Great Smoky Mountains Foraging

Find the choicest black walnuts, then crush them into this delicious pesto

The black walnut (right) is a harder nut to crack than the walnut (left), but has its rewards     Photo: MARGRIT HIRSCH/via Shutterstock (left) and HQ Creations/Flickr (right)

WHERE: Long Branch Environmental Center in Leicester, North Carolina

WHY: The black walnut tree has a wide range across the eastern half of the country, but the nut’s intense, sweet, but bitter flavor has a home in the southern Appalachian palate. Plus, the Long Branch Environmental Center is more than a u-pick farm, it's a feel-good farm. The conservatory, which boasts 1,600 acres of wilderness and farmland, started in 1974 as an ecological sanctuary and land trust. It offers waterfalls, solar energy demonstrations, and hiking trails up to 5,152-foot summit Big Sandy Mush Bald. Aside from all that goodness, and the greatness of the walnuts ($5/pound), you can pick chestnuts, raspberries, and blueberries, while they last.

HOW: The husked nut drops from the tree when ripe, so collect yellow-green pods from the ground. When you get home, armed with sturdy rubber gloves to keep the juglone (walnut juice) from staining your hands, cut away and remove the outer husk with a paring or pocket knife. Or, as many seasoned walnut pickers do, simply toss the husked nuts on the driveway and let your car do the dirty work. Once the husk is free, let the shelled nuts dehydrate in a dry, squirrel-free zone for days to weeks. The longer you wait the less rubbery the meats become. Remove the meats from the shell using a vice or a hammer. Find details and tricks here.

GET THERE: The environmental center is open for visitors any time, but harvests must be done appointment only. No exceptions. Contact Paul Gallimore at watershed.keeper@gmail.com to arrange a visit and get directions. The farm is a 3.5 hour drive northeast from Atlanta. You'll take I-985 N/US-23 N through the Chattahoochee National Forest, but ask Gallimore for detailed directions to the farm.

DO IT RIGHT: Chef Mark Rosenstein, of The Market Place and The Frog & Owl Café, has been called the godfather of the local food movement in Western North Carolina for his knack for teasing out Appalachian flavors and tastes. Here’s a recipe for his delectable BLACK WALNUT PESTO, which you can slather onto a grilled brushetta with a zesty herb such as arugula or an Asian mustard green.

1 cup fresh basil (leaves only)
1/4 cup broad leaf parsley (leaves only)
2 cloves fresh garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
zest of one orange
1/2 cup black walnuts
1/8 cup blanched almonds
1/4 - 1/2 cup walnut oil, as needed

Pick leaves of basil and parsley. Crush garlic on the salt. Add herbs, garlic, salt, orange zest, black walnuts, almonds to the bowl of a food processor (or powerful blender). Turn on medium speed and slowly pour walnut oil into the processor, puree until smooth. Refrigerate.

Use as you would pesto made with pine nuts. Rosenstein suggests serving with a sauvignon blanc from the Loire or a malty high gravity beer.

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