Here we go gathering nuts in March

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April 4, 2018

Two weeks ago the temperature dipped in the early hours of the morning. By the time we were climbing into the car to go to work and school at 7.15 am or so, the car said it was four degrees.

The vegetable garden told a tale of colder temperatures earlier on. The tomatoes looked unhappy, a few leaves were singed, a few fruit that were hanging exposed were split or bruised by what must have been a brief frost. But the cucumbers had decided to pack it in entirely. Our salad days are over, the brown leaves announced. Enough. Done. Over and out.

“What’s all the rush?” I said to the cucumber. “Surely there will some warms days still to come. It’s mid-March. We haven’t had Easter yet. Easter is glorious in Tasmania.”

The cucumber vine was unconvinced. Sad and withered, it’s erratic wanderings around the vegetable patch had halted.

Now it is as if other things heard what the cucumber had to say and are following suit. The Golden Ash trees are living up to their name. The ornamental crab apples which form one espaliered side of the birthday garden is turning orange.

All at once the garden priority has shifted from growth and watering, to gathering things and bringing them indoors.

“Bring in your pumpkins,” said the cucumber vine. “Hurry.”

The first time I grew pumpkins I was so excited by their unexpected weight and beautiful shape (I hadn’t planted them you see, they popped up out of the compost), that I put one on top of each of the vegetable garden fence-posts and left them there as ornaments. I thought they looked wonderful. They glowed, orange or blue grey in the mist we get on autumn mornings and set off the giant Russian sunflowers a treat. But I left them there too-long. We live in an area prone to frost and there were some. Rot set in where they had been bitten by the frost. The pumpkins were ruined. This year, obeying the cucumber’s instruction, the pumpkins are in. Or rather the pumpkin. I only have one, because I planted them a bit too late.  So I don’t have enough for the fenceposts anyway. There is always room for improvement in gardening.

The William Pears are in too, to be consumed as they turn yellow indoors. The Beurre Bosc will come next. Some of the Cox’s Orange Pippen apples are in. The saffron stamens are being plucked from their purple blooms, and provided I don’t sneeze on them, or the wind doesn’t blow them from my grasp on the way back to the house, they are coming in to dry on the windowsill.   In case you are imagining fields of saffron, let me hasten to add that I have a little row of them under the espaliered crab apples. So far I get enough to make a paella or two each year, but you have to start somewhere!

The walnuts are on their way in.  Here is another word of warning. Wear gloves without holes in them when gathering walnuts. The innocently pale-green and fragrant husk which blankets the shell of a walnut has juices which stain your skin a yellow-toned black. This is the stain that can be used to darken floor-boards and furniture. It doesn’t wash off. Lemon juice and a pumice stone will help it fade a bit, but not much. The only real cure seems to be time. Blackened fingers take a bit of explaining in one’s week-day office job where everyone else’s nails are clean and in some cases varnished and perfect.

I knew about the staining risk. The thing is, I was on the way to the laundry when I saw the walnut tree festooned with white cockatoos like Christmas decorations. This meant I had to immediately abandon my laundry intentions and run down to the walnut tree waving my arms and shouting, “Go away!”

White cockatoos live longer than we do and have good memories, especially for delicious food. They consider walnuts delicious. Every year they come to feast on ours. Tens of them. Maybe even a hundred some days. They wheel shrieking through the sky and descend on the tree to gather the nuts, just before they are ready to fall. They crack through the green husks and get out the inner milky white nut flesh, discarding the rest. They hang sideways and up-side down to do it. They feast and shriek and chatter and break off twigs and leaves with their secateur-like beaks. They feast some more. They drop some of the nuts, and knock others off. You can hear the thud of the nuts hitting the lawn below. The ground underneath the tree gets scattered with debris.

Left to themselves the outer green husk of the walnut cracks and splits neatly open to release the nut. The nuts, safe inside their woody shells, drop to the ground underneath the tree and lie, brown and wrinkled and clean of their green husk on the grass. Not with the white cockatoos around they don’t.

This is why I run to frighten the birds away. This is why, when the birds merely fly into a nearby pine tree to wait for me to go back to the laundry so they can pounce back on the nuts again, I decide to stay a little longer, on guard. This is why, I happen to be hanging around down at the tree with only gardening gloves on hand and, seeing nuts to gather, I begin to I stoop and kneel and eventually crawl around getting the green husks off the nuts the birds have knocked off or dropped. Thus the stained hands.

The birds take most of the walnuts because while we are work there is no one to wave their arms at them, or to clap their dunlop-volley sneakers together.  If you get the angle just right when you clap dunlop volley sneakers together they make a sound which echos off the hills across the river and has a slight resemblance to gunshot. Sometimes the birds fly away when I slap my sneakers, though less so lately. I think they are getting accustomed to it. We get a few sacks-full of nuts if we are lucky and vigilant. One day, when I retire from work, I might mount a more effective guard for the nuts. Something better than the occasional arm waving run and shout, but something less than shooting at them, since I don’t approve or guns, or own one. Fire-crackers set off under the tree I’m thinking.

Two years ago the wonderful man who helps in the garden said “Hello” to a cockatoo that diverted from the flock in the walnut tree and had alighted on the laundry roof. To his great surprise it said “Hello” back.  I sometimes say “Hello” to them now before shouting “Go away”, just in case.

My great-grandparents, grandfather and father planted the walnut trees at Valleyfield. There were three trees planted in the garden for my grandfather and his two brothers, and a row planted along the edge of one of the hop gardens. There is only one of the trees for the three brothers still living in the garden now. It is huge. It’s nuts are huge too. It is a variety called Wilson’s Wonder. The birds are right. They are delicious.  A walnut from the shell is a very different thing to one from a bag at the supermarket.

My grandmother used to make candied walnuts. This involves boiling a sugar syrup almost to the point of it colouring into toffee, and then tipping the shelled nuts in all at once and mixing them vigorously so the syrup gets air-rated and crystallises to coat the nuts, like frost. These are delicious to have with coffee.

Another thing my grandmother would do is make pickled walnuts. This is done with green walnuts before the hard shell has formed in January. Just like my hands when gathering my nuts, the pickled ones go black in their vinegar. Pickled walnuts are not something one eats in large amounts, but they are good in thin slices on a cheese platter.

Walnuts can be crushed and used to crust pork chops, or goats cheese, or scattered in a bitter leaved salad with some slices of pear.  There are many many other recipes involving walnuts because they have been grown and used for a long time in places famous for their cuisine like Persia, Italy and France. They will keep inside their shells pretty much until the next year’s battle with the white cockatoos.