Oh, nuts, it's that time of year again. Sturdy shells are emerging from withering hulls, hitting the ground to await their ultimate destiny--added crunch and flavor to any number of recipes.
Ventura County's about 224 acres of walnuts have matured and are being readied for a frenzied holiday-time market.
"This is the time--now through the end of the year--walnut sales are at their highest," Betty DeBusschere said. She and her husband, Don, own Rancho Shangrila in Ojai and grow 40 acres of walnuts.
Rancho Shangrila features the English walnut variety--a more oval-shaped walnut whose "meats are easier to remove than the rounder black walnut," she said.
"People will buy walnuts and keep them in their freezer to have on hand when they start baking--mostly cookies--for Thanksgiving and Christmas time," DeBusschere said.
Dormant through the winter months, walnut trees blossom the first of May, and within a few weeks, the first signs of the nut appear.
Each developing walnut is encased by a protective green hull, which during this time of year is in the process of drying and letting the now-fortified shell drop to the ground.
"Once they start dropping," DeBusschere said, "the walnuts are picked up by hand." Some growers, however, use a mechanized "walnut sweeper," she said.
There are those stubborn nuts that haven't the wherewithal to fall on their own, so a little coaxing is in order.
A long-armed contraption is attached to the tree. "The walnut shaker has a rubber protected hand that is clamped to the tree, and after the machine is turned on, the tree is shaken for about 30 seconds," DeBusschere said. Some walnuts will fall with the hulls intact, but market-ready walnuts need to be void of this outer casing.
"We'll put them in a machine that pretty much looks and works like a clothes dryer," she said, "As the walnuts tumble, the hulls fall off and drop through holes in the drum."
The walnuts, dirtied by their fall to the ground, are then given a bath.
"After washing, we dry them at 100 degrees for about 12 hours," which kills damaging molds, DeBusschere said.
The walnuts of Rancho Shangrila are grown organically, which means one more step is needed before they hit the market.
"Our buyers will freeze the walnuts for a few days before they are shelled," she said. The alternative, of course, would be to apply pesticides to control any tiny critters clinging on.
DeBusschere said walnuts can be kept in the freezer for several years, for use whenever needed.
"They're not just for baking," she said, "they can also be added to dishes like stir-fry vegetables and salads."
Although Rancho Shangrila will not have its roadside stand set up this year, the walnuts can be purchased at the Ventura County Farmers Market. The market is held 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesdays at Main Street and Mills Road, and 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturdays at Santa Clara and Figueroa streets in Ventura. For more information about the market--which features fresh produce and other items from area farmers--call 529-6266.
* Seaside Banana Gardens--Offers a large variety of locally grown bananas. This week: the Brazilian and the Jamaican Red varietals, both four to six inches long. 6823 Santa Barbara Ave., Ventura. Call 643-4061.
* Friend's Ranches--Offers a year-round supply of lemons and navel oranges. 15150 Maricopa Highway, Ojai. Call 646-2871.
* Otani Izzy Fish Market--Watch this week for fresh catch of red snapper and sea bass. 610 S. A St., Oxnard. Call 483-6519.