Fall seems to have skipped town this year — at least that’s the case here in Los Angeles. We’ve had weeks of 80 degree weather, with nary a hint of crisp nights or one iota of a leaf turning. I know, it’s a good problem, but if you didn’t have a calendar on hand you might not notice the season change. So, in order to get a good dose of Fall, I headed to NorCal to check out this year’s walnut harvest.
I’ve been working with the California Walnut Board for a few years now and in the process have become a full-fledged walnut addict. During that time, I’ve learned all the benefits of walnuts, have developed quite a few walnut recipes, but have never been to the walnut harvest — until now.
The harvest takes place in California’s Central Valley (almost all California walnuts are grown in the area between Fresno and Chico), so I flew into Sacramento since it’s really at the heart of it all. As if preparing me for the farming culture that the next few days would bring, I was seated next to a cowboy boot-and-Wranglers clad young farmer who talked the whole flight about his secret desire to be a country music singer. The next morning we drove a few hours south deep into Central Valley to Alpine Pacific Nut Company and they invited us into their orchards for the day.
The first thing you should know about the walnut harvest is that it’s as natural and straightforward as it gets. The walnuts are ready to be harvest when they start to peek out of their hulls (which makes them look oddly like some sort of rendition of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors if you ask me). Then the harvest itself is quite entertaining because this machine that’s a dead ringer for a lunar rover clamps on to the walnut tree trunk and then shakes and shakes and shakes until it literally rains walnuts (as well as a few leaves, some twigs, and other bits and bobs).
Being in the heart of California’s Gold Country has its own charm — it’s gold grass hills, Live Oak Trees, and railroad tracks as far as the eye can see. Unless you’re in a walnut orchard, in which case it’s walnut trees for ever and ever, amen. We lunched in the shade of the walnut trees on a lunch fittingly filled with walnuts and the meal made me realize that almost anything tastes better when it’s being enjoyed alfresco.
From there we headed to the processing facility where the walnuts got to go on a series of ladders and belts and all sorts of things that made it look like the walnuts were on some amusement park ride.
After that they hang out in this massive room that acts like a walnut sauna and dries the walnuts out so they become shelf stable. At that point we were gifted loads and loads of walnut and I headed home having gotten my fall fix and further feeding my walnut obsession, of course.
For some walnut inspiration, check out the recipes I’ve created for the California Walnut Board.
Food Field Trip is a recurring series where I visit some of my favorite artisanal companies and share their stories with you.