I had never seen a walnut growing (on a tree) until I left the UK and travelled across Europe, where they grow profusely – and in better climatic conditions.

A walnut is the nut of any tree of the genus Juglans (Family Juglandaceae) and the two most common major species of walnuts grown for their seeds are the Persian (or English) walnut and the black walnut. The English walnut (J. regia) is a misnomer since it originated in Iran (Persia), and the black walnut (J. nigra) is native to eastern North America. The black walnut is of high flavor, but due to its hard shell and poor hulling characteristics it is not grown commercially for nut production. Many walnut cultivars have been developed and are nearly all hybrids of the Persian/English walnut.Wikipedia

Comparison of Black and ‘English’ walnut leaves.

The point of origin for the Persian walnut (J. regia) lies in central Asia, where the tree grows in a wild and now a semi-cultivated state. In pre-historic times, it spread to western China, the Caucasus, Persia, and west to Europe where walnuts were an important food gathered by early humans. The last glacial epoch greatly restricted the spread of Persian walnuts in western Europe, nevertheless, archaeologists have found walnut remains in southern France dating to 17,000 thousand years ago.

Cultivation of walnuts, as the oldest tree food known to man, can be dated back to when Neolithic peoples incorporated them in their agriculture 7,000 years ago, but they were not widely cultivated in the Mediterranean until ancient Greek and Roman times, when economic factors contributed to their dispersion throughout much of Europe. Walnuts were an item of trade and amphora filled with walnut residue have been salvaged in sunken Roman ships in the Mediterranean. It was the Romans who called walnuts Juglans regia (Juglans in Latin means ‘Jupiters royal acorn’ and acorns were a nut of longer familiarity for Romans).

Early history indicates that what became known as the ‘English’ walnut came from ancient Persia, where they were reserved for royalty. The Persian Walnut was traded along the Silk Road route between Asia and the Middle East by caravan and eventually through sea trade.

But it was The Crusaders who were instrumental in the introduction of the walnut into European cookery. Between bouts of butchery, they enjoyed Arab foods and recipes. Among those that they brought home was the practice of making pastes of ground almonds and walnuts to be used as a basis for fish and meat sauces. The walnut was not introduced from France to England till the 15th century and was never commercially grown in England because of climatic conditions. The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that the English name may be ‘derived from the the old term “welsh”, meaning “foreign”‘ (p.859) – I wonder what the Welsh would make of that. England may never have grown walnuts commercially, however, the English shipping lines did transport walnuts for trade to ports around the world and they eventually became known as ‘English Walnuts’. One of the earliest known English recipes incorporating walnuts is for a sauce, intended to be served with Stokfysshe:

“Take curnylles of walnotys, and clouys of garleke, and piper, brede, and salt, and caste al in a morter; and grynde it small, & temper it up with the same brothe that the fysshe was sode in, and serue it forth.”

In 2017, world production of walnuts (in shell) was 3.8 million tonnes, with China contributing 51% of the total (table). Other major producers (in the order of decreasing harvest) were the United States, Iran, and Turkey.

And here comes the health bit. Walnuts have always had a reputation as being good of you. Andrew Smith in his article ‘The Historical Virtues of the Walnut‘ says the following:

‘For more than two millennia, medical practitioners have known that the walnut has health-giving qualities; using contemporary theories, they surmised why this was so. But it would take twentieth-and twenty-first-century science to assess and analyze the nutritional assets and medicinal benefits of the walnut—and they are many, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber, and numerous vitamins and minerals….In addition to heart health, studies have shown walnut consumption to benefit people with diabetes and cancer, promote bone health, assist with weight management, improve cognitive performance, and counteract some effects of aging.’

Walnuts are high in soluble fiber and it is said (NDTV) they can help with problems related to digestion and constipation. Consuming them at night is said to ensure you don’t feel bloated or constipated the next day.

In Ray McVinnie’s article ‘Know your walnuts’ he talks about the shelled walnuts uncanny resemblance to the human brain and that the Afghani word for walnut is “charmarghz” which means four brains, a reference to the four lobes which make up the flesh of the walnut. Walnuts, also have a high percentage of omega-3 polyunsaturated linolenic acid which is said to be good for brain function. It has also been found that mice fed a walnut-supplemented diet had better memories, learning abilities, and motor coordination, and less anxiety than the walnut-deprived control mice —who, in comparison, were a forgetful, dim-witted, and stressed-out lot. So if you are a mouse – eat your walnuts!

Finally, before we get to the main business of the recipe, in English cookery, Ray McVinnie also says, immature, soft shelled walnuts are used pickled with vinegar, sugar and spices and served as accompaniments for cheese or cold meat. The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that sour tasting green walnuts are used for jams and chutneys and half-ripe walnuts are preserved in syrup in the Middle East.

Post image source: ThisNZlife

Weekly Recipe

Vegan Walnut Pate