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.