It is twenty two years since I carried a large stick-like object up to my new allotment orchard and planted it. It was a walnut tree. Now it dominates the corner of the plot and indeed the site as a whole, towering over the other fruit trees and the hedge that separates the site from the road. In retrospect I’m relieved that I realised that planting it in a corner where as it grew, it wouldn’t come to dominate the entire plot, was the sensible thing to do, because it is large, and I suspect has many more years of growth in it. My orchard has many trees – apples (cooking and eating), pears, plums, greengages, cherry and cobnut, but none are going to grow to this size, being grown on rootstock that ensures they remain of ‘pickable’ size.
As it has grown I have often wondered when I would see a walnut on it, and indeed for about a decade there has been a smattering of nuts, perhaps a dozen or so in any year, distributed across a tree so large that it has been hard to discern them amongst the foliage, let alone find any within picking distance. So this year has been something of a revelation. Finally … a serious crop; the right combination of weather conditions presumably. Taking a look at it at the end of June suggested that there might be 5-600 nuts. And walnuts really do come in as my favourite nut. But there is another walnut tree on the site – older and more mature and occasionally laden with nuts. So much so that the branches are weighed down and gracefully brush the roofs of plotholders sheds. Until early September. Then the squirrels get to work – and boy do they work. An entire tree completely stripped of unripe nuts in the space of 3-4 days. Hundreds if not thousands of nuts ruined some years. Inedible to squirrels and to humans alike.
My old friend from CND days Dave Barbour has a huge grove of walnut trees on his farm outside Chipping Norton and every autumn comes into the farmer’s market to sell them and the walnut oil he presses. Fantastic quality, and to my eyes, fantastic quantity. How does he manage it I wonder?
Me, ‘Don’t you have a problem with squirrels?’
‘Yes’ he replies, ‘we do have a problem with squirrels.’
‘How do you solve it?’
‘I shoot them.’
‘Really, how many?’
‘One hundred and sixty so far this season.’
Ah! A simple solution in the countryside – as long as your a good shot. Not so straightforward in a city. And 160 squirrel carcases? ‘Delicious. Tree rabbit. Farmer’s market punters snap it up.’ Hmmm, yes, ‘tree rat’ probably wouldn’t sell so well.
But how does this help me get anything of my glorious crop? The only solution is to get there before the squirrels. Pick the walnuts green and pickle them. In discussing pickling walnuts Ralph Ayres, head cook at New College in the early 18th Century, recommended that you ‘Gather them when they are a bout the bigness of a pigeons Egge or befor they have any shell….’ So a few days ago Lord and Lady Muck went down with baskets and an improvised hook and harvested three dozen – all about the size of a pigeons egg. Now they are are in their first round of soaking in brine, and in a couple of months or so after a further brine treatment and pickling in jars with vinegar and spices, to my own not-so-secret-recipe (see my Cowley Road Cookbook p 22) they will be ready to eat. Result, a great condiment with cheese or charcuterie; squirrels outwitted!