I'm a native Texan with a passion for good food and Texas history. Tex-Mex is a way of life for me, and so is baking!
Just a week ago I stood in this beautiful Walnut orchard as a guest of the California Walnut Board and learned all of the hard work, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into growing 99% of our nation’s walnuts in the tiny farming communities surrounding Sacramento.
I can’t tell you how beautiful it was. I don’t think I can ever fully explain how touched I was by each of the people I met on this trip – each so passionate about food, sustainability, local eating, and health.
For years, walnuts (and all nuts, really) have gotten a bad rap. Too high in fat, the experts said. Not good for you, said others. Well guess what? There are multiple studies out now proving that not only are walnuts excellent for your overall health, but they’re proving to be helpful in a diabetic diet, and in a general weight loss diet overall.
The makeup of a walnut includes Omega 3 fatty acids like you find in fish, excellent for heart health. The protein and fiber content of a walnut means that if you eat a handful before a meal (conveniently, a handful happens to be almost always 1 ounce), you’ll feel full and stay full longer. They’re a powerful little super food that we should all be paying more attention to.
And now, on the photographs. They will tell the story much better than I can do with just words.
We started the day at beautiful The Kitchen Restaurant.
Fresh ingredients abounded as we were treated to courses by each of the chefs.
Chef Jeff Clark talking about Walnut butter.
Walnut butter crostata with carmelized onions and arugula.
Chef Michael Tuohy, head chef at The Citizen Hotel’s restaurant, Grange, where we stayed. His salad was magnificent.
Duck and blue cheese salad with duck skin chicharrone and walnut oil vinegarette.
Chef Noah Zonca straining asparagus soup.
Creamy asparagus soup with crunchy walnuts, creme fraiche and chili oil
Chef Molly Hawks and her husband, Michael. Two of the most photogenic people I’ve ever taken photos of, boiling freshly made cavatappi. Michael made the cavatappi in front of us.
Walnut basil pesto with freshly made cavatappi. Photo by Michelle Stern from What’s Cooking With Kids.
Cookbook author Mollie Katzen helping to make Walnut crepes
Chef Ian Farrell explaining how the sweetness of rhubarb plays off the nutty walnut flavor.
Walnut crepes with rhubarb compote, strawberries, and candied walnuts
Walnut oil is strong, and incredibly delicious. Like sesame oil, a little goes a LONG way.
Our culinary adventure at The Kitchen also included a round table discussion with the Chef’s Council to discuss ways we can promote the key objectives of the Council:
– Eating well, but healthy
– Eating local
– Eating sustainably
Incredibly full, we loaded onto our bus and headed for the Walnut orchards owned by Cilker family. I was intrigued to see that walnut trees are grown (at least in the Cilker family orchards) by sort of grafting different varieties of walnut tree onto a base of hardy Black English Walnut trunk. This process is called budding.
First, Carl Cilker explained the different things we would see in the orchard. Then, the Cilker family foreman, Alberto, walked us through the process of budding one type of tree onto another.
He gets extra points for the PBR ball cap!!
Then, we were whisked off to the most picturesque scene I could imagine. Seriously, if I could do my wedding over, this is what it would look like.
A beautiful lunch full of walnuts awaited us. I won’t bore you with more play by play photos, except for dessert:
Chocolate mousse with candied walnuts and walnut biscotti. Some of the best biscotti I’ve ever had.
And the coolest thing since sliced bread, a walnut tree shaker. This giant machine literally shakes the heck out of the tree, causing all the walnuts to fall to the ground for easy harvesting, without damaging the tree or the walnut!
After lunch, we toured the Mariani Nut Company, which processes walnuts under their own brand name as well as Kirkland’s (Costco) and several other companies. We weren’t allowed to take photos inside, which is understandable. After four generations of a family run business, you must be doing something right, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to let out trade secrets. The Mariani family were all there to greet us, and were incredibly gracious hosts.
The day ended with a magnificent meal at Hawks restaurant, owned by Chefs Molly and Michael whom we had met earlier in the day. The restaurant was picture perfect.
I just love the metal signs!
And a beautifully set table is exactly what you want to see at the end of a busy day.
Along with all these beautiful women, enjoying tapas and wine on the patio of the restaurant.
I cannot say enough about the California Walnut Board as hosts. From the Citizen Hotel to the wonderful professionals we met, I could not have asked for a more accessible and interesting way to learn about walnuts, and how wonderful an addition to any diet they are.
My thanks to Nicole, Jennifer, Carlo, Dennis, and the rest of the people that made this trip possible, and invited me along. To the walnut growers we met: the Jelavich family and the Cilker family – your dedication to farming is inspiring.
To the other media professionals along on the trip: Thank you for sharing a wonderful experience with me. I’m still thinking about the conversations we had, a week later. Especially to Petra, thanks for the British reminiscing, Michelle for helping me not feel so nervous because I had a friend with me, and to Mollie for being an excellent dinner conversationalist.
P.S. While the California Walnut Board paid for my flights and accommodation on this trip, they did not ask for this blog post or compensate me in any way for it. The opinions expressed are my own, after visiting the beautiful Sacramento area.