This is the story of a French walnut tree and a trip to Georgia over 30 years ago. First Georgia. I went there with Gog Theatre and our play Birdman in the late eighties. From the moment we arrived, after a 3 day train journey on the Yerevan Express from Moscow, we were plunged into fabled Georgian feasting and singing.
Every meal was a momentous event. Even breakfast.
When it was time to leave and I thought I was packed (very heavy bag), my host family appeared with presents that they absolutely INSISTED I had to take with me: 2 bottles of heavenly Georgian wine, several packets of fragrant Georgian tea from the shores of the Black Sea, and a large jar of homemade Kaklis Muraba – delicious sweet pickled walnuts. Thus I brought the taste of Georgia home, and the memory of it can transport me straight back to that wonderful country and its people.
Fast forward to the Dove in 2020 and the French walnut tree. It had started life on a steep slope in the Gorges du Tarn, several years after my Georgian trip. It arrived via a friend, and I planted it on the meadow where it grew imperceptibly – until, it seems, this year. Lockdown arrived, and so had the walnut.
Two months later, its first proper nut crop started to appear
and it hit me: the memory of the taste of Georgian Kaklis Muraba. It was June, the perfect time to pick walnuts for pickling, and it was lockdown, so I had plenty of time. I found a recipe on the internet and set to the day after Solstice. First peel your walnuts:
Soaking goes on for 6 days, and while I waited I kept picking walnuts. It’s the best thing to do here, I’m stealing a march on the squirrels. Here are some more walnuts steeping in vodka with lemon zest, spices and sugar to make Nocino – the Italian walnut liqueur
A by product of all this activity: boiled up walnut peel to make ink
Ink the colour of the walnut chest brought to me from Pakistan by my sister many years ago
I couldn’t stop! I started soaking leaves for walnut leaf wine
The strained liquid came out this colour. From green leaves. Going to be some wine
Still waiting for the walnuts to soak (that is how they lose their bitterness as you have to keep changing the water), so I started to delve into the the background of the walnut. First, its name, Juglans. Juglans goes back to Jovis Glans, or ‘nut of Jupiter’. It was considered to be a nut of the gods, and the Greeks had got there first with their myth of Dionysus and Carya. Dionysus fell in love with the nymph Carya, and when she died he transformed her into a walnut tree. Artemis carried the news to Carya’s father and commanded that a temple be built in her memory. Its columns, sculpted in wood in the form of young women, were called Caryatides, or nymphs of the walnut tree. The word for walnut in Greek is Karydaki. In many traditions, including indigenous American, it is seen as a sacred tree: magical, medicinal and edible. Not to mention its use as a strong, durable and beautiful timber. Pretty good going! To finish this brief summary, I’ll quote Culpepper, who says’ This is a plant of the sun. Gather it while green, before it shells.’ So I did.
I just need to look at all these colours together once more, for this week has been as much about colour as taste
It’s also been a trip around the world, from my kitchen:
Georgia France Italy Pakistan Somerset
Postscript: I bottled the pickled walnuts yesterday: they taste AMAZING.