Walnuts are available year-round, but the most traditional season for their consumption is late fall and winter, particularly around Christmas and New Year's. We're lucky that Rancho La Viña, a remnant of the walnut groves that once covered Southern California, sells high-quality nuts and oil at local farmers markets.
The ranch, owned by the Baer family since 1869, grows 185 acres of walnuts in the Santa Rita Hills, between Lompoc and Buellton in Santa Barbara County, prime wine country.
Last week it started selling nuts from the 2009 harvest, as well as oil freshly pressed from it. Many American walnut oils tend to be pretty bland, with no depth or complexity, but the product from Rancho La Viña, sold under the label La Nogalera, is a noble oil, fresh and rich, with smoky, toasted notes. It's ideal for dipping bread, or for making salad dressing.
Christopher Schubert, who sells the oil at farmers markets to customers including top restaurants such as A.O.C., Tavern and Anisette, also has a business giving tours of the Santa Barbara wine country, and he takes a connoisseur's approach to walnut oil. The coastal growing area is key to the mild, buttery flavor of the nuts, because they don't sunburn or dry out on the tree, he says.
The 2008 oil, which is still available, is darker and heavier; the 2009 oil is lighter in color and taste. "I prefer the new oil's subtlety," Schubert says. "It's the buttery character, the natural flavor of the walnut, that intrigues me most."
The walnut, Juglans regia, originated in central and western Asia but has been cultivated in Europe for so long that in France the word for nut, "noix," usually refers to the walnut. The Spanish padres and early settlers grew walnuts in California starting in the early 19th century, but these were hard-shell types, very difficult to crack; the soft-shell types, which prevail today, were pioneered by Joseph Sexton of Santa Barbara, who planted a large sack of walnuts at his farm in Goleta in 1867 and selected the most promising seedlings.
Walnut cultivation in Southern California, based on varieties derived from Sexton's orchard, boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties were the leading growing districts. But cultivation also started in Northern California, based on varieties introduced from France, whereas after World War II the southern groves succumbed to development.
Today none of the four southern counties even bothers to report walnut plantings, and more than 95% of the state's quarter-million acres of walnuts is grown in the Central Valley, mostly in the northern and central parts.
The walnut harvest, which I observed in early October at the historic Whitney Warren Ranch in Wheatland, 35 miles north of Sacramento, is a noisy, dusty process. A machine grabs the tree trunks and shakes off the nuts, which then are swept into long windrows between the trees. Next, a mechanized harvester collects them off the orchard floor, sorts out the rough debris and transports the nuts to a nearby processing facility. There, any remaining husks (the green, fleshy skins of the walnut fruits) are removed, and the nuts are dried so that they keep well.
Rancho La Viña performs these steps at its own property, but then sends the nuts to processors in Northern California to be shelled, toasted and pressed into oil.
Schubert, 55, is far from a typical farmers market employee. To begin with, he descends from a brother of Franz Schubert, the great composer (although he says he is more partial to the music of Mozart). Raised in San Luis Obispo, he attended UC Santa Barbara and worked for 20 years at high-level jobs in semiconductor sales, mostly in Washington state.
Seven years ago, he moved back to Santa Barbara and decided to try something different, ideally involving people and food or wine. In addition to starting his wine tours business, he had become friendly with José Baer, the manager and a co-owner of Rancho La Viña. He became enchanted by the walnut orchard and so started selling its products at farmers markets.
"I love it, I really enjoy being on the front lines and talking directly to my customers," he says.
Rancho La Viña sells walnuts and walnut oil at the Santa Monica (Saturday organic and Wednesday), Hollywood (Sunday), Ojai (Sunday) and Santa Barbara (Saturday and Tuesday) farmers markets; 250 milliliters (2009 crop), $15; 500 milliliters (2008 crop), $25. The oil is also available at Surfas in Culver City and Dragon Herbs in Beverly Hills and Santa Monica.
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