Tempt­ing bakes with sweet wal­nuts

Landscape (UK) - - Contents - • Words: Julie Brown • Pho­tog­ra­phy: Abi­gail Rex

WITH A HILL­TOP church com­mand­ing views over the rolling Kent coun­try­side, the vil­lage of St Mary’s Platt sits be­tween Sevenoaks, Ton­bridge and Maid­stone. At its south­ern end, acres of nut-bear­ing trees grow in neat rows in grassy or­chards. Nearby stands a farm­house and its out­build­ings, some tim­bered. This is Potash Farm and the Wal­nut Tree Com­pany, both owned by Alexan­der Hunt. Nuts have been grown in Bri­tain for thou­sands of years. They can thrive in a va­ri­ety of soils, so were tra­di­tion­ally planted where other crops would not grow, usu­ally in por­ous soil. This made use of land that was un­suit­able for growing any­thing else. Wal­nuts have been en­joyed by the Bri­tish for cen­turies, but our wild, of­ten un­friendly weather means that these nuts are of­ten im­ported. How­ever, in this re­gion of south-east Eng­land, the weather tends to be drier and warmer, mak­ing it ideal for growing more ten­der plants, wal­nuts among them. “Our warmer weather makes the

At his farm or­chard in the Kent coun­try­side, grower and ex­pert Alexan­der Hunt har­vests wal­nuts fresh from the tree

har­vest more re­li­able,” says Alexan­der, an ex­pe­ri­enced tree grower and nut ex­pert. “How­ever, the UK will never be able to grow the amount needed to sat­isfy de­mand. And all it takes is one very wet sea­son, and the crop could be ru­ined.”

Pas­sion for plant­ing

Alexan­der has lived in the vil­lage all his life and has been growing cob­nuts at the farm for 35 years. When he was a stu­dent in Bris­tol, he used his par­ents’ garden to grow cour­gettes and run­ner beans, which he sold to help pay the rent on his stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion. At the time, a friend of the fam­ily had 50 cob­nut trees they did noth­ing with, and Alexan­der was given per­mis­sion to pick the nuts and sell them on. He con­tin­ued to do this for the next 10 years be­fore buy­ing two acres of land and rent­ing three more, and so Potash Farm de­vel­oped. He now has 35 acres of cob­nut trees. The four acres of wal­nuts were added in 2009 when friends asked if he would like to buy their wal­nut tree busi­ness. It was a small ven­ture at the time, and Alexan­der has worked tire­lessly to ex­pand it. He now runs the UK’s lead­ing ed­i­ble nut production com­pany and sells a va­ri­ety of fruit­ing wal­nut trees as well as trees for tim­ber. Broad­view, Lara and Buc­ca­neer va­ri­eties are pop­u­lar in the fur­ni­ture in­dus­try, whereas Red Danube is good for growing in the garden. He har­vests 10 tons of wal­nuts and dis­patches ap­prox­i­mately 9,000 trees ev­ery year to gar­den­ers, com­mer­cial fruit grow­ers and the tim­ber trade. “The two busi­nesses, run from the farm, sit well together. When we are quiet on the nut side, I can con­cen­trate on the trees.” The wal­nut trees are four to five years old be­fore they bear fruit. Green wal­nuts are picked in June and July and used for pick­ling. They need to be picked early be­cause as soon as the shell forms, they are un­suit­able for pick­ling. There is usu­ally only a short window of ap­prox­i­mately two weeks. “We use the knit­ting nee­dle test,” says Alexan­der. If the nee­dle passes through the wal­nut, it is ready. “As soon as the shells start to de­velop, the wal­nuts are left on the trees to ma­ture.” Wal­nuts are har­vested in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber. Some of these will be left ‘wet’, that is, in their nat­u­ral state, to be eaten through­out Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber. If they are not eaten quickly, they turn mouldy, so the re­main­der of the

har­vest is kiln dried to be en­joyed all year round. “I pre­fer to eat the dried ver­sion, as I think they taste nicer and are a bit sweeter than the wet ones,” ad­mits Alexan­der. Ma­ture wal­nut trees grow to be­tween 15-20ft (4.5-6m) so the nuts are not hand-picked. In­stead, they are gath­ered once they have fallen, with a team of 8-10 peo­ple em­ployed to help with the har­vest. The grass in the or­chards is only mowed twice a year to nurture wild grasses and flow­ers for wildlife to en­joy. “This means that at times it looks un­tidy, but the ethos of the busi­ness is to look af­ter na­ture. The farm is part of the tra­di­tional her­itage of the area,” he says. Al­though in­clement weather brings its dif­fi­cul­ties for Bri­tain’s nut grow­ers, it is the grey squir­rel that causes the most dam­age. Farms reg­u­larly lose up to 20 per cent of their crop, some­times much more. “Squir­rels strip bark off the trees, threat­en­ing the in­tegrity of the plant and, of course, they love the nuts.” Squir­rel con­trol is a year-round ac­tiv­ity, and trap­ping needs to take place ev­ery day in the peak sea­son. “No other grower does plough to plate,” says Alexan­der. “We grow trees for tim­ber, for plant­ing in gar­dens, and for the nuts, then we turn those nuts into goods such as oils and can­dles, which are made lo­cally.” He also shares his pas­sion with bud­ding grow­ers as the only reg­is­tered cob­nut and wal­nut con­sul­tant in the UK with the Bri­tish In­sti­tute of Agri­cul­tural Con­sul­tants. “The nuts have been part of my life for so many years that I’ve never known any­thing else,” he says.

Con­taCt

www.ken­tish­cob­nuts.com www.wal­nut­trees.co.uk Tel 01732 882734 or 07979 525939

At the or­chard in St Mary’s Platt, nuts are gath­ered by hand af­ter they have fallen to the ground.

Alexan­der Hunt in­spects a hand­ful of nuts.

The wal­nut de­vel­ops in a pit­ted shell sur­rounded by a fi­brous, leath­ery green cas­ing. This splits when the nuts ripen in the au­tumn.

Once col­lected, the wal­nuts can be dried to pre­vent them from de­te­ri­o­rat­ing. This will also im­prove their taste, ac­cord­ing to Alexan­der.

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