’m lucky enough to have a friend over it’s something to do while we chat.

When the really great apple flow comes and there are zillions of apples, we get out the cider press. We got ours years ago from Happy Valley for about $400. A chunk, but when I think of the sweet cider, the apple wine, the hard cider, and most of all the good times, it was cheap. In the old days people had a lot more apple trees because cider was safer to drink than water, and because as you can see, apple trees are great food providers. So they probably didn’t have time to wash them and cut out the mushy bits like my mother does. I tend to either toss them or use them.

Sweet cider straight from the press is the best; a return to Eden. But soon it starts to fizz as the wild yeasts on the skins, in the press, in the air, etc., get going. So here’s what we do: You can refrigerate it and it will very slowly turn. I happen to adore fizzy cider. You can also preserve sweet cider. You just pour it into clean mason jars and can it. Works like a charm but tastes like the very best store-bought apple juice ( heat removes the fresh-pressed flavor) and has a little sediment.  Which is fine. Or you can enter the wonderful world of fermentation. My father made apple wine for years. He added 5 lbs. of cane sugar to 5 gallons of juice to kick it up to 12% alcohol. It was a clear yellow wine with a Calvados-like twang. Not bad. Mostly I liked it because of the memories. This year since my husband gets a headache from wine we would make hard cider. I didn’t want to use any metabisulfates, which are used to kill the wild yeast (which can be awesome or awful as it lists) so you can add a tame yeast that will be obedient. So I just went with whatever God sent me and it worked out perfectly. A dry, fizzy, calvados-scented drink, beer-strength, that is just getting better every time we crack one. I think I will do another page for those of you who want more details. Because unless you have a few specialty items, i.e. homebrewing equipment, and a press, this won’t help you.

So today may be the last load of apples I will haul, since next week we are headed down to Bedford County, VA for some praise and worship and a whole lot of music, and by the time we get back it may be that there are only a few left. We are grateful for a good apple season.