We're just nuts about our local walnuts
Our gardening writer Charlotte Philcox goes in search of one of our favourite nuts - the walnut - and the Suffolk family that grows them commercially.
There’s something special about the taste of a freshly-picked, ripe walnut, and a couple from the village of West Row, in Suffolk, are carrying on the local tradition of growing them on a small scale for the commercial market.
Dennis and Christine Reeve have about 30 trees, which were planted by Dennis’ grandfather, Frank, and father, Cecil.
“We have a mixture of walnuts,” says Dennis. “There are 15 trees which tend to produce double nuts and 16 singles. I’ve actually only ever planted one tree. That was the last one, which we put in for my mother’s 100th birthday. She went on to live until she was 105.”
It’s not only the members of the Reeve family who are long-lived, as
an English walnut tree can grow for 150 years.
“They take 15 years to begin producing,” admits Dennis. “And once that starts, we’re harvesting for four to five weeks from the end of September, as we have to wait for them to drop. It can get a bit monotonous, as we have to collect them every day. Up until around six years ago, we used to ‘brush’ them down with long bamboo poles - it was more like thrashing - and often had to climb up to get at them. I’m getting a bit too long in the tooth for that now, although I used to swing around in the trees when I was a young whippersnapper. That’s why my nickname was ‘Tarzan’.
“After we’ve got them all harvested, we put the dirty ones in an old tin bath and give them a bit of a wash and scrub with a brush. Then we put them out to dry on a wire mesh. But it’s difficult to find tin baths these days. Everyone used to be glad to get rid of them.”
Dennis says that this year, despite the long winter, the trees are full. “They may have liked the fact that we had a wet spring and no frosts,” he admits. “There’s a lot of weight in the double nuts, and some of the boughs are breaking. Usually, though, the more walnuts you get on a tree, the smaller they will be.
“We get requests for the nuts from all over the country, but it’s not worth our while sending out just five pounds at a time. Once upon a time, in the 1970s and 1980s if I remember rightly, my father told me that our walnuts used to go on the top of Walnut Whips. These days all the biggest double nuts get sent to Covent Garden Market. In London, they don’t want the small single ones, so if you’re lucky, you might find some of those on sale in Norwich or Mildenhall markets, and in a local shop in Brandon. The single walnuts actually taste sweeter, and are my favourite.”
These days, during the walnut season, the Reeves take their harvest on a 30-mile round trip to a local haulier who drives down to London every day. “He’s very helpful,” Dennis says. “All he asks for in return is a pint of beer.”
Christine and Dennis Reeve with just a few of the walnuts.