Nuts are briefly in demand during mid-winter, but for the rest of the time they’re largely ignored by most people – apart from grievously over-salted peanuts sold as pub snacks to soak up booze. Yet nuts are the perfect food. They are packed with protein, beneficial fats, vitamins and minerals; they are long-lasting when properly stored; they have myriad culinary uses whether in sweet or savoury dishes or whether blanched, chopped, flaked, ground, liquidised or roasted; they come in a wide variety of very different flavours and textures; they are not prohibitively expensive compared to a lot of foods, even in this time of rampant price inflation; and they’re scrumptious! You could say I’m nuts about them…
Nuts are actually fruits in a hard shell, and many of the various species we call nuts are strictly speaking not nuts at all but seeds – in that they naturally free themselves from their shell whereas a ‘true’ nut does not. However, that rigid botanical definition has more or less become redundant over the centuries and the word has come to mean any edible kernel in a shell. These are the main nut species grown commercially today:
Key: Cymraeg – Latin – English
CNAU – NUTS
Almon Prunus dulcis Almond
Native to the eastern Mediterranean and western Asia, almonds are predominately utilised as a sweet in a vast range of cakes, biscuits, pastries, tarts and desserts. In the 20th century US agribusiness came to dominate almond production, concentrated in California where the mild climate, sunshine and water supply made ideal growing conditions for the small trees. But this monopolistic and voracious cornering of the almond ‘market’ has backfired disastrously. Almonds require pollen from different varieties in order to produce nuts, and moreover the pollen can only be transferred from flower to flower by insects. The catastrophic 75% collapse in insect populations around the world is therefore decimating almond production. Every year pollinating bees in nearly two million beehives have to be brought to the orchards manually in the world’s largest man-made pollination event. Prices have inevitably rocketed while new problems of bee colony diseases and fungal pathogens require constant technological intervention to the detriment of the nut’s quality. On top of this the climate crisis that increasingly plagues California with huge wildfires and intractable drought is rapidly transforming what was the ideal almond environment into the very antithesis of what the plant needs. US almond production is turning out to be unsustainable. Perhaps the delicious creamy nut is destined to retreat back to its natural habitats around the Mediterranean. Although almonds grow vigorously in northern Europe, our climate is nowhere near benign enough for nuts to develop, so we must settle for enjoying ornamental almond trees with their spectacular display of rich pink blossoms in urban gardens and along suburban avenues in early spring.
Cashiw Anacardium occidentale Cashew
Originating in the hot tropical zones of equatorial South America, the large, evergreen cashew tree was exported to Portugal’s Asian colonies in the 16th century after it was discovered in Brazil, and from an early foothold in Goa the plant has spread across Asia and Africa to the point where India, Ivory Coast and Vietnam are the world’s main producers today. The ‘nut’ is in fact the kidney-shaped, shell-encased seed that grows at the end of the pseudocarp ‘cashew apple’. It has a delectable smooth texture and addictive taste quite unlike anything else and, from being a rare and pricey luxury item 50 years ago, has become one of the world’s most in demand snack nuts, equally popular whether roasted and salted or raw and unsalted. Mass production has brought the price down somewhat, but they’re still one of the most expensive nuts. I can eat cashews by the bucket-load, with only the prohibitive price (£7 per 450g/1lb) keeping my consumption in check. Although cashew cultivation in itself does not seriously damage the environment, there is an appalling price of human misery paid by the workforce, mostly women, who pick and handle the nuts. Cashew shells are dangerously toxic, oozing caustic acids that induce itching, blisters and skin rashes akin to burns. The nuts require careful and meticulous labour-intensive processing in order to protect cashew consumers from harm, while the terrible health consequences are just dumped on the workers. The ‘industry’ is notorious for dangerous working conditions, exploitation, forced-labour camps and poverty-line wages to ensure the lowest prices possible for western consumers. In India, for instance, over 500,000 women are employed without contracts, without trade union rights, without a guaranteed income, without pensions, without sick pay and without holiday pay – and are not even provided with rudimentary gloves to protect their hands from the terrible burns. Well, it would eat into profits and we can’t have that. This is one more example of what globalised agribusiness does: the true price of the industrial food system is being paid, far from view, by the poorest people. From henceforth I shall eschew the cashew.
Castan Castanea sativa Chestnut
Chestnuts are synonymous with Christmas, thanks to The Christmas Song, written by Robert Wells (1922-1998) and Mel Tormé (1925-1999) and recorded in 1946 with his signature velvety intimacy by Nat King Cole (1919-1965), as well as the fact that the fruits of the chestnut tree are ripe and falling to the ground come December. The huge tree, a native of southern Europe, was introduced to the British Isles by the Romans and, so long as the summers are hot and not too wet, it will produce a good crop of its tasty brown nuts in their spiny coats even in these northern latitudes. For centuries chestnuts were a major free food for the common people, to be eaten fresh, roasted in sweet or savoury recipes, dried and milled into flour or used as a thickener for soups and sauces. Within my memory, during one winter in the 1970s when I sold hot dogs from a mobile barrow in London’s Oxford Street, the chestnut-roasters with their carts and braziers were everywhere in the West End. Now they are a rare sight: the nut’s association with downmarket poor people in a society obsessed with appearance, status, image, fashion and posturing means that chestnuts are hardly eaten at all in the contemporary UK. How stupid.
Cneuen Binwydd Pinus pinea Pine Nut
It’s a little known fact that virtually all parts of a pine tree are edible. However, turning pine needles or bark into something palatable is quite a task so the big evergreen conifers rarely figure on menus – except for the pine nuts tucked away in the cones of the Mediterranean stone pine, an integral ingredient of pesto, the versatile Italian classic from Genoa (for the recipe see here). There are many different pine species in the northern hemisphere (only Pinus sylvestris, pinwydden yr Albanwyr, Scots pine, is native to the UK) and all have their own specific pine nuts, but only the stone pine has the smooth, savoury nuts big enough to be usable. Given that they can’t be artificially cultivated by agribusiness but only produced in the tree’s own good time, they are one of the most environmentally friendly and sustainable of all nuts. Ancora!
Cneuen Brasil Bertholletia excelsa Brazil Nut
From the wondrous Amazon rainforest, these fantastic, feeding nuts crammed with nutrients are produced by one of the tropical forest’s most monumental and longest-lived trees – a towering giant that grows nowhere else. The tree is the sole species in the Bertholletia genus – named after French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) – and will only produce fruit in pristine forests as disturbed forests lack the large-bodied bumblebees of five specific genera which are the only insects capable of pollinating the flowers. Thus the nuts cannot be produced in commercial plantations and are not a product that can be exploited by agribusiness to generate profits; the trees must be left to their own devices and the nuts gathered by hand in the wild as they have been since the beginnings of recorded history. These are indeed very special nuts, from their rock-hard casings which make them the toughest of nuts to crack, to their propagation via the large rainforest rodent the agouti acting as a gardener by burying nuts for future consumption and forgetting about them so they grow into new trees. Sadly, the onslaught on the Amazon rainforest enabled by the criminal government of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro has wiped out 25% of the irreplaceable eco-system as long-standing laws which make the cutting down of a Bertholletia illegal have been deregulated and ignored. The wood of the tree is prized for its quality and chaos capitalist Bolsonaro gave the green light for the loggers to move in for the kill. Thankfully he has just been turfed out of office by the Brazilian people and new leftwing president Lula is determined to stop the carnage that threatens not just the Brazil nut but the entire balance of the global climate and precious biodiversity. I write this as Bolsonaro’s fascist thugs storm the Brazilian parliament, Donald Trump-style, in an attempt to overturn the election result by violence. Despite this, dare I say that there is some hope that, in the catch-phrase of the hugely popular Victorian theatrical farce Charley’s Aunt written by Brandon Thomas (1848-1914), Brazil might still remain the place “where the nuts come from”.
Cneuen Bys Arachis hypogaea Peanut
The peanut is actually a legume in the pea family (hence its name) and is unusual for a legume or for a nut in that the pods containing the nuts develop underground (hence ‘groundnut’ is one of its alternative names). It is the most consumed of all the nuts, mainly due to its huge popularity as peanut butter and a general snack in the USA and Canada, as well as its ubiquity in Latin American and Asian cuisine and its standing as the world’s largest source of vegetable oil and main constituent of margarine. A native of South America, the plant has been hybridised, domesticated and cultivated for over 5,000 years. Growing best in light soils in dry sub-tropical regions, the plant has never got a foothold in Europe but has long been a mainstay crop in Asia. Today global production is dominated by China and India, followed by Nigeria and the US. The industry, now almost entirely mechanised and dependent on chemical fertilisers, has a giant carbon footprint and wreaks untold havoc on the natural world. Moreover, it is highly allergenic to the point of being life-threatening due to anaphylactic shock reactions that affect 1% of the population, and harmful to a further 10% through the spread of peanut dust via its widespread use in a vast variety of industrial products as well as in foods. Meanwhile the agricultural labourers at the plantations are paid, as the phrase goes, peanuts. When sold raw in their unbroken shells they were once widely known as ‘monkey nuts’ in the UK, because people used to be able to buy bags of the nuts at zoos to feed the monkeys and then derive innocent amusement watching our close relatives break open the shells to get at the nuts. Monkey business; simple pleasures.
Cneuen Ffrengig Juglans regia Walnut
Walnuts are best bought in their shells – not just because the shells keep them at their freshest, but also because no nut suits the use of a nutcracker better. The shell is too hard to break manually, but gives way obligingly under the slightest pressure from a nutcracker and, if done correctly, splits beautifully to disgorge its marvellous nut whole and undamaged. The two segments, either side of a thin partition, look remarkably like the two hemispheres of the human brain with their folds and wrinkles and silky lustre, while the complex flavour somehow delivers woodiness, oiliness, bitterness and sweetness in a unique combination. It’s my favourite nut, and that preference is only emphasised by the fact that the word ‘walnut’ has the same derivation as the word ‘wales’ – meaning ‘foreign’ in vulgar Latin and old English. To be called ‘foreign’ by the johnny-come-lately Germanic barbarians who violently seized most of the island of Prydain is an outrageous rewriting of history that remains a standing injustice and insult to this day. No wonder the English/British are so proudly. even gleefully, ignorant about Wales – as confirmed by ostensibly ‘high-brow’ TV quizzes like University Challenge, Mastermind or Only Connect where any question about any aspect of Wales invariably baffles the supposedly intelligent and well-informed contestants. The case for the formal change of name to ‘Cymru’, being boldly led by the FAW, is unanswerable. In the Welsh language, the walnut is the ‘french nut’ – a far more accurate title for a tree which originally hails from southern Europe. The magnificent, spreading tree, which can reach 30m (100ft) high, does produce its nuts in northern Europe too, but it can take well over a decade to establish itself before it fruits and a good crop depends on a mild spring and warm summer. Commercial production of walnuts is dominated by China and the US, and they are eaten on their own (raw, toasted or pickled), used as an ingredient in a multitude of sweet and savoury dishes, or refined into walnut oil, a foodie’s favourite as a salad dressing. Compared to most other nuts, the walnut does little damage to the natural world – so get cracking!
Cneuen Goco Cocos nucifera Coconut
The coconut is such an incredible tree that whole cultures and societies have been built upon its limitless qualities. The inner flesh of the mature massive seed as well as the ‘milk’ and ‘water’ extracted from it have been an intrinsic, critical part of the diet of people in the tropics since prehistory, particularly in the palm’s native Polynesian territories on the salty, thin-soiled coasts of the myriad islands of the western Pacific ocean. In addition the plant is used to supply fuel, medicine, cosmetics, abrasives, flotation devices, building materials, bowls, utensils and musical instruments, while the coir fibre from the husk is used to make ropes, mats, doormats, brushes, sacks, caulking for boats and stuffing for mattresses, the trunks are used to construct bridges and huts or to form canoes, containers and drums, the timber is an excellent hardwood for specialist construction and the manufacture of furniture, the roots function as dyes, folk medicines, mouthwashes and toothbrushes, and the leaves are used to make brooms, baskets, thatch, home decorations and fertilisers. Even coconut leftovers are useful: as livestock feed, as perfume, as tools and shelters for other animals, as harmless target games at funfairs, and as halved, hollowed-out bird-feeders to attract tits to cold winter gardens far from the coconut’s tropical stamping-grounds. Not for nothing is it called in Sanskrit ‘the tree which provides everything’, in Malay ‘the tree of a thousand uses’ and in Filipino ‘the tree of life’. But, as so often happens when humans intervene and interact with nature, the growth of the coconut trade to supply faddish North Americans and Europeans with non-fattening milks and protein powders and the confectionery industry with an unlimited range of sweet foods, is beginning to create major environmental problems in the main producing countries (Indonesia, India and the Philippines), threatening endangered habitats like mangroves, wetlands, beaches and forests and evolving susceptibility to lethal new diseases and pest invasions through greedy overkill. The skilled workers who traditionally shinned up the trees to pick the coconuts are being replaced by mechanical climbing devices, inbuilt ladders, pulleys and ropes and even automated robots – all to the detriment of the trunks by cutting into the bark and creating entry points for infections. Paradise is being lost.
Cneuen Gyll Corylus avellana Hazelnut
A nut tree that is native to temperate northern Europe, hardy hazel bears its pendulous, pale-yellow catkins in spring followed by the nuts which mature by autumn. Growing in clusters of two to four and enclosed in a sheath-like husk, they can be gathered when they begin to turn brown. The tree (collen) is embedded deep in Welsh culture, the nuts being considered bringers of wisdom and inspiration throughout the Celtic world. The commercial production of hazelnuts has never developed in Wales, where the shrubby trees grow wild in woods and hedgerows, propagating themselves readily and bestowing their vitamin and mineral-rich free harvest year after year. I collect hazelnuts most years, in the scraps of extant countryside around Cardiff not yet concreted over – always making sure I don’t take too many so that there are plenty left for squirrels, dormice, voles and birds. Turkey, Italy and the US are the main producers globally, with the distinctly sweet and earthy flavour being widely used in a range of confectionary, particularly pralines, truffles, meringues, cakes, spreads and mueslis. As the harvesting of hazelnuts is performed by hand or the raking up of fallen nuts, mass production in orchards treads lightly on the environment compared to most nuts. Incidentally, there are other nuts native to the British Isles, but I wouldn’t eat them if I were you: mesen – Quercus robur – acorn; castanwydden geffyl – Aesculus hippocastanum – conker; cneuen ddaear – Conopodium majus – earthnut/pignut.
Macadamia Macadamia integrifolia Macadamia
Up until about 30 years ago hardly anybody outside of Australia had heard of macadamia nuts, but the remorseless homogenising and expansionist logic of globalisation has introduced them to supermarket dry goods aisles from pole to pole and now there can’t be many who haven’t enjoyed the buttery, crisp crunch of the creamy orbs. Native to the tropical parts of north-eastern Australia, it wasn’t until 1828 that a European first encountered the evergreen flowering trees that had been a staple bushfood of the Aboriginal peoples for more than 50,000 years. By 1857 the genus had been given its name in honour of Glasgow-born John Macadam (1827-1865), who migrated to Australia in 1855, a distinguished analytical chemist and lecturer in medicine, natural science, agriculture and chemistry. The nuts were slow spreading out from their homelands: the first significant plantation outside Australia was established in Hawaii in 1946 and they were not readily obtainable in the US until the 1960s. Today South Africa has surpassed Australia as the largest producer of macadamias. At no less than £20 per pound weight (450g) they are comfortably the world’s most expensive nut – mainly because they require a specifically hot, wet climate and very rich soil, plus the fact that a tree takes a decade to begin to produce nuts which then can only be harvested once or twice a year in a highly labour intensive process necessitated by a shell that conceals the ripeness or otherwise of the nut inside until examined by experienced hand-pickers. In the never-ending austerity and collapsed public services of Tory UK, these nuts are a luxury few can afford.
Pecan Carya illinoinensis Pecan
An authentic all-American nut, both in its native territory in the southern states and the Mississippi catchment and in its popularity and culinary usage – Pecan Pie being as American as…um…school shootings. The yanks are welcome to it; for me it’s just an over-cultivated and hybridised inferior bland walnut, which its wrinkly texture resembles. Nowadays available in expensive small packets in UK supermarkets, the nut thankfully hasn’t really caught on here – a most unusual reluctance to embrace any and every manifestation of Americana in the slavering 51st state.
Pistachio Pistacia vera Pistachio
If pistachio trees ever grew in Cymru then the end of the world would be well and truly nigh, given that their native habitat is the very hot, salty deserts of Iran, Iraq and Syria. One of the most tasty nuts to my refined palate (although that could just be because they usually come heavily salted), pistachios are mainly cultivated in the US, Turkey and Iran and are eaten whole as a snack, either fresh or roasted and salted like peanuts, or made into ice cream, kulfi, gelato, sorbets, butters, pastes and a host of confections. It is rather a let-down to learn that the alluring green colour of the pistachio ice cream I guzzle on the end of Penarth Pier is generated artificially with dyes. This is just one of the many issues with mass pistachio production: the easily split shells allow the entry of dangerous pathogens, moulds and soil-born carcinogenic aflatoxins and the nut itself can cause severe allergic reactions.
Whenever the average lumpen carnivore thinks of vegetarian or vegan food, they unimaginatively and mockingly think of the old hippy standby the nut roast. Well, I’m going to throw that blinkered bigotry back in their unknowing faces with this recipe:
RHOST CNAU/NUT ROAST
1 onion, chopped
25g (1oz) vegetable oil
225g (8oz) mixed nuts (i.e. almonds, brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, walnuts, etc)
100g (4oz) wholemeal breadcrumbs
300ml (½ pint) vegetable stock
1 tsp yeast extract
1 tbsp dried mixed herbs
salt & pepper
1) Fry the onion gently until soft
2) Grind the nuts and combine with the breadcrumbs
3) Warm the stock and the yeast extract
4) Mix all the ingredients in a bowl
5) Turn into a greased shallow baking dish, level the surface, bake for 30 minutes in a hot oven until golden brown
Pictures: Public Domain