Cracking on with the walnut harvest in Suffolk

The Gentle Author
Walnuts (Juglans regia) - http://www.gapphotos.com

The Romans introduced walnut trees into this country and they have been cultivated here ever since, but you would have to go a long way these days to find anyone farming walnuts. I travelled to the tiny village of West Row in East Anglia – where walnuts have been grown as long as anyone can remember – to meet Dennis and Christine Reeve, the last walnut farmers in that neck of the woods.

Dennis’ grandfather, Frank, planted the trees a century ago; they passed into the care of his father, Cecil, who supplemented the grove of around 30, which today are managed by Dennis and his wife Christine – who originates from the next village and married into the walnut dynasty.

Christine and Dennis Reeve Credit: Sarah Ainslie

Dennis has planted only one walnut tree himself, to commemorate the 100th birthday of his mother, Maggie Reeve, who subsequently lived to 105, offering a shining example of the benefits to longevity that may be obtained by eating copious amounts of walnuts. 

I was curious to understand the job of a walnut farmer beyond planting the trees and Dennis was candid in his admission that it was a two-months-a-year occupation. “You just wait until they fall off the trees and then go out and pick ’em up,” he says. 

Perhaps no one alive possesses greater eloquence upon the subject of walnuts than Dennis Reeve. He loves walnuts – as a delicacy, as a source of income and as a phenomenon – and he can tell you which of his trees a walnut came from by its taste alone. 

“We have 15 double walnuts and 16 single walnuts,” he explains. “I prefer the single walnuts because they taste sweeter.” 

Unfortunately, Dennis has a bushy-tailed competitor who shares his love of walnuts. “We had a lot of problems with squirrels this year, I had to trap them and take them elsewhere and release them,” he confides. “Though I think they just come back again, but if I didn’t trap ’em I doubt if we’d have any walnuts left.” 

A blue tit enjoys an unripe walnut Credit: Patrick Glaume/Biosphoto

Even after all these years, Dennis cannot explain why some trees give double walnuts when others give none, or why particular trees might be loaded one season and not the next. 

“There’s one tree that’s smaller than the rest yet always produces a lot of nuts, while there’s nothing on the trees around it,” he says, brow furrowed. 

Yet these enigmas make the nut compelling. The possibility of “a sharp frost at the wrong time of the year” is the enemy of the walnut, but Dennis has an answer to this. 

“They say ‘keep your grass long in the orchard and the frost won’t affect them,’” he says, raising a sly finger to his nose. I ask Dennis if he has any advice to share with gardeners on the cultivation of walnut trees. “You just put ’em in and let nature take its course,” he says.

“Walnuts are the last tree to come into leaf in the orchard, in May time, and you start to harvest them at the end of the September right through to November. Walnuts are sold by weight and the longer you leave them, the more they dry out. 

“I used to climb into the tree with a bamboo pole about 20ft long and I thrashed them. We call it ‘brushing.’ Nowadays, I am a bit long in the tooth to get up into the trees, so I have to wait until the walnuts drop and I walk round every day from the end of September picking them up.  

“They get dirty when they fall on the ground so I put them in my old tin bath and clean them up with water and a broom, then I put them on a wire mesh run to dry.” 

Dennis with tools of the walnut trade Credit: Sarah Ainslie

You would be mistaken if you assumed the life of a walnut farmer was one of rural obscurity; celebrity has intruded into Dennis and Christine’s existence with requests to supply produce to the great and the good. 

“One year in the Seventies, my father had a call in summer from a salesman in London saying they needed about 8lb of walnuts urgently,” Dennis recalls. “‘I don’t care how you get them here, but we’ve got to have them,’ they said.  “They were for Buckingham Palace, but the walnuts on the tree were still green with the green husk around them. We told them, ‘They’re not ready yet and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, we’ve got to have them.’ 

“Now we kept pigs at the time and there was a muck dump where we put all the waste, so we put the walnuts in the muck dump for them to heat, just like in a cooker. After about two days the husks started to crack, and that’s how we ripened the nuts for the Queen, in our muck dump.’” 

Walnut pickling at Opies, Kent Credit: Julian Andrews

Christine recounts a similar story about how their walnuts went to Westminster. “There was a dinner in the Houses of Parliament to celebrate British produce and our walnuts were served,” she explains, “and they sent us the printed menu which listed the provenance of all the ingredients, including ‘walnuts from Norfolk,’ which was a bit of a let down – because we are in Suffolk here.”

I did not feel Christine was unduly troubled by this careless error.

Both stories served to confirm the delight that she and Dennis share – of living at the centre of their own world secluded from urban madness, in a house they built on land bought by Dennis’s grandfather and surrounded by their beloved walnut trees. 

Too few are aware of the special qualities of English walnuts, especially the distinctive flavour of wet walnuts early in the season when they possess an appealing sharpness that complements cheese well.  “Sometimes people want them earlier, before they are ripe, if they are going to pickle them,” Dennis tells me. “If you can stick a match right through from one side to the other, that is the ideal time to pickle walnuts.” 

Over the years, those who know about walnuts have sought out Dennis and Christine for their produce. “We have a regular customer in Kent who found our nuts in Harrods,” Christine tells me, “she rang us and now we send her our wet walnuts every year. She peels them and eats them with a glass of sherry and that’s the highlight of her Christmas.”

  • Dennis and Christine Reeve supply walnuts to the River Cafe and Sally Clarke’s Restaurant via Covent Garden Market. 
  • The Gentle Author blogs at spitalfieldslife.com

 

FASCINATING FACTS ABOUT WALNUTS

  • The English walnut tree (Juglans regia) is a member of the Juglandaceae family of trees and shrubs. 
  • Walnut is a deciduous broadleaved tree native to south-east Europe and south-west China. It’s not to be confused with the black walnut timber tree (Juglans nigra), a member of the same family, but native to eastern North America. It was introduced to Europe in 1629. 
Fresh walnuts still in green outer husks Credit: 5PH /iStockphoto
  • According to a study by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations in 2014, worldwide production of walnuts (in shell) was 3.46 million tons, with China producing 46 per cent of the world total.
  • The United States is the world’s largest exporter of walnuts (the Central Valley of California produces around 99 per cent) – so the walnuts you buy at the supermarket are likely to be from California. Despite this, eastern European countries were actually shown to have the highest yield per hectare.
  • The old saying, nothing grows under a walnut tree, is based in truth. According to Val Bourne, The Telegraph gardening expert, walnut trees produce a chemical that deters plant competition, a process known as allelopathy. If you have a walnut tree, pick up the leaves in autumn and compost  them well.
  • Walnuts are known for a number of nutritional benefits. According to nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert: “Walnuts are great ‘brain food’ as studies show that walnuts promote cognitive function thanks to the fact that they contain omega 3 fatty acids, which increase the activity in the brain. Omega 3 is also important for healthy heart function. Walnuts provide a variety of minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, iron and magnesium.”
  • Gardeners can buy walnut trees from The Walnut Tree Company, which stocks a number of popular varieties including ‘Broadview’ and ‘Buccaneer’ (the UK’s most widely grown).  
  • ‘Broadview’ is a self-fertile all-rounder that fruits within three to four years. ‘Buccaneer’ has a more upright habit than most, and so is ideal for avenue plantings. The round nuts are well-suited to pickling. ‘Lara’ is also recommended for its high productivity, and ‘Red Danube’ bears a very attractive red walnut. 
  • British-grown walnuts for eating are hard to come by, but you can buy them at Covent Garden Market or by mail order from The Walnut Tree Company, or from Potash Farm in the village of St Mary’s Platt, West Kent.