“I had an interest in nuts from an early age,” he says. “It was customary in my youth for them to be the last part of a holiday meal.” Me too. To this day, I gaze wide-eyed at the grocery store displays overflowing with nuts of every kind. They have got to be one of the most versatile foods around. Keep them on hand year-round and pull them out when unexpected company drops by. Or, grab a handful when you need an energy-boosting high protein snack. A plethora of Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties certainly saw me eating my fill of them. Yours too, I’ll bet. So, you might think me a bit nutty when I suggest you stock up now. Having just been harvested in the fall, February is still a great time to buy them.
Now, I knew that nut trees technically grow in Ontario. I’ve seen local walnuts sold at farmers’ markets. I even have a black walnut tree growing in my own backyard that’s been known to drop its rock-hard, peach-sized fruit onto the heads of unsuspecting shade-seekers. But, I had no idea that it would even be possible to grow a variety of nuts on a larger scale here. I thought nuts were denizens of much warmer climes. It turns out that Ontario has what it takes. Granted, you’re probably never going to find locally grown macadamias. But three types of peanuts, and over 20 types of tree nuts, like to call this province home. Not too hot, not too cold, with some lake effect conditions — the climate here is good enough to keep them all happy. Ultimately, that’s the message Grimo wants to send out.
Want to get in on the ground floor of an enterprise that’s about to make it big? Take Grimo’s good advice and start planting nut trees. In 1972, his passion and drive inspired a handful of local enthusiasts to help him create the Society of Ontario Nut Growers (SONG). As a group, the farmers promote the industry by encouraging research into the kinds of nuts that can best be grown on our diverse soil and by supporting farmers willing to give nuts a try. Already, there are about 100 acres across Ontario sprouting nut trees, with plans that will see another 100 acres of hazelnuts planted over the next few years.
Two experimental plots — one in Vineland, the other in Simcoe — are testing grounds for new, disease-resistant varieties of hazelnuts. There’s a huge market banking on their success, too. Ferrero, makers of Nutella and other hazelnut-filled chocolates, built a plant in the city of Brantford, Ontario in 2006. The chocolate products coming out of that factory are sold throughout North America. As I write, Ferrero imports over 5000 tonnes of hazelnuts from Turkey alone. They would much prefer to source the nuts locally. Unfortunately, Ontario doesn’t produce the required number. Also, the hazelnuts grown here aren’t consistent in quality. Getting it right is a challenge that Ferrero, together with the researchers at the University of Guelph, will no doubt overcome, given a little time.
Hazelnuts aren’t the only avenue to success for this industry. “The heartnut has been largely neglected,” says Grimo. Because this nut, a Japanese walnut variety, thrives in the type of sandy soil covering Southwestern Ontario, it makes a great replacement crop for tobacco. Heartnuts attract a large share of the nut market, too. Aficionados insist that to know them is to love them, because they’re mildly sweet and lack the bitterness that’s inherent to walnuts. They’re pretty, too. Apparently, the best of them crack evenly to reveal a perfectly shaped heart.
Right now, most heartnuts available to you and me are imported. Grimo reminds me that as tempting as those might be, fresh nuts picked close to home are so much better tasting than those that have had to travel halfway across the world. After tasting them for myself, I have to agree. If there’s a downside to the heartnut, it’s this: it is literally a tough nut to crack. Grimo assures me that the problem will soon be solved (and it won’t require enlisting the help of a squirrel!). SONG and researchers at the University of Windsor are in the process of developing a special heartnut cracker. Perhaps they can devise one for those pesky black walnuts, too!
Here’s a partial list of Ontario’s locally grown nuts. Look for them at farmers’ markets or get out to the farms yourself. Check out SONG (songonline.ca) for a list of nut-growing farmers (remember to call ahead first). Can’t get out to the countryside? Check out Grimo Nut Nursery (grimonut.com) and Picard’s (picardspeanuts.com) for online sales of nuts and nut trees.
• heartnut • hazelnut
• sweet chestnut • black walnut
• Persian walnut • butternut
• shellbark hickory • ginkgo
• northern pecan • hican (pecan/hickory cross)
• shagbark hickory • buarnut (butternut/heartnut cross)
• nut pines • almond
It’s tempting, for the sake of convenience, to buy nuts that have already been shelled. Resist, if you can. They’re fresher in-shell, and much more fun. First, call up a few friends and invite them over. Then, while you’re waiting for them to arrive, fire up the oven, roast the nuts and pop open a bottle of sparkling wine.
You can store nuts (in-shell or not) at room temperature for up to three months. But the sooner you eat them, the better they will taste. For longer storage, pack them into a zipper storage bag and leave them in the refrigerator for up to six months, or in the freezer for up to one year.
Serves 2 to 3
This treat is, by far, my favourite wintertime warm-up. The sweet aroma emanating from these little bundles is heavenly, and the flavour is equally enticing. Just be careful not to burn your fingers!
1 lb chestnuts
1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut an X into the bottom of each chestnut.
2. Place them in an even layer on a baking sheet. Roast nuts for 30 to 45 minutes, or until shell has peeled away from where it was scored.
3. Take one out and peel it. Both the shell and the skin should come off easily. If they don’t, continue roasting, checking the nuts periodically.
Peel the roasted chestnuts, add a sprinkling of salt and enjoy with sparkling wine or even Pinot Noir.