Black nuts (Schwarze Nüsse)

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Christmas in Cameroon is rather different from Christmas in Germany. There, it is mostly a Christian holiday. People go to mass. In the night, they might go to a party. All the things that have become connected to Christmas here (gifts, cake etc.) including all the commercialization, are virtually absent.

To an extent, I was missing some of the specifically German Christmas atmosphere. To compensate for it, I am eating one of the black nuts I prepared last summer. Black nuts are a specialty from one part of Germany called “Pfalz”. All the aromas that people here associate with this time of the year (cinnamon etc.) are inside. Absolutely “lecker” (delicious). How did I do it? Let me share the secret with you.

I harvested unripe walnuts around June 20th (if you know a walnut tree on the southern hemisphere, add 6 months). At this time, the woody shell of the nut has not yet formed. If the shell has formed already (soon after this date), it is too late.

The fruits are green and have a pleasant, lemon-like smell that, unfortunately, does not survive the following procedure. However, the end result is still delicious. I don’t own any walnut tree but I know where some large ones are in a public park in the city (but I won’t tell you that secret).

The next step is the most strenuous of the process: you have to take a fork and pierce every nut several times. My ankles hurt afterwards. I am thinking about constructing some tool for this step for next year. You need rubber gloves for this step or else your hands will be stained brown for the next two weeks. Latex gloves are too thin.

The nuts are now watered in cold water. So put them into some large enough container and change the water twice a day. I dumped them into a sieve every morning and evening, put them back into the container and filled it up with fresh water again. I repeated this for two weeks. This way, some bitter substances are extracted. The water becomes quite dark, especially in the first days. During this time, the nuts become darker, first yellowish, then brown, finally almost black.

I don’t know what goes on inside the nuts chemically during this time. It is some kind of fermentation and oxidation process but I don’t know if any microbes are involved. I have not yet searched for any scientific literature on this and I don’t know if such research has been done already.

At the end of this process, I put the nuts into slightly salted water and cooked them for about half an hour. This deactivates any enzymes or microbes. After this procedure, the nuts are edible, but taste rather bland.

Now, I fixed a concentrated solution of sugar (I added some maple syrup into it, but that is optional) and added spices: a little bit of salt, several vanilla pods (sliced open and cut into pieces), several pieces of cinnamon, cloves, allspice, mace, ground orange peeling, ground lemmon peeling. Other spices are possible, for example, some people add some chilly. I added the nuts and boiled the solution.

Now, every other day (5 times altogether) I removed the nuts and boiled the syrup again to remove water. To speed up the process, I added some more sugar. After this, I added the nuts again. The reason for this is that the syrup extracts water from the nuts through osmosis. If it becomes too thin, it might start to ferment and the nuts might also become moldy. In the process of candying however, water is bit  by bit replaced by sugar, thus conserving the fruits. At the same time, the aromas of the spices are penetrating into the nuts.

After 10 days of keeping the nuts in the syrup, I boiled the nuts together with the syrup, then filled them together with syrup and spices hot into clean jam jars sterilized with hot water and closed them hot. I turned them over and let them cool down.

I now kept the jars until shortly before Christmas and distributed them among family and friends as my Christmas gifts. After about five to six months, they are truly delicious, although they taste quite good already shortly after preparation.

The nuts have a wonderful aroma and a special, nice crunchy-soft texture. They taste wonderful with vanilla ice, with cheese or meat, especially game (you may cut them into slices). The remaining syrup is wonderful with yogurt or muesly, ice cream, or mixed with vodka or other spirits to make a nice liqueur. You can also mix it with hot red wine, yielding a perfect “Glühwein” (hot wine punch). Instant German Christmas atmosphere.

Looks like a lot of work but actually, it isn’t. The work is spread over several weeks and on most days, it takes just a few movements. The end result, however, is worth the effort.

(The picture is from

14 thoughts on “Black nuts (Schwarze Nüsse)

    • The recipe comes from an area of Germany called “Pfalz”. Many Germans from other parts of Germany don’t know it.
      I first saw it in an old cooking book (from the end of the 19th century) and found it very strange initially.
      Then I found it in the cooking book of my great-grandmother, in a reprint from a cooking book from the 18th century and in a book on food preservation from the 19th century. If you search the internet for “schwarze Nüsse”, you will now find a lot of versions (mostly in German) and also pictures.
      On closer inspection, the process is less bizarre than it seems on first glance. It consists of two stages: a) extracting of unwanted (bitter and staining) substances (facilitated by piercing of the nuts) from the fruits and b) candying of the fruits. The idea of eating unripe walnuts might be an invention from some period of starvation, who knows. Before the process of preserving in closed jars was invented, candying seems to have been a standard procedure to preserve fruits, at least after sugar became available (in medieval times). The book on preservation I have mentioned shows that practically the same process was used for other fruits as well, there is even a recipe where gooseberries (which are quite sour) are pierced and watered (although not for 14 days) to extract the acid prior to candying; more ore less the same process as in the black nuts recipe.
      People knew that sugar solutions with high sugar concentrations don’t ferment, but those with more water do. The old Germans prepared an alcoholic beverage (mead) by adding water to honey. So the need to re-concentrate the syrup was obvious. Since the nuts are quite bland on their own, adding spices was a straightforward idea.
      Do walnuts grow in South Africa?

      • So its a tastier form of preserving food, like a jam and a good way to make use of all sources of food, not to mention a very creative way of doing it. The history is all so interesting and to think that the recipe has been carried down for so many years!
        Walnuts are grown in SA but apparently they are quite a struggle to farm.
        My gran used to ‘sugar boil’ alot of foods and I remember thinking that I could never have the patience for all that! She used get burnt and the kitchen used to be one hot mess. I supposed you don’t truly appreciate something unless you make it yourself.
        I’ll google some pics cos now you’ve got my interest piqued.

  1. This is the first blog I’be read on WordPress where I was transported by vivid writing. I love reading about your family and travels!

    • 🙂 Hi sister, nice to meet you here! The picture was made by one of my Japanese Teachers (I think that was in 1981 (?)) during my first 4 weeks Japanese course. His name was Kenji (Kenji san) but unfortunately I have forgotten his family name (maybe I can find this out from Yamamori sensei who is still there in Hamburg). Kenji prepared a kind of a poster with a caricature of all participants and teachers in the course. We had all gone to a Japanese restaurant and he had made a photography of each of us, not telling us what he was planning. It was really funny. Each of us got a copy on the last day. I also have the photo he used, unfortunately I really looked like that on it (I think this is how I normally look when I am thinking, with a slightly grim expression but that is misleading. However, you know me 🙂

  2. A little Haiku since the winter season is now finally coming to an end 🙂

    Winter is leaving
    The last black nuts are finished
    Spring is arriving

  3. Since the winter was very long and the spring cold and wet, the nuts are still very small this year. They will need more time, maybe a couple of weeks. I have to observe them, so I don’t miss the right time.

  4. Reblogged this on The Asifoscope and commented:

    I have just restarted the process of making “Black Nuts”. On the weekend, I harvested unripe walnuts, pierced them and put them in water (to be changed twice daily for two weeks). The process is described in the article I have written in January, after my trip to Cameroon.
    The nuts are a bit small this year, probably due to the cold weather in spring, but I don’t want to risk waiting longer. Sooner or later, the woody shell will be forming inside and then it is too late to take them. I am not sure if this process is controlled by the size of the nut. Some processes in plants are controlled by day length, so the shells might form even if the nuts are small.
    If you are living on the northern hemisphere and there are walnut trees you know where you could get some nuts, now is the time to try. If you look for “Schwarze Nüsse” on the internet, you may also find pictures and more descriptions of the process (probably mostly in German).

  5. These sound delicious! I love the idea of using maple syrup. These would be excellent in so many things. I bet your family appreciates when you give these gifts…that’s a great idea.

    “I know where some large ones are in a public park in the city (but I won’t tell you that secret).”

    This is so funny. I know exactly what you mean. I had this little spot in Vermont where I’d pick wild black raspberries. I’d go there every day during the ripening season to make sure no one else got to it first.

    • They have a very nice consistency, between soft and crunchy. Very special. The taste depends mainly on the spices, it is something in the cinamon direction the way I did it. They are extremely nice with cheese, with icecream or (cut small) with muesli or yoghurt. Also nice with deer or other game, and so on. Or “just so”.

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