Dennis & Christine Reeve, Walnut Farmers
The Romans introduced walnut trees into this country and they have been cultivated here ever since, but you would have to go a long way these days to find anyone farming walnuts. Contributing Photographer Sarah Ainslie & I travelled to the tiny village of West Row in East Anglia – where walnuts have been grown as long as anyone can remember – to meet Dennis & Christine Reeve, the last walnut farmers in their neck of the woods.
Dennis’ grandfather Frank planted the trees a century ago which were passed into the care of his father Cecil, who supplemented the grove of around thirty, that today are managed by Dennis and his wife Christine – who originates from the next village and married into the walnut dynasty. Dennis has only planted one walnut tree himself, to commemorate the hundredth birthday of his mother Maggie Reeve who subsequently lived to one hundred and five, offering a shining example of the benefits to longevity which may be obtained by eating copious amounts of walnuts.
I was curious to understand the job of a walnut farmer beyond planting the trees and Dennis was candid in his admission that it was a two-months-a-year occupation. “You just wait until they fall off the trees and then go out and pick ‘em up,” he confessed to me with a chuckle of alacrity that concealed three generations of experience in cultivating walnuts.
Perhaps no-one alive possesses greater eloquence upon the subject of walnuts than Dennis Reeve? He loves walnuts – as a delicacy, as a source of income and as a phenomenon – and he can tell you which of his thirty trees a walnut came from by its taste alone. He is in thrall to the mystery of this enigmatic species that originates far from these shores. Even after all these years, Dennis cannot explain why some trees give double walnuts when others give none, or why particular trees night be loaded one season and not the next. “There’s one tree that’s smaller than the rest yet always produces a lot of nuts while there’s nothing on the trees around it,” he confessed, his brow furrowed with incomprehension.
Yet these insoluble enigmas make the walnut compelling to Dennis. The possibility of ‘a sharp frost at the wrong time of the year’ is the enemy of the walnut but Dennis has an answer to this. “They say ‘keep your grass long in the orchard and the frost won’t affect them,’” he admitted to me, raising a sly finger to his nose in confidence.
“Walnuts are the last tree to come into leaf in the orchard, in Maytime, and you start to harvest them at the end of the September right through to November. I used to climb into the tree with a bamboo pole about twenty foot long and I thrashed them because walnuts are sold by weight and the longer you leave them the more they dry out. We call it ‘brushing.’ Nowadays, I am a bit long in the tooth to get up into the trees, so I have to wait until the walnuts drop and I walk round every day from the end of September picking them up. They get dirty when they fall on the ground so I put them in my old tin bath and clean them up with water and a broom, and then I put them on a run to dry.”
You would be mistaken if you assumed the life of a walnut farmer was one of rural obscurity, celebrity has intruded into Dennis & Christine’s existence with requests to supply their produce to the great and the good. “One year in the seventies, my father had a call in the summer from a salesman in London saying they needed about eight pounds of walnuts urgently,” Dennis revealed to me, arching his brows to illustrate the seriousness of the request as a matter of national importance.
“‘I don’t care how you get them here, but we’ve got to have them,’ they said. They were for Buckingham Palace, but the walnuts on the tree were still green with the green husk around them. We told them, ‘They’re not ready yet and there’s nothing we can do about it.’ They said, ‘We don’t care, we’ve got to have them.’ Now we kept pigs at the time and there was a muck dump where we put all the waste, so we put the walnuts in the muck dump for them to heat, just like in a cooker. After about two days the husks started to crack, and that’s how we ripened the nuts for the Queen, in our muck dump!’”
Christine recounted a comparable story about how their walnuts went to Westminster. “There was a dinner in the Houses of Parliament to celebrate British produce and our walnuts were served,” she explained to me with a thin smile, “and they sent us the printed menu which listed the provenance of all the ingredients, including ‘walnuts from Norfolk,’ which was a bit of a let down – because we are in Suffolk here.” Yet I did not feel Christine was unduly troubled by this careless error. Both stories served to confirm the delight that she and Dennis share – of living at the centre of their own world secluded from the urban madness, in a house they built on land bought by Dennis’ grandfather and surrounded by their beloved walnut trees.
Too few are aware of the special qualities of English walnuts, especially the distinctive flavour of wet walnuts early in the season when they possess an appealing sharpness that complements cheese well. “Sometimes people want them earlier before they are ripe if they are going to pickle them,” Dennis told me, “if you can stick a match right through from one side to the other, that is the ideal time to pickle walnuts.” Over the years, those who know about walnuts have sought out Dennis & Christine for their produce. “We have a regular customer in Kent who found our nuts in Harrods,” Christine informed me proudly, “she rang us and now we send her our wet walnuts every year. She peels them and eats them with a glass of sherry and that’s the highlight of her Christmas.”
The walnut grove
Dennis & Christine Reeve
Dennis with the tin bath and brush that he uses for washing his walnuts
Dennis with his scoop for walnuts
Dennis outside his father’s cottage
Dennis Reeve, third generation walnut farmer
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
Dennis & Christine Reeve’s walnuts are available each year from September until November and direct orders can be made by calling 01638 715959