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Dennis & Christine Reeve, Walnut Farmers

November 15, 2020
by the gentle author

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. Before lockdown, 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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Hugh permalink
    November 15, 2020

    I can smell the fallen walnut leaves, taste the fresh-green nuts and savour mellow orzechówka.
    Autumnal comfort.
    Thank you.

  2. Leana Pooley permalink
    November 15, 2020

    In his wonderful book Wildwood, A Journey Through Trees, Roger Deakin quoted Zakir, in charge of the forests of southern Kyrgyzstan, as saying how the humus from falling walnut leaves helps foster other plants. But photosynthesis in the living leaves produces an ether called juglone, which evaporates into the air on warm days and can affect your brain, so you shouldn’t sleep under a walnut tree by day. Because it is a mild organic pesticide, many insects tend to avoid walnuts. Zakir said this is one reason for planting them in the yards of farmhouses: horses can stand in their shade, less bothered by flies.

  3. Jane permalink
    November 15, 2020

    What a lovely insight into a marvellous family business. Being whole food plant based eaters we get through a fair few walnuts each week. Thank you for sharing this on your very interesting site.

  4. Juliet Jeater permalink
    November 15, 2020

    There were many walnut groves in Poitou Charentes Western France when I lived there. Woe betide anyone who picked walnuts or chestnuts from any footpaths in the countryside. All trees belonged to someone.

  5. November 15, 2020

    What a superb sentence “he can tell you which of his thirty trees a walnut came from by its taste alone” ! Lovely to read on a London Sunday (& the Kyrgyz comments too). Thank you

  6. Peter Harrison permalink
    November 15, 2020

    Thank you for such a fascinating post, and your effort in travelling down to Suffolk. A great antidote to all the lunacy surrounding us just now!!

  7. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 15, 2020

    I used to help my grandfather to gather up the fallen walnuts from underneath his tree and I remember how black my fingers were afterwards. I once read that Italian women use a lotion made from walnut skins to tan their skin and I can believe it, it is impossible to wash off, in my case, it just had to wear off ! The walnut tree in my parent’s garden was a target for squirrels and we lost most of our walnuts to them much to my father’s annoyance. More happy memories, thank you GA.

  8. November 15, 2020

    I’m actually going to get some Walnuts next Week… — Thanks for this wonderful Story!

    Love & Peace
    ACHIM

  9. November 15, 2020

    A fascinating insight! I’ve only ever personally known just one walnut tree, and that was in the garden of someone I once knew in Windsor. This story of the Reeves and their walnuts trees is a delight.

  10. Bahia Philpot permalink
    November 15, 2020

    Just like almonds, walnuts are best eaten fresh during the month of September. I was lucky to be in S.W. France in September & I bought & brought some back. They don’t, however, stay fresh for long! Over in France, walnuts are available in supermarkets and in organic shops.
    – Walnut liqueur is extremely nice too.

  11. Elizabeth Olson permalink
    November 15, 2020

    I grew up in the countryside in Alsace and there was a huge walnut tree on the long driveway to our house. We used to delight in making little boats and doll prams from the walnut shells. I was quite clever in school back then and when I think back, that must have been from eating copious amounts of the fallen walnuts – they do look brainy. There’s a nut farm here in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley and they let visitors pick up the walnuts from the ground in the fall before the snow falls and pay for them by the bucket.
    You’ve inspired me to track down walnuts in the shell this Xmas here on our rocky island – maybe I’ll become clever again, at least for the day!
    Thank you so much for this post!

  12. Pamela Traves permalink
    November 16, 2020

    Thank You for these Lovely Walnut Trees!!🥰😘😊💖🌈🌞👌

  13. Crystal permalink
    November 17, 2020

    Such a generous tree! In form, in leaf, in bounty. Wouldn’t it be good if there was some sort of record of London walnuts, rather like we have with mulberries. They add so much to a place.

  14. November 21, 2020

    I am sad to see the Art Deco that was frankells in Bethnal Green road. I used to go there hen I was little & lived down valance rd & it was the REX picture house then.after that I worked there when it was a bingo hall .such a shame to get rid of that bit of history

  15. Anna permalink
    November 29, 2020

    We saw walnuts being harvested in France. There was a machine with a double horizontal bar that ended in opposing curves which fitted closely around the trunk. The machine then vibrated to shake the tree and bring down the nuts. It seemed a brutal way to treat the trees. We also saw the nuts drying on shallow trays.
    Wonderful to read of the care of these venerable trees in Suffolk and beautiful photos.
    My lovely Dad used to crack walnuts with his teeth!

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