Saturday, January 16, 2010

Wild Harvesting - Hickory and Black Walnuts from the woods. A barrel worth of work, a lifetime of memories.

My nanny, (grandmother), used to stay up late into the night with me and we would talk about many things. Much gossip of course, plans made and plans undone, dreams and hopes and hopeless schemes. But one of my favorite subjects was her life, growing up as a child on a farm.
Nanny was the daughter of a yeoman farmer in Alabama– pretty prosperous as small farmers went. But even a successful farmer had to make use of all the things he could grow or find. The farm grew many things, vegetables and grain, chicken, pork and beef, milk and cheese and all manner of things fresh and wholesome. But the farm also supplemented their meals with food gathered from the wild woods. Hunting put venison and rabbit on the table. Berries were picked from the brambles and wild plums and other fruits from the hedgerows and meadow thickets and nuts were gathered from the shaded glens of the deep woods.
As a child, my grandmother had many daily chores, feeding chickens etc. But there were also seasonal chores and these were always so fascinating to me. For example in the fall she and her siblings would be sent out to the woods to collect black walnut and hickory nuts. There were two big wooden barrels in her daddy’s barn, each with a tight fitting wooden lid to keep out rodents. The children’s job, every fall, was to collect the wild nuts and fill each of the 2 barrels. Nanny’s reward for filling the barrels would be a nice new warm pair of shoes to keep her warm all winter long. Of course she was also rewarded by sharing in the cakes and cookies baked with these nuts all the way to the next summer. But obviously, she was rewarded with something more than sustenance of the body. For that memory was fresh and vivid in her mind, all those many decades later when she told me the story over cake and milk in the deep quiet nights we shared together.

If you want to taste the rich complex flavor of hickory or the deep flavors of the black walnut, you will have to work for them. You will want to scout your local woods for some mature trees. Borrow a tree identification book from the library if you are not familiar with them. Then, after spotting your trees, you will need to learn a little about your local maturity cycles. The trick is to go harvesting at just the right point in the fall. Timing is everything; needless to say, squirrels do not leave these gems laying around for long.

The hunt for Hickory trees is a hunt for history because hickories are slow growing and don't begin bearing nuts for 75 years or more. They live for hundreds of years so; the tree you glean from may very well have nourished some pioneer family. The unique thing about black walnuts is the nut itself. The hull is so thick that they are almost as big as a tennis ball when you find them on the ground. The actual hard inner nut is only about the size of a hazelnut. The Black Walnut hull has a huge pithy green rind on the outside. But the inner side of the hull is coal pitch black. Dyes for many purposes are made from this inner hull and you cannot over-estimate how easily or permanently it can stain.

I do not know if any of you have every tasted wild hickory or black walnuts, but let me tell you – there is nothing like that taste to be found in the commercial varieties we buy in the store. They are an unbelievable lot of trouble to get to however. Not to find them, even in today’s world, hickory at least is still scattered all throughout the woodlands. Black walnut is a little more scarce, but it can be found. No, no the difficulty is not in finding them – but in getting to eat them. They have thick hard outer husks and even thicker wood in the inner shell protecting the edible kernel. Hickories would seem to be almost 90 percent wood of some sort or another with little isolated lobes of the kernel nestled deep, deep, within.

The standard way to get at the delicious hickory kernels deep within its armor is by smashing them with a heavy hammer. Nutcrackers will not work unless you are bionic. You have to pound them with a hammer and then sort through the shattered results looking for the prize. It is a ton of work to smash them, a ton of work to glean them from the shards and a ton of work to sort them to be sure you don’t bite into some wooden shard. So, I take it you get the point – a whole lot of work. For that reason you rarely if ever find them for sale commercially and never in standard grocery store.

Your efforts will be well rewarded. These are truly rewards beyond the reach of commercialism, haste or the other curses of modern society. The time invested will be some of the best you ever spent. You may not fill a wooden barrel to the brim with nuts. But you will fill your heart with wonder at the beauty of nature. You will fill your soul with joy at having connected with the primal cycles of life. Your will fill your mind with memories, ageless treasures you can store up for the future and share in the dark winter nights. And, If you are amazingly persistent , you will be able to fill your tummy with hickory nut cake or black walnut ice-cream. But, best of all, if you are very, very, lucky, maybe some dark frost kissed night, you will sit across the table from someone you love and hold their hand as you share with them the memories that started with my Nanny and the barrels in the barn.

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