David Hammons is one wild guy — wild nut guy, that is.
The vice president marketing of Stockton, Mo.-based Hammons Products Co. spends the month of October receiving millions of pounds of black walnuts from foragers in 12 states from Ohio to Oklahoma.
Most arrive at one of 200 buying locations in the back of pickup trucks, Hammons said, though one guy drove up with his stash in a trailer attached to a riding lawn mower.
Unlike cultivated nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, which are shaken violently off the tree by a mechanical arm and vacuumed up from the ground, the only tree shaker in the forest would be Uncle Joe climbing the tree, Hammons said.
The wild nuts are collected from the ground. Foragers bring them in to be weighed and walk out with cash.
Each drop-off point has a machine on site to remove the green husks. The nuts are shipped in onion sacks to southwest Missouri, where they’re cracked, shelled and sold under the Hammons brand and private label to chefs and supermarkets.
In every two-year cycle, comprising a large and small crop, Hammons collects about 25 million pounds of nuts.
Unlike tame English walnuts, which require 50 pounds of pressure to open, the wizened black walnuts require 500 pounds of pressure.
“We like to say we’re 10 times harder but we have 10 times more flavor,” said Hammons, whose great-grandfather started the company back in 1946.
Compared to an English walnut, which yields 40% meat, black walnuts yield only about 7% meat.
Then there’s the strong flavor, which Hammons says is like comparing a regular white mushroom to a black truffle.
“Black walnuts are not a snack nut,” he said. “They’re used primarily for baking, but chefs are finding many savory uses for them.”
In fact, more and more chefs are discovering, or rather rediscovering, this native American nut.
“They like the intense flavor and the fact it’s all-American, sustainable, local and foraged,” he said. “People treat it like a new ingredient.”
Chefs also love Hammons’ black walnut oil, a finalist in the oil category at last year’s Fancy Food trade show in New York.
“It’s a finishing oil,” he said, “though you can sauté with it or use it in salad dressings.”
An 8-ounce bottle retails for just $8 at 900 Wal-Mart and other stores across the country, including Alaska.
Black walnuts stay fresh inside their hard shell for a significantly long time without freezing, Hammons said. Even when cracked, the meat has an 18-month shelf life.
Some retailers pack the walnuts in clamshells, but they let in too much air for his taste.
“A cello bag with nitrogen flush will preserve it in the freshest way,” he said.
While there’s a push to get black walnuts in stores in September in time for holiday baking, some now carry black walnuts year-round.
Hammons even saw interest over the summer from bakers and ice cream manufacturers looking for an alternative to pricey pecans.
“Any recipe that calls for pecans can use black walnuts,” he said. Candy companies are even using them in Turtle-like pralines.
Black walnut ice cream is on an upward trend, he said.
“It’s just as satisfying as butter pecan,” he said, “but at a lower price.”