Sacramento’s Black Walnuts: Cracking into Juglans hindsiiFebruary 10, 2014 • By Michele
A few years ago, I was touring nearby Full Belly Farm, producer of deliciously sweet and bitter walnuts (among a huge variety of other produce). The farmer pointed out a stand of walnut trees and mentioned as an aside that they were native California walnuts, not the English walnuts that they cultivate for production. He said the native walnuts were tasty, but difficult to harvest and crack. I’d never thought about whether there was more than one kind of walnut, or whether the walnut trees I saw around the area were native.
The walnut we are most familiar with is native to central Asia and called Persian walnut accordingly. It is usually referred to as English walnut because English merchants spread them across the globe. Later, Franciscan monks cultivated them in California, so here they are also called Mission walnuts or California walnuts. Perhaps it’d be least confusing to call them common walnuts, or by their latin name, Juglans regia.
The walnut native to this area is Juglans hindsii, aka Northern California Walnut or Hind’s Black Walnut. You’ll see it mixed in with oaks and cottonwoods in the Sacramento area. It has an outer shell that is either smooth and green or wrinkled and black depending on the season and level of ripeness. Inside that is a thick inner shell that takes further breaching. I read stories of people driving over black walnuts in their car to crack them open, or using various heavy-duty tools from the garage. We resorted to a hammer and brute force, but it is incredibly tedious work and we didn’t yield very many nuts. Its conservation status is “vulnerable” no doubt due to its lack of commercial viability, but if you can find a black walnut tree I encourage you to take the extra trouble to crack into it and taste how good it is. People familiar with black walnuts wax rhapsodic about the flavor and say its better in any recipe calling for walnuts. Honestly, the process of shelling the walnuts is so difficult it’s hard to imagine getting enough nuts together for any recipe. We settled for eating them as a snack and doing a side-by-side comparison with a Juglans regia.
The flavor is stronger, earthier and deeper, and although I’d read it would be more bitter, I found it to be more sweet. Perhaps the deeper flavor creates more balance with the tannic bitterness. I loved it! But for the amount of labor that goes into cracking into these black walnuts, they’ll be relegated to delicacy status while J. regia will continue to be our workaday walnut.
Sacramento forager/writer Hank Shaw has a great post on the subject, check it out for more information on black walnuts!