Walnut-growers work to preserve flavor

Walnut-growers work to preserve flavor

Walk into Jeff Anderson's world of walnuts, and time seems to rewind about 100 years.

Antique racks of wood and wire mesh hold pounds and pounds of the sturdy-shelled nuts. Basking in the smoky heat of a blackened woodstove, the walnuts dry for storage. Then Anderson, ball-peen hammer in hand, cracks each nut atop an old pile of bricks. One by one, by one.

"This is about as low-tech as you can get," Anderson says.

The Applegate Valley farmer explains that he has a shelling machine, but because the walnuts vary so much in size, the machine may only shell about half its load.

"This is 100 percent, provided you don't hit your thumb," Anderson says of his trusty hammer.

Century-old methods don't seem so out of place on a farm where the trees have stood almost as long. Anderson figures the Franquettes, a variety of English walnut, were planted in 1915 when the Highway 238 property was a dairy.

"This was just a benefit of the homestead," Anderson says. "I think there was an unwritten rule that you plant apples, and you plant walnuts."

When Anderson's parents bought the farm in 1972 to grow asparagus, they too, made good use of the walnuts, gathering and bundling them into 50-pound sacks for sale in Seattle.

"We'd be going up in the van, and we'd be sitting on sacks of walnuts," Anderson, 49, recalls.

Anderson now keeps most of the walnuts closer to home, selling them several times weekly at growers markets in Ashland, Medford and Grants Pass.

But first he whacks each one with a hammer and meticulously shells it by hand, checking to make sure the papery skin dividing the two nut halves cleanly snaps under his fingers.

Completely dry, the walnuts stay fresh three times longer than if a little moisture is allowed to remain, he says. Customers, he says, seem to prefer shelled walnuts, which he sells for $6 per pound.

What Anderson doesn't sell by the time growers markets close in mid-November, he'll put in the freezer to store until spring markets when he also sells asparagus.

"We never have too many."

Locally grown walnuts also are available in the shell at Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market. Monica Rey, of Gold Hill, sells hers for $1.25 per pound. But her methods, she says, aren't anything that can't be applied to walnut trees in residential neighborhoods.

"A store-bought walnut is not going to taste like one off the tree," she says.

Most important is allowing nuts to dry for about a week, Rey says. Picked directly off the ground and stored, walnuts will mold. For long-term storage, place walnuts in paper bags or cardboard boxes in a cool room. If kept too warm, the nuts will turn rancid, Rey says.

Anderson says he doesn't expose his walnut crop to temperatures any higher than 115 degrees. Nuts purchased in stores often betray blackened spots, a telltale sign, he says, that the drying process was too hot. However, toasting shelled walnuts in the oven or a dry skillet brings out their rich, earthy flavor.

It's a taste Anderson hasn't tired of in decades of harvesting, curing and consuming walnuts. Convinced of the nut's healthful properties, he makes a point of eating at least one every day, usually with a morning cup of coffee.

"That's the first thing I do."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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