by Rebecca Shea
Summer’s hottest weather is waning, and with it go some of the season’s most delightful recreations—swimming, tennis, boating, and berry-picking. But don’t lament these activities and crawl off to hibernate just yet because the crisp, bright days of early fall herald a whole new batch of delightful recreations like apple-picking, bonfires, hiking, and leaf viewing.
|Raw hickory nuts still on the tree. Photo by Joan Horton.
There is also another, older way of spending an autumnal day in the woods that is rather uncommon these days—nutting! Nutting? Yes, nutting—the gathering of wild edible nuts, foraged from the surrounding woods. Gathering wild edibles is one of the latest food trends (as well as one of the most primitive); so it’s not all that nutty to suggest such an activity. Foraged nuts are delicious and extremely good for you, packed with nutrients as well as healthy fats and oils. And considering the high price of nuts in the supermarket, it’s worth a shot.
People have been gathering nuts since the beginning of time (nearly). In 1995, a shallow pit was discovered on an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, full of thousands of burned hazelnut shells which were carbon dated to about 7,000 BCE.
In medieval times, in mid September people celebrated Holy Rood Day, honoring the wooden crucifix. Traditionally, folks went nut gathering on that holy day. In Europe this meant gathering hazel nuts—an important protein source in the winter for people and animals. The Dictionary of English Folk Lore describes village nut gathering parties as “Lively affairs with much bawdiness and love making and jokes about testicles because of the way the nuts are clustered on the branches.” The hazel nut was, in fact, a medieval symbol of fertility.
This rural tradition existed for centuries. In America, “nutting parties” were a popular social activity in the late 19th century. Single sex and co-ed parties (many without supervision) ventured into the woodlands to gather food and socialize. Armed with baskets, crooks, and homemade apparatuses for shaking loose the nuts from the trees, people frolicked in the autumn light. Elaborate picnic lunches were a requirement, as were amusing competitive games, which all present partook in.
In our area, nuts are usually ready to harvest from mid-September through October. Many nut trees produce on a three-year cycle within which they will produce a heavy crop of nuts one year, almost none the following year, and a moderate amount the third year. Fortunately, not all nut tree varieties are on the same cycle.
With any luck, a nutting day in our area may bring you a small harvest of luscious black walnuts, hearty white oak acorns, the buttery Hickory pinenuts, or tasty and tender beechnut. Use your harvest to make something special such as a simple Forager’s Cake. Combine foraged blackberries and walnuts with a simple Eve’s Pudding Cake batter.
When gathering nuts, bring along a basket to hold them and a decent field guide to identify the trees that bear nuts edible for humans. It’s important not to gather non-edible nuts—these are often an vital food source wild animals. You may also consider taking a knowledgeable friend or hiring a wild food guide to lead a nutting-party for you and your friends. Seasoned foragers can awaken the wonders of the surrounding environment with their unique perspective on the natural world.
Tips for a Nutting Party
• If you are gathering nuts on private land, it’s important to get permission from the landowner before setting foot on the property.
• In the fall, the woods are used not only for nut gathering but also deer hunting. Dress appropriately and use caution.
• Carry out what you carry in.
• Try not to tread on or disturb wild flowers, which are so fragile and important to the local ecology.
• Check yourself for ticks.
If you can’t organize a nutting party, you can still throw a nutting-themed party and serve all refreshments made of seasonal, nutty ingredients: Waldorf Salad, cream of almond soup, cheese balls with walnuts, burnt almond ice cream, pecan cake, just to name a few. ’Tis the season to be nutty.