Jars of Darkness

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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.  

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Pickled Walnuts

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.

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Nuns and Frock Coats

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In Bitter Almonds, the biography of pasticerria owner Maria Grammatico that she wrote with Mary Taylor Simeti, there is a section of recipes at the back of the book. These are the ones practiced in the time warp convent where she lived and worked as a child and young woman just after World War 2. In a time a grinding poverty, and starvation, the convent acted as a kind of workhouse, offering a degree of physical, if not emotional, shelter for destitute and orphaned girls.  In exchange they helped to make the pastries and sweets that the nuns then sold to supplement the convent’s dwindling income.  It’s a strange and compelling book, a snapshot of something unique to Sicily, typically both troubling and beautiful.   Some of the recipes laid out are familiar staples of Sicilian culture across the island; cannoli, cassata.  Others are more esoteric, and with no pictures to guide you, these are recipes that you have to take on trust and run at with blind faith if you attempt them.  

There is something other worldy about this book, in its recounting of a vanished existence slowly dying.  A way of living that had outlived its purpose, becoming embittered and resentful in the process.  The nuns may have disliked that Grammitico took her training and repurposed it for her own and her family’s benefit, but it is likely that without her steel, much of their knowledge, and with it, the pleasures given, would have vanished, along with the silverware of the closing churches and monasteries around them.

This recipe, for a liqueur called ‘Rosolio alle erbe’ has been on the ‘to do’ list for a while.  It needed summer to come, to let me grow the herbs .  It doffs caps to all those famous and monetised liqueurs from monasteries across Europe, from Benedictine to Buckfast.  That they drink it (or something similar) in The Leopard reinforces its archaic mystery.  Anything whose colour prompts a writer to summon the word ‘bilious’ is a thing of both awe and trepidation, and to my warped and curious imagination, demands I give it a go.

The steeping rapidly leaches all the vibrant chlorophyll green out of the herbs, staining the alcohol a deathbed jaundice.  The smell when you come to add the sugar is equally challenging, ‘silage’ I think, might capture it 

At this stage, I began to lose my faith.  Both in the nuns and in Maria.  Apparently, this cordial used to be served at weddings.  My suspicion was that it was used to clear the room at the end of the night.

So like an unwanted raffle prize, it was shoved in a cupboard and almost forgotten, until two months on an adventurous friend demanded to try this oddity.  Out came the little French, hand engraved glasses.  If we we’re going to do this, we’re going full on Lampedusa.  I’d taken the recipe at its word and added some artificial colouring to recapture that biliousness, creating a gothic scene of dainty glasses cupping a dangerous, arsenic shot of poison.  It’s a drink so visually strident that it induces a simultaneous sense of theatre and malice.  The two months of abandonment had also worked wonders.  Silage was gone, to be replaced by a strange, sweet medicinal elixir – the whiff of fermented weeds had vanished to be replaced by something potent, romantic, that smelt and tasted like the inside of a cedar wardrobe from an EM Forster story.

1 lire 40% vodka

20 fresh bay leaves

Cinnamon stick

25 leaves of lemon verbena

6 leaves of spearmint

2 cloves

a thumb sized strip of lemon rind

Mix all the herbs and vodka in an airtight jar and leave to infuse for two weeks in the dark.

Then strain out the herbs, and add a sugar syrup made by dissolving 1 kilo of caster sugar in one litre of water, and simmering for 10 mins, until it’s reduced to about 3/4 litre.  Cool and then mix into the vodka.  

If you like, you can add green food colouring, but it’s not essential.

Bottle, and store for at least two months before drinking, ideally in a frock coat, and sporting a handlebar moustache.