Small producer case study: gourmet pickled walnuts (Part 1)

Small landholders, Andrew and Bettina Pretsel, are giving pickled walnuts a new lease of life and turning a small niche product into a hit with gourmet food customers.

Andrew and Bettina share their experience and advice for bringing to life this seldom seen ‘forgotten food’ including why they chose such a niche product, what it takes to grow, harvest and market pickled walnuts and what they have learnt along the way.

When Andrew and Bettina Pretsel purchased a 70 hectare property near Manjimup, Western Australia in the 1990s they had plans to establish a vineyard, but decided to leave a majestic walnut tree undisturbed.

The old walnut tree had spread a carpet of nuts under its enveloping canopy for almost a century. A few were collected, but most were left to return to the soil where an occasional seedling would emerge, often between the grapevines planted on the property.

Walnut trees of a similar age can often be found near old sawmills and tobacco plantations in south-west  Western Australia, as these were the areas where early Europeans first settled.

During the hectic first few years of establishing the vineyard and producing their winegrapes, the Pretsels occasionally collected nuts for their own use before first selling them fresh at the Margaret River Farmers’ Market.

Andrew and Bettina were surprised to find that there were not many locally grown walnuts available, but a great level of interest from consumers. 

The potential niche market for pickled walnuts was realised after several enquiries were received from customers. Further discussions with Andrew’s parents revealed that they were traditional British Christmas fare.

Pickled walnuts were very popular in the 1700s and were usually consumed on Boxing Day alongside leftover cold meats, presumably because of their ability to enhance the flavour of meat dishes.

Pickled walnuts are featured today on menus in high-end restaurants across Britain, North America and parts of Europe and Australia.

Growing walnuts 
Walnuts are one of the earliest recorded foods and are found in Persia and the Middle East where the chill factor and soil is suitable. The nuts are now grown in many parts of the world with similar conditions.

In the right environment walnuts can grow easily, however there is usually a long lead time before commercial quantities are produced.

“We have raised 500 seedlings propagated from the old tree on our Manjimup property, but it will be five or six years before they start to produce nuts," Bettina said.

As with most fruit, weather conditions can affect the quality of a crop. A warm, wet spell during spring that coincides with flowering can result in a fungus not visible on the exterior of a mature nut that leaves the kernel black and bitter.

“When we pick the green nuts for pickling we can see if there is anything developing on the outside and at that early stage it hasn’t got inside the nuts. The trees can be sprayed with a copper-based fungicide, but we prefer not to spray.”

Harvesting 
Picking starts around November and the pickling finishes in January, fitting in well with the Pretsel’s vineyard schedule. By the time processing and pickling of the walnuts is finished the Pretsels are ready to start grape harvesting.

“We normally pick the lower section of the tree, up to where we can reach. Then we use an orchard ladder for the higher branches, leaving the ones across the top of the tree to develop into fresh walnuts. These eventually fall to the ground where they can be collected by our kids with buckets,” Bettina said.

Processing and packaging 
There is no easy way to prepare walnuts for pickling.

“We use traditional methods which are very labour intensive. The nuts are hand cut and go through a brining process before being pickled, packed and labelled.”

Bettina and Andrew have designed the labels and packaging themselves, featuring the image of a red tree.

“The red tree is a scrapbook representation of the old walnut tree on our property, set in a design reflecting the old world origins of the product. We see the walnuts as being a bridge, a link between the past and the present. They were a really popular food in the early days when Australia was being settled,” Bettina said.

Part 2 - selling the product, using the product, costs and time frame.

Thanks to our friends at DAFWA for use of the article.

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