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Black WalnutsBlack walnuts, still in their green hulls, ride a conveyor on their way to processing. The outer skin is removed before the nut is stored for up to three months for drying.
Missouri Supplies 70 Percent of the World's Black Walnuts
by Nina Furstenau
There's something of eternity in the cycle of walnuts.
Each fall, they rain down, pebbling the earth under black walnut trees throughout Missouri. The sound of the yellow-green balls hitting the earth makes a remarkably soft thump for such a hard husk. Maybe you’ve stooped to pick the harvest, stained your hands or gloves, and kept a few to sprinkle on oatmeal, ice cream, and salads or to cook into cookies, muffins, and breads. Maybe you or someone you know has even taken walnuts by pickup truck to walnut hulling and collection points throughout the state.
Since long before the first pioneers, the harvest of nut trees has been a part of the American diet. Wild black walnut trees have been cut for furniture, split-rail fences, railroad ties, and other rudimentary uses, but they also drop deeply ridged, rich-tasting nuts in a muffled reminder of a greater cycle dependent on something outside man. Look around. This is what our land produces naturally. In fact, nearly 70 percent of the average world harvest of twenty-five million pounds of black walnuts per year comes from the wild walnut trees in Missouri, according to the Walnut Council based in West Lafayette, Indiana.
Perhaps for this reason, the American black walnut, also known as the Eastern black walnut, was named the Missouri State Tree Nut in 1989 in part by the effort of a second grade class in Stockton.
Pickup trucks across the state laden with black walnuts head to one of about 125 collection points in Missouri beginning October 1, and thirteen dollars per hundred-weight is exchanged for the unique nut found only in our region of the world. The natural range of black walnut trees is broader than Missouri. It stretches east through western Pennsylvania and Virginia, south to eastern Texas, and north to southern Nebraska. Black walnut is even scattered in New York and southern Canada, according to the Walnut Council. But it is here in Missouri where most of the nuts are collected and processed.
The Hammons Products Co. at Stockton is the only commercial processor of black walnuts in the world. Spotless floors display machines with steel drums that crack the super-hard shell much more efficiently than, say, spreading the nuts on the ground and driving over them or smashing them with a hammer while ducking flying shards.
After the nuts have been cured, or dried, for a minimum of two weeks in silos or collection bags stacked out of direct sunlight, darker nutmeats are picked out by hand, and shell bits that eluded infrared lights and shake-out holes are decisively discarded. A full 45 percent of the volume of processed nuts is made into black walnut ice cream. Another 50 percent becomes packaged nuts for groceries. The remaining nuts are packaged into gourmet food items like black walnut caramels or fudge, walnut brittle, honey gems, and truffles marketed by the Hammons Pantry. The discarded shells are also marketed by Hammons—six grade sizes in all, from fine to coarse—for use in abrasive cleaners and polish or in the cosmetic and oil industries. There’s little waste in the nut business.
The average crop harvest is usually about twenty-five million pounds. But the late freeze in the spring of 2007 in the Midwest nearly wiped out acorn production, therefore squirrels—the main competitor for the nuts, grabbing them out of trees before they fall where we can nab them—were predicted to be more aggressive and reduce human harvest to between ten and twelve million pounds. Even with the average yield, which is six to seven pounds of kernel yield per one hundred pounds of in-shell nuts, that’s still a lot of nutmeat.
When the nut is finally pried loose from its casings, the meat itself is bold, a bit dry on the tongue, and distinctive. Black walnuts can make your holiday stuffing more fragrant or be chopped finely as a crunchy coating for chicken or pork. Added to a salad with chicken, apples, and bacon? Oh yes, black walnuts are not just for dessert anymore. Other varieties of walnut are milder and make better snacking. The softer English walnut, for instance, is more well-known and cracks into beautiful halves. The butternut, a blonde cousin of black walnut, is a bit smoother than the Missouri black. The smaller, crunchier, and almost smoky-flavored black walnut has a boldness that complements and intensifies the flavor of a full-bodied dish.
Not surprisingly, since Stockton is the black walnut capital of the world, Stockton also has a first-rate restaurant that incorporates the nut’s flavor into its fare with flair.
Aubrey Foster, owner and chef of Bongo’s Bistro at Stockton and its new location in Silo Ridge Country Club at Bolivar, praises the one-of-a-kind flavor of black walnuts. “We all know black walnuts add distinctive flavor to desserts,” Aubrey says. As visions of rich, nutty oatmeal cookies and coffeecake flash through the mind, he adds, “You don’t need me for that. I’d like to see the black walnut expand into other foods.”
Aubrey, whose restaurant at Stockton opened in 1999, serves up several choices. “I think it complements fish well, especially strongflavored fish like trout, and I like it on tuna and salmon.” He mentions walnut-encrusted salmon and black walnut and sausage stuffing.
Aubrey came to cooking and business later in life. He began with a degree in drafting but was always attracted to cooking and wine. At twenty, in New York, he saw Hungarian women in fields picking grapes, which perhaps sparked a lifelong interest in fine wines. At thirty, he began an old-world-style apprenticeship in Florida. For four years, he learned the art of fine Italian cooking and presentation and used it to run several restaurants there. In 1999, Aubrey came back to his home state of Missouri with the thought of opening a new-world hamburger joint. “I couldn’t do it,” he says, and Bongo’s Bistro was born, combining a curious and inviting mix of a casual hangout and a sophisticated restaurant.
There’s a relaxed feel to the restaurant at Stockton, which seats about thirty-five in one half and another twenty or so on the side, where Aubrey sells more than two hundred varieties of wines and a worldwide selection of beers. By 6 pm on a Friday evening, the parking lot already accommodates a Subaru with two kayaks strapped to its top, a Lexus, two motorcycles, and a Honda. The building is tan stucco with jaunty awnings. Inside, cherubs and monkeys grace the walls and menu. The waitresses are friendly and efficient, and several entrОes are nutty. With the opening of the new Bongo’s at Bolivar, Chef David Vignoe now leads the Stockton location.
Chef David explains that his special dressing for the Bistro Salad incorporates honey, pumpkin spice, cream, and nuts. He mentions several seasonings in the bread for dipping into olive oil, Parmesan, and herbs and that his pizza crust is made from scratch. The salad flavors of grilled chicken, black walnuts, apples, and bacon sit well on the tongue. His Linguini with Black Walnuts in Clam Sauce is rich and satisfying; the nuts deepen the flavor and make the dish sumptuous. Plus, it is a beauty on the plate—the nuts almost meaty atop the fettuccine and clamshells as a garnish. Moscato d’Asti, an Italian wine from Umberto Fiore, complements the rich flavor of the black walnuts and pasta. A light Chablis, Aubrey says, is also a good choice.
Another stop at Stockton is the Hammons Black Walnut Emporium on the downtown square. Manager Diane Steele brings in an array of interesting foodstuffs to her bright, inviting space: black walnut syrup, fudge, and ice cream; coffees and chocolates from around the world; and gift items, such as art prints, funnel cake kits, books, candles, and cards. Her bakery stocks blueberry black walnut muffins, cheesecakes, black walnut cookies, and more. The ice cream offerings include peachy black walnut, regular black walnut, and a caramelized black walnut, made especially for the Emporium.
The Emporium will host an open house from November 16 to 18, which will feature free samples of holiday black walnuts. Then during Stockton’s Living Christmas on December 3, black walnuts will be roasted out front. The festival features a band, carolers, Victoriancostumed shopkeepers, and burning barrels for hand-warming.
After indulging in black walnut treats and the festivities, a rest may be in order. Just outside of town, Stockton Lake’s wind-whipped waves are beautiful any time of year. You may still see some boats bobbing in their slips, and the 25,000-acre lake also boasts fishing and more than 300 miles of undeveloped shoreline. The lake makes the list of best lakes for sailing in the United States (see King of the Road “The Wind in Your Sail,” June 2007). Orleans Trail Resort and Marina just off Highway 39 and RB Road, offers lodging, guide services, a marina, a pool, camping sites, and a restaurant. While lake views from the rooms are limited, the grounds are beautiful and near the water.
No matter if you are contemplating the cycle of walnuts at Stockton Lake, indulging in their rich flavor in your Bongo’s dinner entrОe, or nipping over to the Emporium for roasted black walnut ice cream, the walnut is a good Missouri food to explore. Stockton showcases it well— from tree to table.
Black walnuts contain omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid, which has been linked to lowering cholesterol, regulating heartbeat, and reducing inflammation, the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry says in its publication, Why Black Walnuts. The nuts are sugar and cholesterol free, a good source of vitamin E, contain iron, and are high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats—the “good” fats, which can lower bad cholesterol levels (LDL) without lowering good cholesterol (HDL). They are also high in fiber, yielding eight grams of protein per quarter cup.