Working the ground last autumn left me in no doubt that squirrels were using the badly neglected plot as a winter larder. Empty walnut shells lay scattered across the ground, crunching underfoot at almost every step. We'd agreed to take on a nettle patch along with our existing plot. Our heads were filled with plans for roses with scents of musk, anise-like myrrh, sherbet lemon and strong classic old rose fragrances of blackberry and damson plum. Huge-headed peonies and fragrant, colourful sweetpea arches would feature too. But first there were giant nettle roots to be chased, ubiquitous plastic bottles to be unearthed and ground to be levelled.
The source of the nuts, I had concluded, lay 100m metres away in one of the private gardens surrounding the allotments. Dull green globes littered the path where its branches pierced the boundary. I too squirrelled some away. Back home, paring away the soft outer jacket exposed the hard brown pockmarked casing. A nutcracker revealed the almost pliable, sweet, milky 'wet' nut within. Be warned, that soft green jacket turns a hand-staining brown as you work - in the past this quality was harnessed for making both dye and ink - so rubber gloves are essential. Wait long enough before harvesting and nature will peel back the green husk for you but the well-guarded kernel will be dryer and less sweet.
This autumn I took an unorthodox route onto the allotments. There on the boundary, a mere 50 metres from my now flowering plot, I found an even more covetable walnut tree. Small, it's true, but its boughs hung heavy with green-husked bounty, almost skimming the tall grass. Far easier to harvest. The squirrels and I are feasting. Nature untended has faired better than my nurtured plot this year. Bringing anything to the point of edibility has been challenging but right now, in this mildest of autumns, I am harvesting beans. Borlotti and Scarlet Runners were peaking on my plot only 2 days ago. Cropping of beans has coincided with finding a particularly delicious, nutty Ossau-Iraty, a hard sheep's milk cheese from the Pyrénées. It was a visit to Brawn restaurant on London's Colombia Road (one of my favourite restaurants anywhere) where I ate a simple-sounding dish of fresh green and yellow French beans, dressed with a shallot vinaigrette, with sweet wet walnuts and thin shards of Ossau-Iraty.
So when I harvested Runner Beans a few days later, it was obvious what I should do with them. No, the dish doesn't taste exactly the same, but here is my rip-off version of Brawn's beautiful dish using what I had. Ossau-Iraty isn't essential to the recipe, a hard ewe's milk cheese like English Berkswell or Spenwood would work well. All these cheeses have a nutty quality that goes well with the earthy beans and sweet, milky nuts. Jane Grigson would not have approved of my beans in this dish being Scarlet Runners. They are undoubtedly the least interesting of green beans but they are easy to grow. She felt "early gardeners had the right idea when they kept the Scarlet Runner to decorate a trellis with its brilliant flowers ...". I used to agree with her but found out for myself that if you pick before they get too large and slice the pods lengthways, it makes all the difference, and I note she also conceded this. Simon Hopkinson, I think, just might eat this dish with relish (at least his Introduction to his book The Vegetarian Option leads me to hope). Choose whichever green beans you prefer, just avoid the big stringy ones.
|Runner Beans, wet walnuts and Ossau-Iraty|
Salad of fresh beans, wet walnuts and sheep's milk cheese
(serves 4 for a starter or light lunch)
500g green beans, sliced lengthways if using Runner Beans (de-string if necessary)
1 good tablespoon Moscatel vinegar
3 good tablespoons walnut oil or extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
75g Ossau-Iraty (or other semi-hard sheep's milk cheese), pared into strips
10-12 shelled 'wet' walnuts, roughly broken (use matured walnuts if necessary)
I hope to still be picking beans into next week, along with my ever-blooming roses and, unbelievably late-flowering sweetpeas sharing space with the squirrels' larder. Those huge-headed peonies remain in my dreams, but next year, next year...