Crack­ing the nut busi­ness

The Hor­well’s are sur­rounded by nuts, the fresher, the bet­ter.

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Contents - WORDS & IMAGES KRISTINA JENSEN

The Hor­well’s are sur­rounded by nuts on their 10 acre block, and the se­cret is the fresher, the bet­ter.

Fresh­ness is very im­por­tant with nuts and that can cause prob­lems for Jenny and Mal­colm Hor­well when they take their freshly har­vested nuts to food shows. “At tast­ings, we of­ten get peo­ple de­clin­ing a sam­ple of a fresh nut be­cause they have only eaten older, ran­cid ones!" says Jenny. "But as soon as they taste one of ours, their per­spec­tive changes.”

The Hor­wells own a hazel­nut grove near Blen­heim, and mar­ket their 100% New Zealand-grown-and-pro­cessed nut and seed prod­ucts un­der the Un­cle Joe's la­bel. They are pas­sion­ate sup­port­ers of the nut in­dus­try and want to help it be­come a val­ued and recog­nised as­set in the NZ agri­cul­ture sec­tor.

Ed­u­cat­ing peo­ple about the joys of fresh nuts is one of their goals. Some nuts have a high con­tent of polyun­sat­u­rated fats in them, which break down very quickly once ex­posed to air and light, which is why im­ported nuts are of­ten ran­cid.

Fresh is def­i­nitely far more de­li­cious says Jenny, and a much health­ier choice.

“Peo­ple are also be­com­ing a lot more dis­cern­ing about food here in New Zealand. They want to know where it comes from and why it's good for them and the fo­cus is mov­ing away from quan­tity to qual­ity.”

The cou­ple moved home to New Zealand from Kenya in the late 1980s with their three young chil­dren. When they bought their block, north of Blen­heim, it was bare pad­docks with an old villa and two 100-yearold wal­nut trees stand­ing guard. The chil­dren used to col­lect the nuts in the early days and sell them back to the orig­i­nal owner of the com­pany they now run, who named the busi­ness af­ter his real-life Un­cle Joe.

“Wal­nut trees were al­ready part of the at­trac­tive and rich land­scape of a very di­verse agri­cul­tural pic­ture when we ar­rived in the early 1990s,” says Jenny. “We had never seen wal­nut trees in such abun­dance and such gi­ant trees. We had a wal­nut tree in the back gar­den in our first home we owned in Taupo, but it never yielded well and the tree strug­gled but was still a favourite.” How­ever, they chose to grow an­other nut. “We opted for hazel­nut trees which suit a small block such as ours, whereas wal­nut trees re­quire greater spac­ing and be­sides, we were happy in the knowl­edge that there were wal­nut trees al­ready well es­tab­lished in this prov­ince.”

Their 16-year-old trees are the En­nis and Barcelona va­ri­eties which are bi­en­nial, crop­ping more heav­ily ev­ery sec­ond year. En­nis was a rec­om­men­da­tion from lo­cal nut en­thu­si­ast and farmer Bernard Vava­sour. Bernard used to own a mag­nif­i­cent 16ha (40 acre) block of wal­nuts in the Awa­tere Val­ley and had been work­ing with Ore­gon Univer­sity ex­per­i­ment­ing with En­nis hazel­nuts in the Marl­bor­ough en­vi­ron­ment for some years. En­nis is a large ta­ble nut, easy to har­vest, and it has ex­cel­lent flavour, plus it loves the freedrain­ing, silty loam soil around Blen­heim.

Bernard's ad­vice has turned out to be an all­round win­ner for Jenny and Mal­colm. Twenty years ago they bought Un­cle Joe's and fo­cused on find­ing niche mar­kets for their prod­ucts. Their pas­sion­ate

com­mit­ment to the nut in­dus­try saw their busi­ness grow quickly.

The nut year be­gins for Jenny and Mal­colm and their team when they be­gin hand-har­vest­ing 10-12kg of hazel­nuts from each of their 450 trees in March. Wal­nuts are gath­ered from a wide se­lec­tion of lo­cal trees in April.

“There is no point in try­ing to com­pete with in­ter­na­tional grow­ers," Jenny says. “We fo­cus in­stead on be­ing a 100 per cent New Zealand, fam­ily-owned com­pany pro­cess­ing lo­cally-grown nuts that have been har­vested and pro­cessed within a 12-month pe­riod.

“In ad­di­tion, our prod­ucts have no ad­di­tives as their own nat­u­ral flavour is pre­mium. The nuts are freshly cracked and the oils cold pressed on our own cer­ti­fied premises which al­lows us to have a very high stan­dard of qual­ity con­trol."

Five peo­ple are em­ployed at Un­cle Joe's through­out the year to help with har­vest­ing, pro­cess­ing and pack­ag­ing. The trees are spray-free, although weeds around the trees are con­trolled with spray.

“There's no need for a big load of fer­tiliser here, judg­ing by soil tests." says Mal­colm. “Marl­bor­ough is ideal for grow­ing nuts and as long as the trees are pruned well to keep the light flow­ing in, they will pro­duce year af­ter year.”

Un­cle Joe's bring in a fur­ther 25 tonnes of hazel­nuts and 35-40 tonnes of wal­nuts each year, mainly from South Is­land sup­pli­ers. It is all pro­cessed into fresh ker­nels, oils, nut spreads and nut flours.

There is a pre­dom­i­nance of wal­nut and hazel­nut or­chards in Can­ter­bury, but it is the wal­nut gi­ant gems of Marl­bor­ough that have sup­plied Un­cle Joe's busi­ness through­out the years. These trees have a spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance for Jenny and Mal­colm. They en­deav­our to sup­port lo­cal tree owners who don't have the equip­ment, but who adopt hand­har­vest­ing and have plenty of per­se­ver­ance. Some

“Noth­ing is lost of the wal­nut but the sound of the shell be­ing cracked.”

have just one or two trees in their back­yard. Many of these are lovely older trees that were planted by set­tlers and are va­ri­eties that have great flavour, rang­ing from sweet and creamy, to oth­ers that are darker and more 'nutty'.

The Hor­well's use a V-shaped cracker for wal­nuts and a roller cracker for hazel­nuts, im­port­ing cus­tomised equip­ment from Turkey and France to care­fully process the har­vest. Other items have been man­u­fac­tured by Mal­colm and a fam­ily rel­a­tive who spe­cialises in macadamia pro­cess­ing.

Hav­ing good crack­ing equip­ment is a cru­cial part of the busi­ness as it is im­por­tant to keep the nuts from get­ting scuffed, and to keep nuts as whole as pos­si­ble.

The process with wal­nuts is a mas­tery of tech­nol­ogy. First, the nuts travel up a shute into the cracker, which looks a lit­tle like a mulcher and is about as noisy. In­side, a jet of air (known as an air leg) blows the lighter shell up­ward, leav­ing the heav­ier nuts to fall down and be trans­ported to the next, larger air leg, which then blows any re­main­ing shell frag­ments up­ward. The nuts are then con­veyed through to a team of nim­ble-fin­gered work­ers who sort and grade them ac­cord­ing to colour, qual­ity and size (whole, halves or pieces). The shells don't go to waste – they are used by lo­cal gar­den­ers for mulch on gar­dens.

It was Jenny's cu­rios­ity that orig­i­nally led her to ex­per­i­ment with cold press­ing as she loves us­ing nat­u­ral oils, and they make up a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the Un­cle Joe's range. Their hazel­nut, wal­nut, co­rian­der seed, flax seed, mus­tard seed, grape­seed, pump­kin seed and hemp seed oils now at­tract at­ten­tion lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally.

The Hor­well's started mak­ing nut oils in 2005. For the last five years they have been in part­ner­ship with lo­cal seed grower and buyer Garth Neal, who keeps his press at Un­cle Joe's. Garth has grown al­most ev­ery seed type in Marl­bor­ough soil and says he has a life-long fas­ci­na­tion with seeds and the 'good­ies' they con­tain.

“When plants are grow­ing they are es­tab­lish­ing all those good things like an­tiox­i­dants and omega oils in their leaves,” he says. “Then they flower and be­gin to pro­duce seed, and all that in­tense good­ness gets pushed into the seed and we can press it out as oil.”

The ar­range­ment has been a win-win for both busi­nesses. Garth has the oil press­ing knowl­edge, the con­tacts for buy­ing in the seed, he pro­vides the oil press, and also dries nuts for them.

The Hor­wells have the food safety cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for their premises, and the mar­ket­ing set-up for the

prod­ucts. They ad­here to a strict MPI Food Safety Pro­gramme that is specif­i­cally tai­lored to the needs of their busi­ness, with their nut and seed prod­ucts reg­u­larly tested to en­sure they are within qual­ity stan­dards. A trace­able his­tory, from the source of the sea­son's nuts to the end-prod­ucts, is all care­fully recorded.

There is very lit­tle waste at Un­cle Joe's. Fi­brous 'pel­lets' left over from the cold press­ing process are turned into de­li­cious flours, in­clud­ing pump­kin, flax seed, wal­nut, hazel­nut and grape­seed. There is still plenty of nour­ish­ment in these gluten-free byprod­ucts be­cause cold press­ing ex­tracts only a por­tion of the good­ness, leav­ing valu­able nu­tri­ents, min­er­als and fi­bre for use in bak­ing, smooth­ies, and other prod­ucts.

Gluten-free nut flours in the Un­cle Joe's range are ris­ing stars, win­ning favour with chefs, spe­cial­ity bakers and Asian mar­kets. That's be­cause of the high qual­ity of Jenny and Mal­colm's nuts and their fresh, strong flavours.

The Hor­wells have also had good feed­back about their oils, win­ning awards over the past 10 years. In 2014, the wal­nut, hazel­nut, pump­kin and mus­tard oils were en­tered in the AVPA In­ter­na­tional Gourmet Oil Com­pe­ti­tion in Paris, solely to see what the re­sponse was from the judges. To Jenny, Mal­colm and Garth's sur­prise and de­light, their wal­nut oil won one of two sil­ver medals and came in ahead of all the French wal­nut oils. The mus­tard seed oil and the hazel­nut oil also re­ceived awards.

“Many tra­di­tional nut re­gions roast nuts be­fore press­ing the oils to in­crease the oil quan­tity,” says Jenny. “At Un­cle Joe's, we cold press fresh nuts. This pro­duces less oil but we think the oil has bet­ter flavour, tex­ture and also re­tains all the good­ness of the nuts or seeds it is pressed from.

“When I went to Paris, the French Min­is­ter of Agri­cul­ture men­tioned to me that France is pro­mot­ing small busi­nesses like ours that pro­duce high qual­ity, lo­cally-pro­duced goods. It was pos­i­tive en­cour­age­ment for us per­son­ally and a real buzz see­ing New Zealand

recog­ni­tion.”• prod­ucts get­ting such high

Noth­ing goes to waste. The fi­brous 'pel­lets' left over af­ter cold press­ing are turned into flour.

ABOVE: One of the 100-year-old wal­nut trees on the Hor­well's block. BE­LOW RIGHT: Their hazel­nut grove in­cludes the En­nis and Barcelona va­ri­eties.

Wal­nuts are loaded into a shute (left), then shut­tled into the wal­nut cracker (above).

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: sort­ing and grad­ing the wal­nuts; whole nuts are re­moved for sale; oil at the end of the cold press­ing process.

LEFT: Jenny and Mal­colm have de­vel­oped a range of prod­ucts in­clud­ing fresh nuts, flours, and now spreads. BE­LOW: grape­seed pel­lets com­ing out of the oil press.

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