“I’m going to show you the real way to crack a walnut,” said Susan Hassett.
She should know, she’s been growing certified organic walnuts on her farm, Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, for about 20 years in Winters, Calif.
“You don’t use a nutcracker,” she said, as rule number one. Nutcrackers make fishing out the meat from the shell a pain in the neck.
She took out a small, lightweight ball pein hammer, held a walnut against a hard surface, and struck it. In one quick motion, she removed the shell as if she were opening a tiny book and popped the entire nut out, whole, like a brown little brain.
We were at Hassett’s farm to pick walnuts from two of her Franquette walnut trees—each one more than 140 years old.
The last English walnut to leaf out, the Franquette is a French variety that’s been grafted to a California black walnut tree, explained Hassett over the sound of her Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dawn, happily cracking walnuts between her teeth.
The Franquette is also less vulnerable to frost and one of the few varieties you can harvest at this time of year.
In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that I’d like to pick walnuts on my birthday, I had no idea the task I’d set before him.
The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial walnuts, and California is the world’s largest exporter (though China produces more.) So I assumed that finding a farm where we could pick them wouldn’t be difficult here.
But Grant soon discovered that most local walnut farms are larger commercial productions, which do mechanical harvesting and don’t offer u-pick to the public. Of those who do welcome the public to pick their own walnuts—mostly Hartley and Chandler varieties— they had just wrapped up their harvest by the time Grant called to set up a visit in early November.
So he was relieved to hear that Buzzard’s Roost Ranch was not only in the prime of their certified organic walnut harvest, but they’d appreciate our help—free labor for them, a great day on the farm for us.
Before the Hartley walnut—a cross between a Franquette and Mayette walnut—came on the scene in 1925, Franquettes were the darling of the commercial walnut world. But now, Hartleys, and the locally developed Chandler varieties, are most likely what you see at the grocery store.
The Franquette is a darker, more savory walnut than the slightly sweeter Chandler and Hartley varieties. Hassett says it’s also an ideal walnut to grow organically because the hard, tightly sealed shell makes it impervious to most pests. But, like white flour, white bread, and white meat, Americans tend to like lighter walnuts in the marketplace. The Franquette’s yields can also be smaller than those desired by high production farms.
Walnuts in general have been touted for an array of nutritional benefits, from limiting the ability of “bad” fats to harm the arteries to increased sperm production.
“Walnuts are a completely underrated nut,” said Hassett.
According to the California Walnut Commission, walnuts have the highest total level of antioxidants, more so than almonds, peanuts or hazelnuts, and are one of the few plant-based foods rich in healthy, omega-3 fatty acids .
Admittedly, I wasn’t thinking much about my health the day we went. I just wanted to spend a beautiful fall day in the country, reliving some good walnut-picking memories and hopefully creating some more for me and the family—Grant, Lily, my mom, brother-in-law Eric and his friend, Anya.
Before Hassett showed us how to crack walnuts, she demonstrated how to get them off the tree: With a hefty “walnut rake”—any large, hardy stick will do – you “knock” a branch, take cover, and wait for the wholly satisfying sound of walnuts raining onto the ground.
Then rake them into a pile, pick them up and toss them in a bucket. Simple enough.
I tend to think nearly any u-pick experience is good for kids, but there are some that have not always been ideal—fruit too high for Lily to reach, berries too deep in prickly brambles to pluck. But picking freshly fallen walnuts is one task perfectly suited to a 2-year-old. She even got in on the knocking action.
On the kid-friendly front, I should mention that Hassett fertilizes around the walnut trees with horse manure. So don’t be surprised if you reach for a walnut on the ground and find it sitting right next to some horse poop. The way I figure it, that’s why we wash our hands (and our walnuts), and it sure beats chemical fertilizers. But some may find it off-putting.
A couple of hours later, we hauled about 40 pounds of certified organic walnuts to Hassett’s back porch to be weighed and split among us. Hassett only charges $2/pound—several dollars cheaper than what I find at the store—but still… 40 pounds!
What on Earth will we do with 40 pounds of walnuts? Well, we have a big Thanksgiving family reunion coming up, and many of them will be transported there—along with a small hammer—for candied walnuts, pumpkin bread, oatmeal, baked sweet potatoes, salads and general mindless nut-cracking while talking turkey. Then, of course, there are freezer bags, and Hassett said walnuts freeze very well, which I’m counting on. At least we’ll know how to crack them.
IN A NUTSHELL
Farm: Buzzards Roost Ranch, 8290A Pleasants Valley Road, Winters, Calif.
U-Pick: walnuts and olives, by appointment only
Other offerings: horse and carriage rides; venue for weddings, special occasions; equine programs, horse boarding
Side trip: You’ll pass Lake Solano Park on your way in; consider stopping for a picnic.
Contact: (530) 795-4084, firstname.lastname@example.org, website