Nut job

The Sacramento region produces most of the nation's walnuts—but cracking them open isn't easy

Tip: Don’t use a nutcracker to crack walnuts.

Tip: Don’t use a nutcracker to crack walnuts.

“I’m going to show you the real way to crack a walnut.”

Susan Hassett should know. She’s been growing certified-organic walnuts on her farm, Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, for about 20 years in nearby Winters.

Rule No. 1: “You don’t use a nutcracker,” she said. Nutcrackers make fishing out the meat from the shell a pain in the neck.

Instead, she took out a small, lightweight ball-peen hammer, held a walnut against a hard surface, then struck the nut. In one quick motion, she removed the shell, as if she were opening a tiny book, and popped the entire nut out whole, which looked like a miniature brown brain.

My family and I had come to Hassett’s farm to pick walnuts from two of her Franquette walnut trees, each one more than 140 years old.

The last English walnut to leaf out, the Franquette is a French variety that’s been grafted to a California black walnut tree, explained Hassett. (While she speaks, her Chesapeake Bay retriever, Dawn, happily cracks walnuts between her teeth.) The Franquette is also one of the few varieties that can be harvested at this time of year.

In fact, when I mentioned to my husband that I’d like to pick walnuts on my birthday, I had no idea the task I’d set before him.

The Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys produce 99 percent of the nation’s commercial walnuts, and California is the world’s largest exporter (though China produces more). So, I assumed that finding a farm where we could pick them wouldn’t be difficult.

But my husband soon discovered that most local walnut farms don’t allow the public to pick. Of those who do, the walnuts—mostly Hartley and locally developed Chandler varieties—had already been harvested by early November.

Buzzard’s Roost Ranch, however, was not only in the prime of its certified-organic-walnut harvest, but it also appreciated our help—free labor for them, a great day on the farm for us.

The Franquette is a darker, more savory walnut than the slightly sweeter Chandler and Hartley varieties most often found in grocery stores. Hassett said it’s also an ideal walnut to grow organically because the hard, tightly sealed shell makes it impervious to most pests.

High in antioxidants, walnuts in general have been touted for an array of nutritional benefits, such as lowering cholesterol and increasing sperm production.

“Walnuts are a completely underrated nut,” said Hassett.

Before Hassett showed us how to crack walnuts, she demonstrated how to get them off of the tree: With a hefty “walnut rake”—any large, hardy stick will do—you knock a branch, take cover and wait for the wholly satisfying sound of walnuts raining onto the ground.

Then, rake them into a pile, pick them up and toss them in a bucket. Simple enough.

I tend to think nearly any you-pick experience is good for kids, but some have not always been ideal—fruit too high for my daughter, Lily, to reach; berries too deep in prickly brambles to pluck. But picking freshly fallen walnuts is one task perfectly suited for a 2-year-old.

After a couple hours, we hauled about 40 pounds of certified-organic walnuts to Hassett’s back porch, where we weighed them. Hassett only charges $2 per pound—several dollars cheaper than what I find at the store. But still, we gathered 40 pounds!

What on Earth will we do with 40 pounds of walnuts? Well, we have a big family reunion coming up, and many of them will be transported there—along with a small hammer—for candied walnuts, pumpkin bread, oatmeal, salads and general mindless nut cracking. Hassett said walnuts also freeze very well, which I’m counting on. At least we’ll know how to crack them.