Tempting bakes with sweet walnuts
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.
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.