Pickled Walnuts are now counted among the things I didn’t know I was missing from my life.
I admit that the pickling of walnuts was never on any bucket list. I do have an inordinate soft spot for beetroot, and onions, and piccalilli, but unripe walnuts? It’s not a natural jump I’d make. Indeed, I’m surprised anyone made that jump.
Before they’re ripe, green walnuts are unassuming, misshapen and lumpy. A thick spongy skin encasing an embryonic brain of a nut, itself milky white and a little repellant. And they don’t want to be picked – they fight back with a seemingly innocuous juice that hits the air and turns into a staining dye of legendary persistence.
It doesn’t end there, the finger blackening chemical is called Juglone and it harbours even more sinister intentions. Spread throughout the leaves, bark and roots of the walnut this thing is also toxic, and deployed to literally weed out the competition. The Romans cottoned on to this particular charm offensive and worked out that green husks meant fishing could be a whole lot easy. If you poison the water, the whole rigmarole of line and rod is redundant. Walnuts therefore, are so toxic, that they’re a natural and non explosive method of dynamite fishing.
So, as I say, when it was someone decided to take these particular talents, and then add vinegar, is a puzzle.
However, someone did, and it caught on. Pickled walnuts are ensconced now in the lexicon of slightly odd, but utterly delicious foods. I have a friend who adores them, and describes them as multi sensory luxury, their spiced nuttiness enhanced by having to ‘fish around for them in that jar full of darkness’.
Making them is easy (although takes weeks and months of waiting), the hard part may be finding your green walnuts in July. Grey squirrels love them (apparently immune to death by juglone), so even if you know someone with a tree, there’s no guarantee of a crop. I found an online supplier in Ludlow Vineyard, who sells and sends them out to you by the kilo, and I know of people who bring them back from holidays in Greece in their hand luggage.
Begin by pricking your walnuts with a needle (you may want to wear gloves, I ended up with what looked like a nicotine stained finger for weeks) and then mix up a brine bath of 500ml of water and 200g salt.
Soak the nuts in the brine for a week, then drain, and repeat in a fresh mix for another week. Wherever they touch the air, they will blacken, the water will also turn the colour of an oil slick . Don’t be alarmed by its morbid murk.
After these two weeks, drain them and rinse them, then lay them out on kitchen roll to dry for two-three days. Once dry, they will have turned entirely black, as that poison oxidises.
Mix up a batch of pickling liquor with 1 litre of malt vinegar, with 1cm fresh ginger, a small dried chilli, 2 star anise, a stick of cinnamon, 2-3 cloves and a generous teaspoon of whole black peppercorns. Add 100g soft brown sugar and bring it to the boil on the hob.
Finally add the walnuts and simmer for ten minutes maximum.
Then spoon the nuts into sterilised jars, and top up with pickling liquid.
Like any pickle, they’ll improve with age, and are ready after a couple of months, but over a year, and they may start to disintegrate into their dark void.
Those unprepossessing lumps you took under your wing in July are now softened and spiced, a natural pairing for cheese or cold meat.