Harvesting black walnuts

black walnuts

Jugs of juglans nigra juice

Black walnuts are my favorite free gift of Nature — even beating out morels and poke salad — here at Melleray Farmstead, the cottage industrial manufacturing facility of Piedmont Pine Coffins.

For readers joining in recently, at Piedmont Pine Coffins we make simple boxes for burial and we help families reclaim the power of caring for our own dead. Our base is the off-grid Melleray Farmstead near Pittsboro in the piedmont of North Carolina.

Black walnuts

Chuck it in the bucket

So what’s the connection between black walnuts and coffins? Stain. You can make a natural wood stain from black walnuts in three steps: 1) collect the windfall, 2) marinate hulls and all in a bucket of water over the winter, and 3) strain and bottle. I wrote about that process in a blog post last Spring.

This post is about the other path you can take: black walnuts for eating and baking. How exactly do you harvest and clean black walnuts for eating and baking? It takes some work, but the pay-off is worth it. A piquant flavor that to my taste wins easily over ordinary English walnuts.

black walnuts

Crush them

The process starts the same. You go under the trees in mid-October, you pick up the windfall, and you “chuck it in the bucket,” as I say to my little kid helpers. The nuts will be partly firm and green and partly brown and rotted at this point. Almost every one, in our area at least, sports a squirmy colony of husk fly larvae under the skin, taking their nutrition from the juglans nigra hull pulp. Wow. To feast on that stuff, the substrate of a stain so sticky it needs no mordant, and still be so creamy white. How?

black walnuts

3 weeks in the driveway

To get at the nutmeats, we want the hulls (and the larvae!) off. Here’s a good way, the indigenous American way, so I’ve read: Place net bags of walnuts in the flow of a stream and let the water do the work over the course of a few weeks. Our Bear Creek is too lazy for that, so what we use here at Melleray Farmstead is wheel power. We throw the walnuts in the driveway and run over them for a few weeks. Sun, rain, and truck tires won’t hurt ’em. When the hulls are rubbed away and mostly dried up — say, 3 or 4 weeks later — you collect them in buckets again.

black walnuts

Re-Collection day

Polish black walnuts to perfection

Next comes the polishing phase, in three steps.

  1. Cover the black walnuts with water and let them swim overnight.
  2. Agitate with a stick and dump out on a rack in the sun for a day or two.
  3. Bash the black walnuts against each other. For this last step, I give them a good shake in a metal cage to abrade as much of the remaining dry hull as possible.
Black walnuts

Wash, Dry, Shake, Repeat

You can repeat these three steps as many times as you like until you’re satisfied. For me that’s twice or thrice. When they look like this below, they’re ready to crack and enjoy. In a chocolate chip cookie, for example, a black walnut meat has met its true calling and answered its vocation. Or, how about a recipe pairing black walnuts in a pie with another fall classic, persimmons? Look around on the net. That right there is a dessert that could well take over Thanksgiving.

black walnuts

Ready to crack