Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Green walnuts, black hands

It's the green-walnut season at Gamone.

The hard fruit, with their reptilian skin, are impregnated with a clear bitter liquid. If you start to gather these fruit without using rubber gloves, you're in for a nasty surprise. This is a photo of my left hand taken a week ago, when I started to pick green walnuts:

And here's another photo, taken this morning:

As you can see, it's worse and worse! I refrained deliberately from wearing gloves because I needed to peel the walnuts, and it's not easy to perform this operation with rubber gloves. Furthermore, I had to stick a metal spike through each walnut, both vertically and horizontally. Here's a saucepan full of peeled and spiked walnuts, soaking in water, after a couple of days in the sun:

On the Internet, there are all kinds of tales about, say, such-and-such a young couple who had spent an afternoon gathering green walnuts just a few days before their marriage... and they turned up at the church looking as if they'd just been using their bare hands to assemble a greasy old automobile engine. You see, once the walnuts have tattooed your hands in shiny black, there's no way of getting your hands back to normal. You simply have to live with your affliction until it wears off, about a fortnight later.

Funnily, though, various individuals on the Internet offer all kinds of remedies (all of which turn out to be totally false) for eliminating instantly the black stains. Common suggestions are bleach (a solution of sodium hypochlorite or hydrogen peroxide) and lemon juice. Somebody said that common cooking oils would get rid of the stains, and there was even a woman who said that the miracle product was toothpaste.

Now, why have I been gathering green walnuts? Well, as I explained in a blog post two months ago [display], I'm experimenting with a Greek Cypriot recipe for fresh walnuts preserved in sweet syrup. The precise description of this product (both in English and in French) is quite complicated, as I would have to mention the fact that the walnuts were picked when they were green and soft, whereas they soon turn black, and that the preservation process involves lots of boiling in syrup. Then I should maybe explain that the little brown blobs floating around in the dark syrup between the black walnuts are roasted almonds and cloves. For the moment, I think I'll refer to this product, from now on, simply as sweet walnuts (noix sucrées in French).

I'm currently preparing a second batch. Ten days ago, the walnuts in the first experimental batch were smaller and softer, and I spiked them first and started to soak them in the sun before peeling them.

Today, I conclude that it's preferable to peel the green walnuts from the very start. One of the aspects of the Greek Cypriot recipe that worried me a little, when I first saw it, was their advice to soak the walnuts, in the central phase of the preparation, in a quicklime solution. After all, quicklime is a most noxious chemical product, and the idea of using it during foodstuff processing appeared to me as somewhat weird.

In reality, this phase of the operations turned out to be unimpressive. Soon after the quicklime (in a cloth bag) is placed in a basin of water holding the walnuts, the calcium oxide is transformed rapidly into harmless calcium hydroxide, with a certain effervescent emission of heat (which I did not try to observe at close range). And it's a fact that the walnuts had a nice look and feel after this quicklime treatment.

From that point on, the processing consisted of boiling the walnuts, many times, in a dense solution of sugar, with a little lemon juice. I also assembled a few extra ingredients: almonds, cinnamon and cloves.

First, I roasted the white almonds in the oven for about 10 minutes. Then I added these ingredients to the walnuts in their syrup, and boiled up everything once again... until the syrup got thick. Fortunately, I have a powerful gas range for high-temperature cooking of this kind.

The big stainless steel cooking vessel is perfect for boiling the syrup and walnuts. Finally, I filled 10 jars with walnuts, covered them with syrup, and piled them up inside the sterilizer. Incidentally, I had taken advantage of a moment when the syrup was still cool to eat a walnut, both to verify that the product tasted fine (it certainly did), and also to verify that it wouldn't make me ill (it didn't, of course).

I filled up the sterilizer to the brim with water, placed the thermometer inside, and brought it to boiling point on the gas range.

The sterilization process necessitated what seemed to be an amazingly long period of intense boiling: 2 hours! All that remains, now, is to label the 10 jars. Then I'll carry out a tasting, with friends, as soon as possible. Between now and then, I need to learn how to cook some kind of Mediterranean honey-based pastry, to accompany my sweet walnuts.

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