The pickled walnut brings with it a long history, the first recorded recipe being Eliza Smith’s of 1727, and a particularly English flavour.
Since walnuts do not always ripen successfully in England, pickling is a good way of using a crop that might otherwise have gone to waste. The ideal pickling walnut is an unripe walnut: well-formed, but with a still green outer case and a soft shell. This delicate stage presents difficulties if you wish to pickle a walnut or two yourself: you need to know those in the know, who know where there are the trees, who pick the green walnuts at the right time and who can disclose those secrets of the pickling process. Then there’s a particular problem with the tannins in the walnut, but I’ll say no more…
In our own household we have a first edition Mrs Beeton, which contains both a recipe for pickled walnut and one for pickled walnut ketchup, but it’s really about time and experience if you wish to avoid creating a mush-in-brine situation.
We know this to our own cost, which is why for many years we have been using a certain Pickled Walnut purveyor deep in the Kentish countryside. As we have crossed continents to cook, dreading the blank look on the faces of overseas suppliers, we have secreted jars of these strange brown beauties among our hold luggage. Sometimes, in dire straits, those good Kentish folk will even send a last-minute delivery to a distant city and save the day. If all this sounds a little overblown with reference to a condiment which many have never come across, and some know but would rather avoid, let me set you straight.
A dish that you know cries out for pickled walnut will never be right without it. Surely when you see a jar of red cabbage your mind springs to the pickled walnut? There is the natural complement in the colour, the black and the red, and then the crunch of the cabbage and the surprising give of the walnut. At St John, how could we serve our Ox Heart with Beetroot and Watercress without that pickled fellow? How lacking does your Boxing Day spread now seem?
In Dickens’ Pickwick Papers a character even demands, on recovering from illness, “a mutton chop and a pickled walnut”. Invigorating indeed! And imagine that chop, walnut-less. When we bring these peculiar little globes to foreign climes, walnut-virgin chefs are surprised and amazed by their qualities. They come to understand, as we do, that some dishes without them are like postcards of a sunset: fine, but not the real thing.
So the only argument for abstinence can be from those who suffer from nut allergies, or those who do not yet know the pleasure of the pickled walnut. If the latter is you, what joys you have in store! Do not be offput by their appearance, or the strangeness of unfamiliarity.
When recently our winemaker Benjamin came over from France we were only too happy to introduce him, and in return learned something new ourselves. We were at the kitchen table discussing various matters culinary and I gave him his first pickled walnut. With the fresh eyes of a first timer, and being something of a gourmand, he immediately spread the walnut upon his sourdough toast creating an impromptu tapenade. It was thoroughly enjoyed, and the walnut repertoire increased!