It's been a windy old week here in the south and for several nights, now, I've been woken by the pleasant sound of protein dropping onto the tin roof of our house. Thanks to the possum culling team working in our area this last year, our walnut tree has a bumper crop and is now happily delivering its fruit to the ground (or the roof!). I don't remember when we planted our walnut tree, but it's likely to have been a good 25 years ago. Nor can I tell you what variety it is though it's a good guess that it was one of the least costly (back then, we were poverty-stricken peasants rather than "peasants by choice"). Not that one need wait 25 years for a harvest of walnuts, of course, as there are several grafted varieties of tree that bear fruit after 3-5 years. Wilson's Wonder is one of the most popular, producing large fruit that are ready to eat when they fall.
Walnuts on our own tree are moist and without flavour until they've spent a few weeks drying inside their shell. We collect them as soon as they hit the ground. The green protective layer around the nuts has already split open so it's an easy job to pop the walnut out. We collect the nuts as soon as possible after they've fallen to prevent rodent attack and to limit mildew or rot setting in. Any nuts with a decaying outer layer are thoroughly rinsed and then placed, with the others, on the deck to dry in the sun. It would be nice to think this could happen over a period of weeks but rain is all too common in the The Catlins so the nuts are inevitably brought inside and placed in a string bag where they hang at the back of the fireplace to dry out further. Being a gardener, I covet the fibrous green protective layer almost as much as the nuts as it makes the most wonderful addition to the compost.
If you're contemplating growing a walnut (or two, actually, as pollination can be a problem if you are working with just one variety of tree) I won't go into details as there is a load of information, clearly explained, at http://www.treecrops.org.nz/crops/nut/walnut-crop-guide/ and the advice is specifically tailored to NZ requirements. I will say, however, that I've learned more about walnuts from my regular trips to Greece than through any other source. On the mountain village above the little town I always stay in, giant walnut trees (probably the traditional European variety) dot the hillsides. These enormous trees grow on a very sunny, south-facing (we're talking northern hemisphere here) hillside. The ground is fertile but well drained, the winters severe, the summers intensely hot, and frosts come neither too early in spring or too late in autumn. Which about sums up what walnuts require if they are to thrive. Having said that, you couldn't find a region more opposite in climatic conditions from The Catlins, so press on regardless!
But climate aside, there's something else that I've leaned through my observation of walnut-growing in Greece. Walking about the mountain village of Kosma (the name means "The world") in late autumn, you will inevitably find women sitting in groups in the last of the season's sun, huge tubs of nuts spread out before them as they go about the endless task of shelling. Far from being an arduous mind-numbing chore, it is a time of companionship, a chance to chat with friends, joke with children, and exchange news as well as recipes. A reminder that the season of growth has come to an end, shelling walnuts is nature's way of slowing one down in preparation for the long, lazy months of winter when all that is required of us is a book or two, some simple craft to pass the time, and a stack of well-dried wood to warm the hearth. And who needs more encouragement than that to plant a walnut tree this winter!