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The Nuances of Fall: Nuts and Other Phenomena of Nature

Staying at our house in Le Marche for the entire autumn this year, we are able to experience all the nuances of fall – fruit, grapes, figs, nuts...

Chocolate and nuts cake.

The earth yields its bounty to us lucky humans, and makes plenty of work for cooks in the kitchen!

Today I picked walnuts.  First, as we do most days of the week, we walked the two kilometers into our town for a coffee. Right outside the main doors to the town was the guy I often see at markets selling household goods from his truck.  Resplendent in his shocking green socks, I bought a nutcracker from him.  Along our road there are a few trees so I filled my shopping bag with the nuts I could reach.  Then when we got home I ambled down the hill where our own walnut tree stands and picked a few. It seems the cinghiale had already gotten to the nuts on the ground.  In order to do anything at all with them, I knew I’d need more, so we got the ladder and the extendable pruning tool and rescued a good half pail-full of walnuts.

I’ve never before been able to extract an actual nut from a fresh walnut. That green encasement around the actual shell is impossible to remove and get to the meat inside.  Here’s the key – you have to wait till fall when that encasement turns black and begins to crack open and the whole thing looks like garbage.  At that point, you can either crack it off with your hands to get to the walnut shell, or use the nutcracker to break it open.  The pigs do it so neatly – right in two with perfect halves on the ground.  They are truly evolved. 

I then had to crack open my pail full of walnuts.  This is the work of a borderline insane person.  Every once in a while, like the pigs, you get the technique right and they crack open right down the middle, allowing you to pull out nice walnut halves.  But most of the time, it’s a random mess, and you have to pick out the tiny pieces of nutmeat with your fingernails.  My half pail of walnuts became a small bowlful of edible nuts. 

What was I going to do with these?  I got online and found a recipe for a traditional walnut crostata.  It is an excellent recipe, easy to make and delicious– here is the link:  I even used a doily to make a powdered sugar design on the top.  It came out really well.  However, to make this recipe, I needed one pound of walnut meats.  Back to the tree, trying to reach the really high branches, knock those guys to the ground and chase them down the hill.  The whole project took most of the day, but the crostata was a big hit at our neighbors’ apericena that evening.

Some new friends we recently met have a lovely apartment in town that they are renovating, eventually to rent out.  In back, there’s an unkempt garden with a hazelnut, or nocciola tree.  They gave Jesse a shoebox size carton of hazelnuts, which he duly brought home and presented to me.   This was before we had the nutcracker, and I got to work opening these acorn-sized nuts with a hammer.  It worked, and I didn’t even smash my fingers.  Now what do I do with them?  I decided to try making a jam crostata using the fig jam I made last month, adding ground hazelnuts to the crust.  The crust came out tasty, but way too hard– maybe not enough butter, maybe I cooked it too long.  So, with still more nuts in the pantry, on a cold, rainy day, I trolled the Internet for a hazelnut cake and came across this recipe for a hazelnut Nutella cake.  It’s a Nigella Lawson recipe and it too was easy to make and delicious.  I didn’t have all the listed ingredients on hand, but was able to substitute cocoa and extra cream for the amount of Nutella I was lacking.  

Neighbors are nice and share their bounty with you.  No one wastes anything and people will find ways to use up nuts on a tree.  Not to get off topic, but at dinner on Saturday, I hosted ten Italian and expat friends. Two brought me big bags of apples from their trees.  Our friend Alfonso grows only pink apples, which are a specialty of this region.  My friend Saranella grows several varieties of apples, and she presented me with an overflowing basket artfully arranged with a selection of apples, plus melocotone, or quince, and purple grapes from her vines, which grow so splendidly– the three-pointed green leaves from the vines, the curling stems that attach the grapes, and the voluptuous bunches of swollen, purple grapes.  When you bite into one, you get seeds and skin and this delightful bubble of grape flesh that dissolves in your mouth into a half thimble-full of concord grape juice.  It is indescribably wonderful.  There is no artist like Mother Nature. 

I had way too many apples to keep for eating, so I peeled and sliced most of them, put them in a big pot with sugar and cinnamon and let them bubble away on the stove for a few hours.  They will either become jam, or filling for a crostata, or breakfast with a big glob of plain yogurt and a drizzle of honey.  They will not go to waste.

Also had to get creative with figs this year.  All of our fruit trees, and those of many of our neighbors, produced little fruit this year, and hardly any olives. There was an ice storm in late March that coated the branches, destroying both leaves and fruit.  But the hardy figs were plentiful.  Since we arrived only in mid-August, it was the second (and less flavorful) fruiting.  Nonetheless, in three bouts of cooking, I got more than a dozen jars of fig/ginger jam using the green figs, which are easy to peel.  This was the first year we were in Italy to eat the fruit from our black fig tree.  The figs were extraordinarily good, but they are impossible to peel.  So, I again searched online and found a recipe for preserving figs in syrup.  Very easy to make.  You gently wash the figs to remove any dirt, bugs or leaves.  Place them pointy-side up in a large pot in one or two layers.  Add sugar and lemon peel and let them gently simmer for a few hours, using a wooden spoon to nudge them to the bottom of the pan as they shrink from cooking.  The result is intensely flavorful– concentrated fig flavor, sweet, tart, juicy and chewy at the same time.  Delicious, again with plain yogurt or on the side of a plain cake.

And did I happen to mention – I decided to make that fig jam one Sunday and I had only a few canning jars at home.  As we were sitting at the bar with the usual guys, I asked if anyone knew where I might buy some jars on a Sunday.  A friend of a friend, Maurizio, whom we’d just met that morning said, “Signora, cinque minuti…,” dashed into his car and returned subito with a dozen brand new, empty jars that he uses for honey from his bees.  “No, no,” I protested, “You won’t have enough for yourself…”  “No, no,” said he, “the bees didn’t make so much honey this year, I have more than enough.”  Would he allow me to pay for the jars?  No way.  So for weeks now I’ve been carrying around a jar of jam and a jar of figs in syrup hoping to run into him to thank him for his kindness.  It’s why we love this country.  Happy Harvest!

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