The Would-Be Farm has good bare bones: open fields for hay or grazing, a pond, neglected groves of apple trees and ground that seems to be ready to welcome new fruit saplings, plus random raspberry patches and mature stands of mixed hardwoods.
While we worked hard to start a bed of asparagus and establish new orchard plantings in the spring of 2015, we were also ready to reap rewards planted maybe fifty years ago.
I don't know if it was deliberate or just the natural progression of land converting itself back into wilderness, but dozens of big hickory trees dot the landscape.
Some of the trees are crap –– for my purposes, at least, bitter-nut hickories are on the short list for the chainsaw. I'm thinking the bitter-nut logs might make some mushroom spawn quite happy come springtime. But shagbark hickories produce nuts sweeter than pecans. And we have some hunormous shagbarks.
With their sinister tails a-twitch, a squadron of squirrels watched as we filled a bucket of the first nuts to drop from the trees. We could reach only a few nuts still on the branches: the grand-daddy trees go 100 feet, with the canopy starting 50 or 60 feet up.
If we'd been able to stay another couple of weeks, foraging every other day or so, we could probably have held off the local rodentia and harvested enough nuts to feed a big crowd. As it was, we brought home a decent haul. The squirrels' resentment was palpable.
Strange but true: hickory mast (that's the term for "the fruit of forest trees") was once a staple in American diets. Native Americans and early European settlers made a sort of nut broth that they used for soups, porridge, and the like. I imagined it would turn out something like almond milk.
I didn't have the patience or the gear (an enormous mortar and pestle system for crushing the nuts and shells is the key element) to make a traditional soup, but I was determined to try my own version. I figured I'd start by extracting the nutmeat.
The first lesson: the outer husk of the hickory nut will stain your hands (just as black walnut will). The rusty-brownish mark will persist for more than a month, Lava soap and various cleaning solutions notwithstanding. Even through gloves.
It's a labor-intensive process, but in the end, I had a bowl full of juicy nutmeat, which I puréed in as little water as possible. The result was not much like almond milk. It was a buttery, rich liquid with the consistency of heavy cream.
I used a cup or two of the hickory cream in roasted-pumpkin soup (sorry, no photos. Didn't last long enough. Nom nom nom.). I think it might be even more amazing as a base for chowder. I froze a portion of the cream after mixing it with some powdered cocoa and sugar and then used the stick blender and some of that (insipid) almond milk to make a dessert the consistency of soft-serve ice-cream...No pictures of that either; it wasn't a visual wonder, even if it was a delicious treat.
So, in all, kind of worth the effort. And the nut shells will flavor the smoke for the next batch of smoked fish.
Even if the former owners of the Farm planted those trees deliberately, I don't think he or she could have imagined how they'd be appreciated all these years later. Which is one of the lasting charms of a farm.
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