Those of you following this blog know that we were out of our house for just over a year. We moved back in toward the end of October. I made a most remarkable discovery at the house we were renting shortly before we moved out – a timber sized Chestnut tree was growing in the back yard. Now the plight of the American Chestnut is a sad one. It went from the dominant tree species in the eastern US to a memory over the course of the first half of the last century. A fungal blight imported from the Far East laid waste to millions of trees. There are programs attempting to breed blight resistant trees, but they are works in progress. Hybrids of Chinese and American species exist, and that appeared to be what we had. Still, the sight of chestnut burrs and nuts on the ground under my feet was astonding. I gathered all the nuts I could and have tried to get them to germinate over the pat several months. Of the four dozen or so I started with, two are starting to put out a shoot. I’m still hopeful about the others, but they are terribly prone to mildew due to the high carbohydrate content of the nut kernel. Two is better then none, and I nurse them daily.
All of that is given as a prelude to say that I have started paying closer attention to my natural surroundings. After finding the chestnut tree, I found three apple trees growing in my part of town and one pear tree that must be over 100 feet tall. I also finally took notice of a large grove of black walnut trees on the main east-west road through our area. There grow like weeds on the roadside and were covered with green nuts last fall. I picked up several grocery bags worth and set about harvesting the meat from inside. This is no small task because the husk stains your hands and the shells are like concrete. I spent half a day shelling to get about 1/3 of a cup of meat. Not a productive way to spend my time. A little searching turned up a company in Missouri that processes black walnuts and sells the nuts commercially. Sure enough, the Ingles down the street had one pound bags for about $12. Not as fresh as home picked, but a quick analysis of my time vs. the cost lead me to pick up a bag.
Once I had the bag, I needed to figure out what to do with it all. I contemplated a walnut cake where the nuts are ground into a powder (like marzapan does with almonds) and then mixed with chocolate and others ingredients. An easier use is to simply stir them into some brownie mix. You get a bourbon-like flavor that is unusual but nice. Hey wait a minute, did I say bourbon? Yep, I decided to infuse. Half the walnuts got lightly toasted in the oven (250 degrees I think) then added back to the rest. These went into a glass jar that was then filled with 100 proof vodka. That was in October. I stuck it into the cellar and kind of forgot about it.
I recently went to work on an allspice-rum extraction. That got me thinking back to the walnuts. The jar was brought out of hibernation, and strained. I strained the nuts through a coffee filter held in a new, simple coffee maker I recently picked up. Worked like a charm. The filter clogged but it didn’t seem to clog as easily as my old method.
Starting with 750 ml of vodka, I ended up with about 500 ml of black walnut extract. It was pretty harsh stuff. The aroma really captured the walnuts but there was a burn to the palate. It needed some sweetener. I consider using a sugar syrup then remembered some Shag Bark Hickory syrup I had picked up last month. It is made like maple syrup but from hickory tree sap. The flavor is similar, but a little sweeter. Progressive additions lead to a final combination of 70 ml hickory syrup to 500 ml Black Walnut vodka. I’ll let it sit and “marry” for a few weeks before trying it again. It’s a bit too strongly flavored to drink straight, but I’m thinking it will work as a flavoring agent in a rye or bourbon cocktail.
Extra notes: It took about two weeks for the staining to wear off of my fingers. For a couple of days there, it looked like I had gangrene. Better to wear gloves next time. Also, as I was typing this up, I saw that Hammonds (the Black Walnut processor) has a black walnut extract available now. One or two drops of that in a drink might very well take the place of this concoction.