Green Walnuts, Purple Plums


Photo by PlayMistyForMe/Wikimedia

Ari Weinzweig's post about finding fresh fruit in Serbia--that is, fresh-tasting fruit preserves from Serbia--reminded me that some of the best jams I've had have come from Serbia and Czechoslovakia. I always assumed that the relative lack of pollution and development made for acres of unspoiled fruit, but I'm no doubt trapped in post-Wall, early-90s romanticism. There might be some of that at play in Ari's new discovery, but the likely reason is, of course, the cold climate: think Swedish cloudberries, the thimbleberries and everything-berries the Northwest produces.

His endorsement of green walnuts is what caught my eye, though: last week, on a lightning trip to Napa (barely 36 hours), I kept running over walnut shells on the long, long drive to the house of the friends I was visiting. "I'm so sorry Darrell Corti isn't coming over," my friend Pam said, referring to the legendarily erudite expert on all things Italian and Spanish and buyer for his family's market in Sacramento. "We always make the most wonderful liqueur."

It was walnuts I brought back on my dawn flight home. I didn't find any at the very good, and big, farmer's market in St. Helena, or perhaps I was distracted by the one nut vendor, who was hawking a sample of a fruit-nut mix as I passed by: "The cranberries are from Massachusetts!" Not what I needed to bring back to Boston. The late-season raspberries and tiny Italian prune plums, perfumed and honey-sweet, wouldn't travel either.

So on a stop at Sunshine Market, the grocery store everyone frequents in St. Helena (people who live there, that is; there's a Dean & Deluca down Route 29, where you need to go for cheese), I asked a manager to point me to the freshest and best and most local nuts. He breezed me past the bulk section, passed the fancy packages, and pointed me to a humble, awkwardly shaped tall plastic tub of extremely generic-looking walnuts marked "Our Kitchen, San Mateo, CA." Walnuts and almonds, he said, were what to buy.

They weren't as good as the walnuts from a friend's tree Pam and Carl had in their kitchen, which we shelled at the end of the evening, or the sensational, slightly bitter almonds that their friend, the superb cook and writer Janet Fletcher, author of Fresh From the Farmer's Market and other good books to cook from, had roasted, lightly salted, and brought over to go with drinks; she'd found them in a dreaded bulk bin (usually failsafe way to find rancid nuts), but this at the famous Berkeley Bowl, and said that the variety was called Carmel, as opposed to the usual Nonpareil. We were all interested in and pleased by the hints of bitter almond, which her roasting--in a low oven, 300 F, for a long time, 45 minutes--brought out.

Really, though, who can resist roasted nuts? Not me, and my spouse apparently can't resist those fresh walnuts either: I note this morning that my spouse has gone through half the tub in three days. Not enough to make Judy Rodgers's salad of fennel, fresh walnuts, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and balsamic vinegar from the always-reliable Zuni Cafe Cookbook. Time to find a reliable mail-order source!

Zingermans will sell you the green walnuts in syrup Ari mentions, which I intend to try. And his post reminds me that it's time for my annual order of jams from my favorite purveyor, Katz and Co. Do go to their Website--but only after I've reserved my case, please.