As a food grower and consumer I take great pride in what I grow, eat, and sell. That being said, I get numerous requests for Chandler nuts every year. It is frustrating because Chandlers are basically a large light colored flavorless nut. With so many really good varieties out there I feel it is way past time I start educating those who may have been wondering about walnut varieties. Please read on:
Before I get into varieties I will share a few short facts about walnuts.It may come as no surprise to you that in California over 4000 independent growers produce 99 percent of the commercial U.S. walnut supply, a 1.4 billion dollar industry.
The most common varieties are Chandler, Hartley, and Howards. Not to be forgotten, some older varieties include Sers, Franquetts, and Vina varieties. In reality there are many, many different varieties that vary in size, shape, and color.
How did we get so many varieties?
Like almost all fruits and vegetables different varieties are bred for vigor, disease, resistance and as always, to give the consumer what they want…almost always. Marketing of these new varieties play into consumer education. What I mean is many times what is being marketed to us is not always true. For example one day coffee is bad for us, the next it is good for us. This example is common with many other things like wine, eggs, and butter. What do we believe?
Why Variety Matters?
As a grower walnut varieties are extremely important. It is also very important to chiefs and bakers of all sorts who look for the best quality. This is the main reason why I want to spread the word about walnut varieties. To those who simply want a walnut from the store, variety is clearly not an issue, as they are not sold by variety. They are simply sold as a year old bag of nuts.
Many times as a producer and seller of English walnuts I am asked if I sell Chandler walnuts. We grow a few trees, but I do not sell them to the consumer, these go straight to the processor. Kind of like how paste type tomatoes go straight to the processor. The public has been sold a bill of goods on these nuts because they are larger and one of the lightest varieties; problem is THEY HAVE NO FLAVOR. Or some may say they taste like cardboard. Yet, time and again I am asked if I have them. I don’t sell food I do not like myself. So does variety matter? To those who really love their walnuts it does, and to others which variety you are eating may mean nothing. If you have not had fresh nuts right off the tree then you will also be in for a big surprise. The flavor is night and day compared to the ones you buy in the store.
So what are the best tasting varieties? I will call this purely opinion as this can be debatable. But here is what my judging is based on…FLAVOR!
One of my favorite varieties of all time is a Eureka. It is one of the largest varieties there are and it acts like a super nut on flavor. When you bite into a Eureka nut it has a strong walnut flavor void of bitterness. The skin is dark, which stands out nice in a baked good. And because of its size it looks fabulous on top of things. It also cracks out nicely. It is tougher to crack, but when it does it comes out in large whole pieces. Other acceptable varieties include Sers and Franquetts, although their flavor is not as strong and their size is smaller- followed by the always dependable Hartleys.
How did Chandlers become so popular? I had to ask this question myself after tasting one. I thought how could something so tasteless earn such popularity among consumers?
Mariani Nut Company tried their best to explain it to me. While cross breeding to come up with more stable nuts scientists came up with the Chandler. It quickly gained popularity with the Chinese because they really liked the light nuts for baked goods. Because they were consuming more, farmers began to plant more and more of this variety earning them top dollar. Marketing of course played a big part. The size and color of Chandlers became a selling point. They also have other benefits for the producer. Chandlers are less susceptible to disease and crack out better than other varieties. In reality, every variety has its strength and weakness when it comes to protection and health of the walnut tree.
Because Chandlers have been so heavily marketed it is hard to sell anything else, and all these other varieties fall to the wayside loosing popularity and in some cases, approach extinction. Of course we have heard this before with other types of foods. Tomatoes come to mind and is a good example. We all want to grow disease resistant tomatoes that produce well, so we grow Early Girls, Celebritys or Sweet 100s, ignoring other older “heirloom” varieties that many times taste so much better.
Will there be an end to the madness?
Most likely not anytime soon. As I mentioned, walnuts are a 1.4 billion dollar industry and is run by those who grow the most acreage, and the consumer of course. It’s a relationship that feeds off of each other. If people like lighter colored nuts, then they are going to get just that. And if the farmer/corporation invested a ton of dough into planting exactly what you want, then why plant and market anything else?
As for me and my nuts, I like to grow what I like to eat, therefore we grow Hartley nuts. If I wanted to plant an orchard full of Eureka nuts, then the nut companies would not pay me for them. I would have to market and convince many, many people that my nuts are superior despite the nut industry’s current marketing advice. It is quite an uphill battle and we don’t have enough acreage to take on that experiment, but in the mean time…I will plant a few more Eureka trees for my friends and my own enjoyment educating one person at a time.
(1)Eureka variety (2) Hartley variety (3) Chandler variety (4) Ser variety (5) Black Walnut
For more information about walnut varieties please visit the UC Davis Improvement Program link. Also feel free to add your comments regarding what your favorite varieties are, or if it even matters to you. If you made it this far it may matter just a bit.