Set the Table with Nuts
Written onSeptember 01 , 2010
I. The case for local nuts
No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.
Worst-Case Scenario: Let’s say your fruit is rotten, your meat is rancid, and the root crops are a heap of sloppy goop. Yeah, you’ve got some dried apples, but nothing other than that. (And oh yeah, I forgot to mention—it’s post peak oil and there’s no more Shaw’s. I told you this was the worst-case scenario.)
One possible solution? Mast— the fruit of forest trees.
The beauty of nut meat is its ability to keep its protein self- preserved until you are ready to eat it (the original hermetical seal)—without refrigeration, canning, saucing, lacto fermenting, freezing, or root cellaring. Sadly, I’m not writing about setting your table with cashews and Brazil nuts—these are tropical species that thrive in a climate where the daytime temperature doesn’t go much below 50 °F. But there are plenty of delicious nuts that we can grow, happily, here.
I’m not imagining you or I will be setting the table with our very own nuts anytime soon, though. Whereas the green bean plant will express its full cycle—from seed to seed—all between June and September of one summer, thus feeding you for a season, the nut can take five to seven years (or more if we insist on hickory) before producing its progeny. But this progeny will continue year after year—and keep through the season—and possibly nourish a generation. Perhaps, then, these are the slowest of slow foods, these seeds of trees.
Elmore Roots is a 30-year-old certified organic edible landscaping nursery in Wolcott—or, as I discovered when I visited there in July, it’s a jungle with a plan. After driving over the river and through the woods, I found the entrance marked with a meticulous hand-lettered sign. The nut tree section is just to the right of the driveway as you cruise into this lush Eden, complete with fully clothed Adams and Eves watering the plum trees and patiently assisting customers. It’s stocked with all the hardy nut trees I’m about to extol. Owner and founder David Fried’s motto is “If it grows in Elmore, it’ll grow where you are.”
II. Our local nuts
Hazelnuts – Native to North America, hazelnuts are in the birch family. The tree itself is bushy and thickety, suitable for making an edible hedgerow. In the fall, its sweet, rich, 1/2 to 3/4 inch nuts are ready for browsing. Bradford Angier, author of Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants, describes their unusual appearance as they hang on the tree and develop throughout the summer as “enwrapped in a downy whorl of two leaf-like bracts.” I see more of a ravioli-like package, a green gob with platypus paws.
Ashworth Hazelburts – In the 1920s Fred Ashworth, a plant breeder in Potsdam, NY, crossed the winter-hardy hazelnut with the substantially sized filbert and created: tada! The Hazelburt. This tree nut looks like skinny, 15-foot shrubbery, although if planted in the open, it can grow up into a gracious canopy. There’s a specimen at Elmore Roots that has so much height, girth, and foliage, it’s more like a tree-geyser. Gabriel Tempesta, a veteran employee of Elmore Roots whose vibrant paintings of cherries and plums are displayed throughout the nursery, pushed a limb out of the way during my visit and showed me real hazelburts, ripening in the lush seclusion of their grand tree. And then he pointed to his painting of a magnified hazelnut hanging over by the potted-up nut trees for sale. What a crazy beautiful sculptural package, this nut husk, so much more flamboyant than the circular nut at its heart. And crazier still: this tree, whether fountaining or hedging, begins from a tiny, tasty seed.
While Gabriel conceded that sometimes squirrels and chipmunks raid the harvest first, or weevils bore into the nuts, when the nuts are ready in September he pulls off the husk and opens the shell with a nut cracker, or the pruner he wears on his belt. When I asked David for a favorite hazelburt recipe, he showed me a bed where the young hazelburt stock are growing, their leaves flouncing like young lettuce. Staring at the source of their future sales, I realized what a dear snack they are.
Butternuts – Native to Vermont like the hazelnut, this is a medium-size tree, 40 to 80 feet, in the walnut/hickory family. The greeny egg-shaped nuts ripen and fall between late August and late September. According to Samuel Thayer’s wild edible primer, The Forager’s Harvest, if you wrench off the spongy hulls soon, and crack open the shell, the nut will taste vaguely of bananas and vanilla. If you leave the hulls on ‘til they become rank, black, ink-suppurating rinds, the nut—when you finally get to it—will taste more like a black walnut. After de-hulling the nut there is, of course, the cracking process. Thayer recommends a hammer, gloves, patience, and a nut pick.
The hulls of the butternut stain your hands, and the inner bark of the tree makes a dye. According to A Natural History of Trees (its subtitle should be Poetic Aspects of All Things Arboreal, for Donald Culross Peatie uses lovely flashes of language in his descriptions): “During the Civil War, the backwoods Confederate troops were sometimes dressed in homespun uniforms of butternut-dyed cloth, and they became known as ‘Butternuts.’” He concludes with a dramatic flourish, “So the very name of this tree has become a synonym for tattered glory.”
Black walnuts – Elmore Roots, being in the Northeast Kingdom, proves these nuts can survive brutal winters. The nursery’s mighty specimen is 25-years old, planted in 1985. Growing just outside the retail pagoda, it was severely sheared in a storm last summer, but despite its maimed limb, the tree is still majestic and handsome. David Fried crushed the leaves for me. Smell! They’re astringent and clean, with a tinge of citrus. He also showed me a bucket of black walnuts left over from last season. They are the size and shape of time-blackened baseballs. He tipped the bucket and let some scatter over the ground. Next he tilted his special harvesting tool, the nut wizard (it should be called the nut whisk, because it looks like a giant whisk), and scooted the whisk over the scattered nuts until they were captured, secure within the wire rungs. Then he pried the rungs apart and tipped the nuts back into the bucket, ready for the next demo.
Although the wood of the black walnut tree is highly prized and has historically been used for cradles and gunstocks, the nut itself is a source of livelihood for the Woodward family of Woodward’s Walnut World in Medina, NY. Over the phone, Mr. Woodward shared how he came to be the only commercial producer of black walnuts in the eastern United States. “I had a piece of land and I didn’t know what to do with it and I didn’t have a lot of time. Someone told me to plant black walnuts. So I did.” Back in 1981 he planted 81 trees. He now has 108 bearing trees (as well as 15 to 18 cats to keep the squirrel population in check). He uses mechanized equipment to harvest the nuts in mid-October. The tree shaker, powered by the PTO on a tractor, clamps onto the tree and shakes it, causing the stubborn nuts to plummet. Then he has a machine that gathers them up, an adaption of the Savage Pecan Harvester. But as for cracking the nut open, he uses the “Master Cracker,” devised by Gerald Gardner in Missouri, breaking the nutmeat out of the shells “one nut at a time.” What he doesn’t sell to customers who want to purchase the ready-to-eat kernels for $15/lb. plus shipping, he sells to Hammons Products in Missouri, one of the few commercial walnut crackers in the country.
III. And more nuts
Other hardy nuts of the North include the buartnut, which is a cross between a butternut and a heartnut; the blight resistant American chestnut; the Ashworth Bur Oak acorn, a nearly sweet acorn with almost no tannic acid from one of the hardiest oaks; hickory, the tortoise of trees, which grows so slowly the shagbark/shell bark variety typically does not produce nuts ‘til it’s in its eighth decade (its teen years relatively speaking, considering its life span is about 250 years); and finally the pine nut, a conifer native to the Southwest, but this variety, the Korean nut pine, is hardy enough to survive the Northeast’s climate.
As I write this, my table is set with the Elmore Roots 2010 catalogue, field and foraging guides, and a couple of cookbooks and health manuals. I have drawings showing where I want to put the hazelburt hedge, Xs where I want to tuck the black walnuts in, and check marks for the little section of pine nuts. In the process of researching this article I have become a mast fanatic, an odd aficionado—otherwise known as, here it comes: a nut.
Elmore Roots Nursery is the only certified organic grower of nut trees in Vermont. Contact them at elmoreroots.com or 802-888-3305.
Illustration: Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. Vol. 1: 579