Midwest Modern Moments- Black Walnuts
Updated: Sep 9, 2020
I'm not sure if most folks know that the walnuts you get at the store or the ones in those token nut bowls at Christmas are English Walnuts. I never really thought too much about it. Walnut trees are everywhere here so I just thought everyone knew that the store nuts don't come from the trees here.
The trees around here aren't English walnuts, they're black walnuts. Growing up in mid-Michigan, I've never had a yard without a black walnut tree. And much to my surprise, black walnuts are not everywhere. (What is up with those little islands of black walnuts?? Squirrels be like "let's fuck with the humans' tree mapping")
If you want to hear me talk about black walnuts while a drink a liqueur made from black walnuts and hear a story about what my ex-mother in law thought black walnuts were, check out the video. Feel free to give it a thumbs up if black walnuts are a nuisance nut to you or if black walnut liqueur sounds good :) Cheers!
So apparently I lucked out an just caught the zone of black maples in the US. As a kid this did not seem lucky; all I remember about them is picking them up when they fell down. Many, many 5 gallon buckets of stinky, rotty looking black walnuts picked up every season.
When you see them next to each other, you can clearly see why they are called black walnuts.
Black walnuts are a pretty unique thing. They belong to a species that secrete a chemical known as a jugalone [not to be confused with Juggalos (Insane Clown Posse Fans)or the wonderful world of Jungalow(botanical style created by Justina Blakeney)] from their roots that is toxic to many other plant species. They basically have their own brand of "weed" killer to allow themselves access to the most nutrients in the soil.
Black walnuts themselves are pretty unique too. At all stages, they smell rancid and once they fall, you should wear gloves to pick them up because they release a substance that is crazy staining.
Black walnuts are also difficult to husk and shell. If you've had the patience to remove the outer husk, then you have to smash the shells with a hammer. It's not easy at all. And the taste is hard to describe. There's a special "funk" to them, probably somewhat of an acquired taste. My aunt used to add them to chocolate chip cookies so I have a nostalgic affinity for them. But I'm pretty sure this was a "well, they're here, we might as well try to eat them" type sentiment from Native Americans and early settlers.
I admit I do not have the patience to harvest these rascals. But I'm glad some people do. The only easy part about them is that you just wait until they fall from the tree to harvest. That's it. They just drop on the ground waiting for some poor kid to have to pick them up. But the rest is all work. Apparently, you can make black walnut ink, which sounds pretty cool. But the best thing to come out of black walnuts is Nocino. A liquer made with young black walnuts when they are in the green phase.
It's soooo good. I don't really know how best to describe it. To me, it's nutty, vanilla-y, coffee-y, and slightly chocolate-y. My favorite way to have it is dessert style- Nocino + half and half. I've also used it in a White Russian in place of the Kahlua. I've also blended it with mascarpone and sugar and dusted it with cocoa which makes a tiramisu-esque treat:
The most common drink I've seen with it is a Nocino Manhattan. Totally not my thing but here you can see how delicious a regular ol' Nocino + half and half is. Who would've thought stinky green nuts could be so delicious?
You can google how to make your own Nocino, but most well stocked liquor stores carry it, at least around here. I think you're supposed to harvest the green ones in June to make Nocino but there's still time to harvest the ones that start to fall in September if you're into ink making or cracking tough nuts.