Preserved Walnuts


In preparation for our upcoming wedding, my fiancée, Kelly, and I visited a wonderful cheese shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan this weekend, hoping to explore different cheese options for our reception. The tiny shop was packed with wide-eyed shoppers, and the busy shopkeepers raced back and forth between the cooler and counter with armfuls of carefully double-wrapped cheeses. Samples were generously supplied.

As we savored a delightfully salty aged Gouda from the Netherlands, a creamy Irish white cheddar made with morning milk, and one of my favorites — a smooth and buttery Manchego from Spain, I overheard one patron after another succumb to the will of the expert cheesemongers. “Oooo, I’ll take a pound of that too, please.”

This little store was stocked with everything one could possibly need for the finest cours de fromage.  To customers’ backs was an entire wall of chutneys, crackers, preserves, and dried fruits. It was on this wall that I made a wonderful discovery: preserved young walnuts produced by Harvest Song.

I called Kelly over. I was eager to explain how I have for some time now wanted to preserve my own young walnuts according to the old recipes from Hannah Glasse and John Farley. Before she could make her way against the lines of people, two samples awaited our approval at the counter.

Walnuts, in the 18th century, were often pickled with vinegar, preserved in sugar syrup, or processed into walnut catsup. Generally, young walnuts were used before their shells had the chance to harden. Recipes instruct that the nuts are to be harvested while a pin can still be pushed through them. Most of, if not all of the walnut was preserved — meat, shell, and husk alike, depending on whether they were to be preserved white, black, or green.

These recipes have always captured my curiosity, but in the busyness of modern life, it seems I have routinely either missed the harvest window, or have lacked the week and a half to dedicate to the process. So I was thrilled to find these preserved walnuts on the shelf and was willing to pay the $10.00 price for an 18.9-ounce jar. No preservatives — only young walnuts, cane sugar, and lemon juice. I suppose I could throw in a few whole cloves and let them sit in my refrigerator. That’s about all they’re missing.

Kelly and I squeezed in between the lines to get to our samples. The sweetness was the first thing we noticed…almost cloyingly sweet…but they were a bit earthy too. These walnuts remind me of the flavor of dates…sending my thoughts longingly back to that first bite of aged Gouda. This would be a perfect compliment.

But beyond the flavor, probably the more memorable experience was the texture. How can I describe it without diminishing the surprise? The snap of an excellent refrigerator pickle…the crunch of a freshly roasted jumbo cashew…the pop in my back when my chiropractor finally gives me relief…yeah, that visceral…my attempts seem absurd.

The shop manager noticed our surprise and was delighted in our willingness to try them. I explained my fondness for historical foods. Out of curiosity, I asked if he was familiar with a French cheese that was very popular in the 18th century. I couldn’t remember its name…it started with an “M.” The most peculiar thing about this cheese is how it gains its flavor through the secretions of cheese mites that infest the block.

“Mimolette!” he interrupted.

“Yes! That’s it! Do you happen to have any?”

“No, I’m sorry, sir. You see the FDA has banned Mimolette in the U.S. They won’t allow it through customs. It seems that customs officials don’t like how it comes all covered with bugs! What a shame!”

“Yes, isn’t it…what a shame.”

So to my disappointment (but not necessarily to Kelly’s), there will be no Mimolette at the wedding reception, but I’m thinking a bowl of sliced preserved walnuts will be in order.

While we don’t offer the walnuts here at Jas. Townsend & Son, you can find them in my new favorite cheese shop in Kalamazoo, or you can order them on line. I will shamelessly say that the bowl and knife in the picture above are sold on our website.

If you prefer to try your hand at making your own preserved walnuts, I wish you success in your endeavors. I would love to hear of the outcome. Here’s a recipe from John Farley’s 1800 edition of The London Art of Cookery.


This entry was posted in 18th Century Cooking, Historic Cooking, Ingredients and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Preserved Walnuts

  1. Ryan Loucks says:

    CONGRATULATIONS on your wedding!

  2. Susan Odom says:

    Nice blog! I’ve always wanted to pickle walnuts too, but miss it for the same reason.

  3. I want to try this someday! But what is brandy paper? And any suggestions what to use instead of a bladder?

    • Kevin Carter says:

      I’ll start with the bladder first, then go to brandy paper.

      Unless you are personally connected to a butcher — and not even that, but more like someone directly involved in the slaughtering of livestock (which not every butcher is), fresh bladders are nearly impossible to come by. Fresh bladders are typically not USDA-approved for retail sale. We managed to talk a local butcher into supplying us with a few, but if I mention his name, I’ll probably run the risk of putting him out of business. We have also checked into importing salted and dried bladders, but the only suppliers willing to talk are those wanting to sell them by the container load. Uh…no.

      I recently ran across some 18th century scientific studies of the properties of hogs’ bladders…wow, now is that about the geekiest thing I could possibly say? Animal bladders have a remarkable elasticity to them. Relaxed, they are thick, opaque, and rubbery. But you can inflate them into what looks like a large transparent balloon many times their deflated size. Children used to do just that! Check out this link: As the parents were elbow deep in future dinner fare, the children were held at bay with their new toy.

      I’m meandering.

      Any way, back to the period experiments, these period investigators were fascinated to discover a particular property or characteristic of bladders. By placing a stone in them, inflating them, and then suspending them in water, they noticed that water seeped through the bladder membrane from the outside inward, but not in the opposite direction. And while the bladder allowed water to pass through in this singular direction (albeit it slowly), air could not pass through at all.

      Now all of that is almost beside the point, except for those last seven words. Bladders were used to keep preserved foods from being exposed to the air.

      (Interestingly, at least for this geek, bladders were used for the same reason as surgical dressings for amputees.)

      Now, unless you are a historical foodie who raises (and butchers) your own livestock, we still have the problem of availability. I hoped to find a supply through the sausage industry. Some sausages, e.g., mortadella, are encased in middlings and bladders. So far, no such luck. But through further experimentation, I found a similar effect* can be achieved with a particular collagen product. Collagen sausage casings are often derived from beef hides. I found that by submersing a sheet of collagen into scalding water, the collagen softens and shrinks. Tie that on tightly over the mouth of a jar and stretch it tight, and when it dries, the sheet will stick to the jar and seal it. *It’s not perfect, but it appears to be very very close.

      Ok, so here comes the shameless plug: we sell 12″ x 12″ collagen sheets. Here you go:

      As for “brandy paper,” Wow…good question. I had been operating under certain assumptions based on what I have read before, but your inquiry prompted me to scan through all of my fall-back resources, i.e., the O.E.D., Oxford Companion to Food, Karen Hess, Wikipedia….nothing, at least from my summary glances. The term was a common one in 18th century cookbooks. In addition, I was surprised to find it being used in cooking as late as 1922. Then I really began to doubt when I ran across another reference from 1915 that suggested that brandy paper was a tissue paper used to wrap brandy bottles. Apparently at that time, approximately 90,000,000 sheets of it were produced in France on an annual basis.

      The way most period recipes read, I began to wonder if it was a special type of paper. In most cases, instructions are given to cover whatever was being preserved “with brandy-paper.” But then I went back to Sarah Martin’s 1795 cookbook “The New Experienced English Housekeeper.” I could almost hear Martin’s editor saying to her, “Sarah, you can’t copy word for word!” It’s as if she took all of the recipes that she lifted from other books and changed “brandy-paper” into “paper dipped into brandy” — a literary trick that I must confess to using once or twice while writing certain high-school research papers.

      Across the dozens of recipes I looked at this morning, it’s apparent this “brandy paper” was used in different ways. Sometimes it was placed directly on the food, and other times it was it tied over the jar’s opening. In nearly all the recipes, it is clear that brandy paper was to be put in place only after the potted food had cooled down completely.

      Martin was not the only author to offer her explanation. While Hannah Glasse used the term “brandy paper” dozens of times in her two books, “The Complete Confectioner” and “the Art of Cookery,” once in the first book she instructs to use “pieces of paper dipped in brandy,” and again in the second book she suggests cutting pieces of white paper the size of the top of the jar, soaking them in brandy, laying them on top of the jelly, tying paper across the mouth of the jar, and pricking holes through the paper.

      Now, I’ve yet to be 100% convinced that we’re talking only about the technique of dipping paper in brandy. It’s still possible that we could also be talking about a special type of paper. But until I can find further evidence (my search has not ended) I lean toward technique. Who knows, I may be rescinding that comment on Monday.

      • Karen says:

        Thank you so much for all this information, Kevin. I have no slaughter-house connections, alas… I was also looking for a bladder for an incredibly weird recipe in the Williamsburg Art of Cookery, “To make an Egg as big as Twenty.” You boil 20 egg yolks in a bladder, then surround them with 20 egg whites and boil that in a bladder, to make a giant egg “useful in grand Sallads.” You can mix in ambergris, musk, grated biscuits, and candied pistachios.

        Anyway, I think everyone will be a whole lot happier if I forget about the enormous egg and attempt the preserved walnuts instead. Thanks also for the brandy paper info. Very interesting!

  4. Mary in LA says:

    Congratulations to you and felicitations to Kelly! I must point out (because I am that way) that she is (or was — when is/was the wedding?) your fiancée with two “e”s. You are, or were, her fiancé with one “e”. Here, I’m sending you a box of “e”s as a wedding present: [eeeeeeeeeeee].
    In all seriousness, I wish you both very happy!
    And thank you for the preserved walnut recipe. A while ago a couple of friends brought a mysteriously delicious item back from Greece and asked me to taste it and guess what it was. It was wonderful — but I couldn’t guess at all and was astounded when they told me it was a preserved walnut. Now I can try to recreate that haunting taste for myself!

    • Kevin Carter says:

      Saturday is the big day…as in four days! And the walnuts are already sliced. Thanks, Mary in LA, for the present! (I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m marrying Kelly for her editing skills.)

  5. The timing of your post, June 24, is a propos, as traditional recipes for the Italian walnut liqueur nocino recommend harvesting green walnuts on St. John’s Day. In traditional growing regions this will yield the correct ripeness for picking as well.

  6. Fantastic.

    May we assume that since the last post is in July, you are still on your honeymoon? 🙂

  7. Melina says:

    Icould not refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

  8. Tim says:

    Thanks for the recipe, next year, I am trying to get this!
    And an overall thank you to the other great recipes. I am in historical cooking for some years now – primary medieval and Roman-ancient – and the great part of history between the renaissance and the 20th century is some kind of missed in my reception.
    I have tried your ketchup and it was awesome on every barbecue this season.

    For the mimolette, as an alternative you might try casu-marzu from italy oder german “Milbenkäse”. And if you are really curious for the original, my fiance is for next half year in the Nord Pas de Calais as a German teacher. I don’t know how hard it is to get a box of this things to you, but if you want, I would give it a try.

  9. Pingback: A Bite of History: Mimolette the mitey cheese! | Heritage of Grace

  10. I hope Canada is NOT going to follow USA’s lead when it comes to Mimollette. We can still import that cheese in Quebec. I often wonder at an institution that allows GMO and artificial sweeteners but will not allow a cheese that has been safely consumed for centuries by millions of people. Next thing you know, the only foods Americans will be allowed to eat will have been chemically put together in labs. A slice of rubbery fat-free faux-“cheddar”, amyone?

  11. Carolyn says:

    I have used circles of paper dipped in brandy and placed on top of sweet preserves, much as using melted wax. The brandy doesn’t allow mold to develop. I also tie a larger white paper circle over the jar rim. I have successfully kept jams and jellies this way for several years of reenacting seasons.

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