Sally and Ross Smith’s walnut orchard is on an island. Sort of. The 200-acre property, near Oberon, NSW, sits on a jutting headland carved out by Stoney Creek, a snaking waterway that almost encircles the orchard and gives the property its name. The kids and I visited last Friday, on our way to visit my parents who live about half an hour away. I’ve been a big fan of their walnuts for some months now but was just was bowled over by the beauty of their property, (called The Island), its orchard, creek and geography.
Sally, a retired medical scientist and Ross, a cancer surgeon, bought the orchard in 2009 and sell their nuts through the Bathurst and Orange farmers markets. While they are finalising their website, Sally also takes email orders.
Ross still runs a research laboratory in Sydney and among other projects, his work has involved studying omega-3 fatty acids and how they can help reduce pain and symptoms of pancreatic cancer. “So through work I’ve always been interested in walnuts and their health properties. Plus, we were looking to make a move to the country, so when this place came up for sale we jumped”.
Ross and Sally are in the process of developing a range of value-added products for the farmers markets, so during a brief break in their winter pruning, the kids and I helped ‘taste test’ a few options. They include the above Armenian walnut cake, deep and golden with creamy nuts and nutmeg, and some beautifully short walnut and chocolate biscuits (recipes for both below).
These walnuts are a world away from the soggy, floury imported ones we mostly find on supermarket shelves. As Sally says, “some say they don’t like walnuts because their experience is of a bitter taste, this is because most of the walnuts sold in Australia have come from overseas and may have been stored as kernels for many months, or even years, in poor conditions. Once the nuts are shelled, they don’t keep for long as the skin oxidises and this makes the nuts bitter, especially if they are packed loosely. Also, if the nuts have not been kept cool and dry, the oils can go rancid. And the cracking process chips off the corners of the kernels, producing that unattractive battered look.”
Sally and Ross’s nuts are, on the other hand, harvested by hand and dried with care. The kernels are vacuum packed to remove oxygen which could damage the flavour, and they only sell nuts within a year of harvest. This means they keep that warm, creamy taste for a year in the shell, or three months in the vacuum pack.
“We think that in the future, people will eat more quality walnuts not just because of their taste but also their amazing health benefits too,” Sally says. She explains that while we have known they are good for us for over 20 years, new research shows that a handful a day (30g) as part of a healthy diet can help protect people against Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Armenian Nutmeg Cake
This recipe was given to Sally’s mother 40 years ago and produces a warm, spiced cake that was such a treat, especially with the green tea Sally poured, steaming and lightly perfumed with rose petals.
1 ½ cups brown sugar
1 ½ cups self raising flour
¾ cup milk
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 level teaspoon soda bicarbonate
20 new season walnut halves, preferably from our walnut grove!
Butter a 20cm deep cake tin and line the base with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 170C. Mix the sugar, flour and nutmeg in a large bowl or a food processor. Add the butter and cut in with a knife or whiz in the processor till the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Place half in the cake tin.
Beat the egg in a small bowl, add milk and soda bicarb, then blend into the remaining flour mixture. Pour over the dry crumbly mixture in the cake tin. Place walnut halves on top and bake for about 45 minutes. Cake will be cooked when it springs back if pressed gently.
Allow to cool for 10 minutes before carefully turning out.
Walnut and chocolate biscuits
Alice and I were a bit rude about these biscuits and helped ourselves to far more than was polite. But they were so crunchy and delicious it was hard to stop at one. Thank you so much Sally for sharing the recipe.
125g butter, softened
110g caster sugar
90g brown sugar
1 teaspoon natural vanilla essence (or you could try orange rind)
1 large egg
100g self raising flour
150g plain flour
150g dark chocolate chips
150 chopped new season walnuts, preferably from our walnut grove!
Preheat oven to 180C. Line 2 large or 3 medium baking trays with non-stick baking paper. Beat butter, caster sugar, brown sugar and vanilla or rind together till pale and creamy. Add egg and beat till combined. Stir plain flour and SR flour together in a small bowl. Add flour, chocolate chips and walnuts to the butter mixture, stir till well combined. Shape heaped teaspoons of dough into balls and place about 6cm apart on baking tray, flattening them slightly. Bake 13-15 minutes or till they are slightly golden. They’ll be soft but will firm as they cool. Remove from oven, let cool on a baking tray before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.