Nov./Dec. 2016 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Matt Salvo and courtesy of DeRousi Nut
Naturally red walnuts liven holiday celebrations
For farmer Steve Masonek and his family, red walnuts are a favorite for holiday gift-giving.
Crunchy, flavorful and festive, California-grown red walnuts can be found at farmers markets, specialty stores and restaurants this time of year—and they're brightening the holidays in gift bags, sweets and seasonally inspired dishes.
"When I first saw these red walnuts, they just fascinated me," said farmer Steve Masonek of Cana Ranch in Chico. "The red is just very identifiable and people enjoy them for their great flavor. I eat red walnuts every day."
After discovering the red Robert Livermore variety at a farm show about a decade ago, Masonek started grafting cuttings from a fellow farmer until he had enough for a small orchard. Today, he grows several varieties of walnuts and almonds, but there's one nut he's found to be at the top of most holiday wish lists: the Livermore.
"We give away a lot of red walnuts," Masonek said. "My wife, Sandy, and I send cases of red walnuts to family and friends."
They also use the nuts to flavor everything from stuffings and salads to baked goods, with Masonek adding, "We decorate the tops of cookies or brownies with halved red walnuts to add a burst of color."
The Masonek family gathers at its Butte County farm. From left, Megan Masonek-Garcia, Daniel Garcia, Sandy Masonek, Steve Masonek, Jenn Masonek-Garcia and Christian Garcia with children Cienna Jo and Caynan James.
The red walnut is from the same family as traditional English walnuts, yet the Livermore offers a colorful surprise when shelled. The kernel is covered by a thin layer, or seed coat, that ranges from dark red to burgundy, while the kernel underneath is light in color.
Described as having a creamier flavor than traditional walnuts, the Livermore is harvested during October as the state's commercial walnut season comes to a close. Red walnuts provide an especially appealing choice for people who are sensitive to tannic acids, Masonek said. Like the Chandler, California's most widely grown walnut variety, the Livermore is low in tannins, so the nuts are easy to eat by the handful.
"Plus, they are delicious," Masonek said.
Masonek sells red walnuts to customers who resell the product by the pound at farmers markets. He also sells to DeRuosi Nut, a walnut buyer and processor in Escalon that provides an assortment of California walnut varieties to markets in the U.S. and around the globe. And for the past eight years, the Masoneks have filled holiday gift bags with the festive red walnuts for family and friends.
Masonek said he is excited about how the Livermore, a variety he has grown for 10 years, is gaining popularity.
"The red or Livermore walnuts do well anywhere that they are seen. In the overseas markets, they want the best of the best," he said, adding that the red color is a big selling point in Asian countries, as it symbolizes happiness and good fortune. "China grows more walnuts than we do in the U.S., but they are a net importer; they eat all of their walnuts and import more."
The Robert Livermore red walnut, which is from the same family as traditional English walnuts, adds color and texture to baked goods and salads.
Gaining a following
In Escalon, Lorina Cajias opens the family barn each December for her Christmas Boutique in Grandpa's Barn, where she offers bounty from the farm and invites vendors to sell other holiday goods. Red walnuts grown on the family farm have become a budding star of the show.
"Customers every year email or call me asking, 'Do you have the red walnuts yet?' When we start bringing out our walnuts, they get excited," said Cajias, who owns Lorina's Edible Garden, a business specializing in farm and handcrafted products. "With the red walnuts, especially at Christmastime, we show people what to do with them. We'll make chocolate-covered walnuts, scones and snack mixes. People love our Chandlers, but when they see the red ones, they say, 'Oh my, what is that?'"
Cajias sets aside this specialty walnut to sell online, at the farm or at events. The family farm, Angle Ranch, owned by her father Don Angle, grows red walnuts as well as the Chandler variety.
"The reds have a very pleasant and traditional walnut flavor that is mild and lends itself to a slight buttery flavor, which makes them easy to eat by the handful," Cajias said, adding that their less-assertive flavor also allows red walnuts to complement other foods with subtlety.
Harvest typically takes place in October, after the green hulls split to reveal the nut inside, left.
Science yields a pleasant surprise
Those familiar with the Livermore walnut point out that the red color is not a dye and the variety has not been genetically engineered. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, developed the Livermore in the early 1990s after cross-pollinating a traditional, light Howard variety with a purple variety from France.
Gale McGranahan, director emerita of the Walnut Improvement Program at UC Davis, was instrumental in developing the Livermore. When she and her fellow researchers crossed the two varieties, it was simply for "scientific curiosity and for fun; we were just curious," McGranahan said, adding that it was surprising to see that the cross resulted in a red walnut. Named for a rancher and supporter of walnut research who had died unexpectedly, the Robert Livermore is the first patented, red-kernel walnut in the state and was introduced to growers in 1999.
"Livermore red walnuts can be used in desserts or on top of a cake or cupcake, but I often eat them for breakfast with plain yogurt and maple syrup, and it's healthy," McGranahan said. "If you are giving a gift of walnut kernels, it is very cheerful to mix the light- and red-colored walnuts."
Hailed as a "superfood," walnuts contain cancer-fighting properties, improve heart health, represent a rich source of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, improve mental acuity and help with weight control, according to the California Walnut Commission. With many of the beneficial acids, tannins and flavonoids reportedly found in the skin, red walnuts are thought to contain added nutrients not found in a light-colored walnut.
But for all their positive qualities, red walnuts remain something of an insider secret, grown on relatively limited acreage. That's something Masonek hopes will change, as more people discover—and fall in love with—Livermore red walnuts.
With the nut's rosy beauty and smooth, buttery flavor, it might not be long before the secret's out and Masonek gets his wish.
A parade of walnuts is available from California
The Chandler, left, is the most widely grown walnut in California, but the Robert Livermore, right, is gaining popularity.
If you miss the window of opportunity for the Robert Livermore red walnut following harvest, California farmers—about 4,400 of them—grow many other varieties of English walnuts, including the Chandler, the prominent variety grown.
Popular due to its light kernel color and excellent quality, the Chandler, which is harvested late in the season from the end of September to mid-October, represents more than half of the 300,000 acres of walnuts grown commercially in California. Six varieties account for more than 85 percent of walnuts grown in the state, with the Hartley, Howard, Tulare, Serr and Vina varieties rounding out the list.
There are at least 30 primary varieties of walnuts grown in California, with more being developed by the University of California to provide farmers with new options featuring consumer-friendly qualities such as great flavor. Breeders are also looking to develop varieties that could extend the California harvest season, which currently begins in late August and continues until November.
Learn more about California walnuts at www.walnuts.org.
More online: We crack open the history of walnuts and why they're popular worldwide.