There may be a few foods that are more English than pickled walnuts, but with the possible exception of fish and chips, I can’t think of one. Chances are, however, you’ve never heard of them. I hadn’t, until several years ago when I ordered the meat-and-cheese plate at a local Irish place called deVere’s.
On this place was a black disk. I asked the waitress what on earth it was, and she smiled; she’d had this question before: “It’s a pickled walnut. It’s good with the cheddar.”
I followed her advice and stabbed the disk with my fork, adding a bit of cheddar cheese and a bit of cold roast beef to round things out. Wow. It was a bit like eating solid steak sauce, with a little floral aroma and a zephyr of bitterness that just barely let you notice it.
I ate another disk all by itself: Fairly soft, puckery and strangely floral. And yes, there was definitely a Worcestershire-Heinz 57-A1-thing going on here. How had I never had these before?
Turns out that very, very few people outside of Britain eat them. This should change, which is why I am presenting you with this recipe. And the reason I am posting this now is because you need to get out and get your walnuts now. That’s right, you need green, unripe walnuts to make pickles. And yes, you use the whole thing, hull and all.
I got mine a few weeks ago, after an unsuccessful fishing trip with my friend Joe. We were in the Delta and as we were driving out, I noticed a NorCal black walnut (Juglans hindsii) absolutely laden down with nuts. “Pull over!” Joe, used to this by now, did. I gathered about 150 nuts in less than 15 minutes. It was a bonanza.
I knew I was in business right when I got to the tree, but just to be sure I pulled out my pocketknife and sliced an unripe nut in half. You need to do this, either with a knife or a stout needle or a long nail, because you have to catch the unripe walnuts before the shell forms. Once that shell forms inside the walnut’s hull, you’re too late.
And, sadly, I think you might be too late here in NorCal to do this this year. But it’s worth a go in colder climates; the traditional harvest date in England is late June.
Once you have your pickled walnuts, what do you do with them? Look to the English. Traditionally they are part of a ploughman’s lunch, with other pickles, cheese and cold meats. But I see them a lot tossed into beef or lamb stews (pot pies and pasties, too!) in wintertime, and in summertime I’ve seen them served in cool salads alongside tomatoes, and accompanying shellfish such as scallops or shrimp.
Any walnuts will work with this recipe, from tiny native Arizona walnuts to big, fat English walnuts, which are the kind you buy in stores. But you do need them hull and all, so this only works if you have a tree nearby.
The process for pickling walnuts is not hard at all, but it takes more than a week. You need to brine the green walnuts for a good long time before they will be ready to pickle properly. The brine time helps with preservation and removes some of the bitterness in the unripe walnuts. Once brine pickled, they are pretty durable. Do you need to sun-blacken the walnuts? No, but doing so gives you a nice, uniform look to them. Otherwise they will be olive green in some places, blotchy black in others.
The pickling liquid in my recipe is very traditional; you’ll see variations on it throughout England. I’ve also made a Chinese-inspired version with Sichuan peppercorns and star anise replacing the allspice.
Makes about 3 to 4 quarts.
Prep Time: 8 days, fermenting time
Cook Time: n/a
- About 50 to 60 green, unripe walnuts
- 1/2 cup kosher salt
- 1/2 gallon water
- 2 quarts cider or malt vinegar
- 1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
- 1 tablespoon cracked allspice berries
- 10 cloves
- 1 ounce ginger, smashed (about 1 1/2-inch pieces)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- Dissolve the salt in the water to make a brine. Put on some rubber gloves if you have them, because walnut juice will stain your hands for weeks — and it won’t come off. Trust me on this one. Properly gloved, stab each walnut with a fork in several places; this helps the brine penetrate. Submerge the walnuts in the brine and let them ferment for 8 days at room temperature.
- Remove the walnuts and put them on a baking sheet and leave them outside in the sun for a day, until they turn uniformly black. You can do this step without gloves if you want.
- Pack the walnuts into quart jars. Bring the remaining ingredients to a boil and pour over the walnuts. Leave very little headspace in the jars. Seal and keep in a cool place, either the fridge or a basement — you just want them to rest below 70°F — for at least a month before you eat them. Kept this way they will last a year.