Junis Negra, Also known as the Black Walnut.
If you live in an are that has hardwood trees, you probably have a friend or relative that annually complains about these “Nasty black things that stain my hands and wreck my lawnmower blade” Much more than a yard nuisance, they have been used for centuries to create delicious and interesting foodstuffs, as well as being employed for a plethora of other uses.
Throughout history, nuts have been a great source of protein and sustenance to us humans. In the middle ages and before, ground nuts were used profusely as a thickening agent and to add protein or sustenance to a broth, which were probably mostly water with a few old roots or vegetables in it, maybe a scrap of rancid meat. In WWII, people in Piedmonte, Italy, when faced with starvation, started to make a probably very unpalatable bread from ground wild walnuts and their shells, together. Ingenious no? Really not that strange either, when you consider that many third world populations consume clay and mud to get vitamins and minerals from the soil. (Pass on mud, I’ll have the rock hard nutshell bread please.)
The inspiration for this post came from talking to some of my friends at Great Ciao. Their warehouse is a curious cavern of culinary wonders and delicious oddities sourced to the absolute Nth degree. For example, everyone knows Parmigiano Reggiano. Great Ciao takes this a step further and sources multiple types of Parmigiano from specific producers most people (and chefs for that matter) only know of one. Last time I visited I think I spotted at least 3 different types of this, the king of Italian cheeses. Their approach to sourcing ingredients is ground breaking and inspiring, and they use this passionate sourcing method for all of their products. Their Black Walnuts are no different.
Of course, the Black Walnuts Great Ciao sources are far superior to any I had seen before. I was informed by Owner and fearless leader Scott Pikovsky that they are harvested by hand by an old Italian dude; as if there was any other way 🙂 Typically Black Walnuts that I work with come near pulverized, a testament to the mechanized method used to extract them from their insanely hard shells. Great Ciao’s hand harvested Black Walnuts are truly a thing of beauty however, nearly taking my breath away when I was shown the almost full walnut kernels they import. The picture examples will give you an idea of how drastically different they are.
Fun Black Walnut Facts:
The leaves have been used as a laxative since antiquity, as well as to induce vomiting, stop bleeding, stop diarrhea, as a salve for many skin diseases, and to kill human internal worms.
Walnut tree extracts have been used for centuries to make ink and dyes. The Egyptians are said to have used walnut oil to preserve mummies by replacing the blood with walnut oil.
The origin of the word nut is derived from the Latin nux referring to the fruit inside the shell, the nut kernel itself. The walnut tree’s formal botanical name, Juglans Regia, comes from the Romans. The word Juglans, from the Latin, means “the acorn of Jupiter,” while regia refers to royalty. You could actually translate its Latin name to mean “the royal acorn of Jupiter.”
Black Walnut shells are very hard. More recently, finely powdered walnut shells have been used in many industries. The powder was used as a polish for metals in the aeronautics industry, and as cosmetic face powder. Oil rigs have used powdered shells to sharpen drill tips for oil prospecting. NASA has even put powdered walnut shells to use as thermal insulation in rocket nose cones. Apparently, the powder can withstand extreme temperatures without burning or carbonizing.
How to shell
If you are using older black walnuts, the inside shell will be so hard that it seems impossible to break open. Once I ruined a nice saute pan by trying to open Black Walnuts with it. I do not suggest this, instead, soak the nuts in water until they soften a bit, then crush them with a hammer. However, don’t leave them in the water for too long (a couple days) as they will start to ferment
Black Walnut Cream Sauce
Makes 1 cup, enough to sauce 6 plates plates for an entree
- 3oz black walnuts, lightly toasted in an oven until fragrant
- 1.5 cups heavy cream
- salt to taste
- 2 tbsp honey
- Heat the cream in a small sauce pan with the toasted black walnuts, and honey, cook on medium low heat until reduced by about 1/4, about 15 minute, being careful so that it doesn’t boil over
- Puree the mixture in a blender until finely pureed
- Strain through a chinois or fine strainer, season to taste with salt
A slightly more advanced procedure involves opening the walnuts yourself and making Nocino or French Vin de Noix liquor (Nocino with red wine added).
Black Walnut liqour/Nocino
Make sure that you are harvesting black walnuts when they are very young, (In Italy, they pick Black Walnuts to make Nocino on June 24th, for good luck and to celebrate the Festa di San Giovanni Battista) you should be able to cut into them with a knife. If they are hard and you have to resort to bashing them to smithereens with a hammer, that is ok.
Lets say you want to make about a gallon of Nocino to give as gifts for Christmas. Starting with a gallon of everclear or vodka, you would put the booze in a large container (I use large glass containers or empty bottles) then add about 50% volume of crushed green black walnut skins, and their nuts and shells from the inside. Cover the container of put a cork in the bottles and let them sit for about 2 months in a cool dark place.
Next: After about 2 months, strain the booze off of the walnuts.
For a gallon of Nocino I would probably add the following to flavor it:
- 1 2-inch piece of cinnamon stick
- 5 or so allspice berries
- The peeled zest of half an orange
- a teaspoon of cloves
- Half of a nutmeg, smashed.
Next: let these sit in your Nocino for another month. Then remove the spices. Make some simple syrup by adding water to sugar just until it is moistened and dissolved, add this to the Nocino until it is as sweet as you would like. It is now ready to bottle and give as gifts, or guzzle and transport you into a jelly bean flavored world of delirium, should you so choose.
This stuff is probably my favorite “foraged present” to give, it makes a wonderful digestive served after a meal, or can be used to make interesting dessert sauces like sabayons, or used to flavor a custard or used in layers of a trifle or sponge cake or Savarin or whatever you wish. Its flavor is very similar to black licorice and jelly beans. Delicious and unique.
On pests (maggots) in your walnuts:
Walnuts, like everything else in nature, have things that eat and decompose them. This is completely natural, although we as humans in the 22 century are for the most part completely unaware or this since our food is pumped full of enough chemical to choke a horse. If you are harvesting black walnuts from the ground late in the season, most likely you will run into some that have larvae all inside the green shell. The green shell is the only part they eat. If you have a fortified stomach or hindered gag reflex simply wash them off with a hose or something, soak your walnuts in water, and then proceed to crack the walnuts open after the water has softened them a bit. Alternatively, if you are a caveman, squeal with glee upon finding the larvae in the green skins of your walnuts and eat them.