Thursday, 6 October 2011

Walnut blues


Once upon a time there was a King in Laconia who had three daughters: Orphe, Lyco and Carya. One day the god Apollo visited and he spent such a nice time at the palace in Laconia that he rewarded the daughters of the king by giving them the power to see into the future: on the one condition that they would never do anything against the wishes of a god. A while later it was Dionysus who paid a visit to the palace. He fell in love with Carya. But Carya’s sisters were jealous and did everything to prevent the two lovers from meeting. The sisters had to be punished because this was going against a wish of a god. Orphe and Lyco went mad and turned into rocks. Carya was changed into a walnut tree.

And this is how the walnut tree (Juglans regia) became a symbol for wisdom and in ancient times was sometimes seen as an oracle. Not only was Carya’s name given to the nut tree (in Greek karydia), but also to a Greek style of building: caryatids. These are sculpted female figures serving as architectural supports, pillars. The most famous Caryatids can be found at the Parthenon in Athens, where six female columns support the roof of the Erechteion.

Others say that these female pillars are named after the village Carya, a place on the Peloponessus famous for its walnuts. Once there was a temple for Artemis Caryatis, where women danced for this goddess with large baskets full of reed on their heads.

You might find a caryatid in Mytilini; but there are not many of them on the island. Though there are plenty of walnut trees around, because its fruit is an important ingredient in the Greek kitchen, especially in sweet dishes.

Just like olives, walnuts are beaten out of the trees. And because a walnut tree is far bigger than an olive tree, the beaters have climb into the trees with their sticks. So don’t be amazed if, walking along, you find a tree full of men striking with full force the branches with sticks. Under the tree the women will wait patiently to gather all the fallen fruit.

The walnut grows in a green shell and when this bursts open or turns black, it’s harvest time. And then work is just beginning; because often you have to get the nut out of this green shell. When I first did this job I didn’t listen to a neighbour who warned me to wear gloves. So my fingers turned brown and the stain stayed for days. With these green shells you can make a wonderful hair dye, used by Greek women to keep their hair beautifully black. Deep black is also the colour of the liquor made out of unripe walnuts.

Once the nut has been removed from its soft green shell it has to be cracked open, which is another time consuming job because cracking of nuts requires some skill with or without a nutcracker. A friend of mine told me that as a child he cracked the nuts in the door hinge. I thought this a very clever idea; but he told me that the only result was that his father got mad because the inner walnut shells are so hard that they can damage the door. In the aeroplane industry the hard shells are used for polishing, NASA still uses ground shells for insulation) material and in the old times bakers used ground nut shells to make an anti-stick coating in their ovens.

In these beautiful autumnal days you might see old women sitting outside with large heaps of walnuts in front of them, carefully cracking all the nuts. They patiently do their job so that they have enough cracked walnuts to make cakes, cookies or a famous baklava.

Baklava is that very sweet pastry in which a filling of nuts is put between filo layers and then it is doused with a sugar syrup or honey. Baklava is also made with pistachios, almonds and pinenuts, as well as walnuts.

All over the world this pastry is called baklava, although spelled differently in each country and it’s fairly certain that it comes from the Ottoman Empire. According to Wikipedia it originated in the kitchens in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul where, every fifteenth of the month during Ramadan, the sultan presented huge plates of baklava to his Janissaries. Others say that this sweet pastry was already known in Mesopotamia or that it was a popular desert in Byzantium times.

How old it may be and wherever it came from, the recipes for baklava were brought to Greece by the refugees from Asia Minor in the Twentieth century and nowadays this pastry is firmly settled in the Greek kitchen. When making a baklava, they always make it big enough to last for days. Of course that also means that it takes many hours to crack the nuts for it.

That doesn’t matter because raw walnuts are good against stress and I imagine that two hours cracking walnuts can also calm you down. Walnuts contain phosphor, magnesium, zinc, iron and calcium; and amongst others things they keep your arteries elastic. They contain twice the antioxidants of other nuts like peanuts, almonds, pistachios and cashews.

So whenever you pass a walnut tree that still has its fruit hanging, beating them out will give you the perfect anti-stress therapy. Look for a nice recipe for cake or cookies with walnuts and you’ll see: walnuts’ curative powers will revive you.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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