Picked or Pickled Walnuts

Tapping into a demand for pickled walnuts has helped a southern Tasmanian farm create a thriving niche business.

Harvest is well under way at family-run Coaldale Walnuts in the Coal River Valley.

They sell in-shell walnuts, kernel and pickled walnuts across the state and to the mainland.

While the 4ha orchard of 1500 walnut trees is a relatively small operation, Coaldale is one of the biggest producers of pickled walnuts in the country.

Sophie Milic and husband Brad bought the farm from her parents Phil and Jane Dening in 2021 and have been operating Coaldale Walnuts since.

“My husband and I were living on the mainland and working corporate jobs, which we liked, but we just thought, there must be more to life,” Mrs Milic said.

As well as wanting to be closer to family, Mrs Milic wanted to move back to the Coal Valley where she grew up, so the thought of buying the farm had a lot of appeal.

Her family moved almost two years ago during harvest, which Mrs Milic described as a baptism of fire.

She said the harvest in 2021 was good, producing seven tonnes of walnuts which was a solid result for the orchard.

However, seasonal conditions have had an impact on yields the past two years.

“We actually had great, big, beautiful nuts from last year, but not so many of them because with the wet weather during pollination, it reduced the yield,” Mrs Milic said.

After low yields last season due to wet conditions, excessive spring rainfall and a hailstorm in summer this year has also caused some challenges.

“The big problem is that we have walnut blight, it’s a bacterial thing that exists in the orchard and over in winter it’s in the trees,” Mrs Milic said.

“During the formation of the fruit, it can get into it and it causes the inside of the nut to be black and shriveled.”

Mrs Milic said the issue was two-fold because blight thrives in the wet weather and the ground was too boggy for the tractor to come through.

“As for the hailstorm, it dinged the outside, which doesn’t affect the fruit inside but once the outside gets damaged, it sticks onto the shell and doesn’t come off very well,” she said.

“The nut inside is fine, but it looks like a nut that’s blighted. Even though the quality looks really good now, they were shriveled and black and fell early.”

Mrs Milic said they expect to harvest about five tonnes this season.

During summer, Coaldale picks nuts for their pickled walnut products.

After starting about 10 years ago demand for their pickled walnuts has continued to grow.

Pickled walnuts are made using the whole fruit, before the shell forms.

“It’s the green fruit with no shell forming,” Mrs Milic said.

“We pick them whole, they get spiked, put in brine, dried then added with a whole heap of other stuff.”

Mrs Milic said there were a number of ways to eat pickled walnuts, including on platters as they pair well with cheese and also go well with beef, because both have quite strong flavours.

“Lots of European countries have a variation of pickled walnuts, but our recipe is based on the English version,” Mrs Milic said.

“Traditionally it would have malt vinegar, but we have changed it to apple cider vinegar because we’re in Tasmania!”

Coaldale Walnuts sources its apple cider vinegar locally from Lost Pippin Ciders, which is just down the valley.

Mrs Milic said the idea to make pickled walnuts started after trialing some small batches and it has grown from there.

“Last year we produced over 9000 jars and we send pallet loads to the mainland in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne where they go to a lot of high-end restaurants,” she said.

Mrs Milic said that every year they increase their pickled walnut production as demand continues to outstrip supply.

“It’s really becoming popular with restaurants and lots of wineries who are putting them on their platters, so we will just keep getting bigger,” she said.

The vaguery of Tasmania’s weather makes it impossible to predict whether each year will be a good harvest for walnuts.

Pickled walnuts are a good way for the farm to preserve much of the fruit for value adding, which means they are less reliant on the walnut harvest.

Once harvested, walnuts are graded on colour and size.

“Only the biggest and clean unblemished nuts will be sold in shells,” Mrs Milic said.

“Anything that is medium or come out on the bad side will get cracked.”

The small walnuts are unable to be detected by the cracking machine, so they get sold as premium parrot food and nothing gets wasted.

The farm also recycles their shells and puts them back on to the orchard as mulch.

“We put as much back that we took out as much as we can,” Mrs Milic said.

“They also make for a really good path.”

Last weekend Coaldale opened its gates to the public on the weekend from Friday to Sunday where the public was welcome to come pick and collect their own walnuts.

Last year people collected an overall of 1.3 tonnes of walnuts.

“It’s a really nice way to connect with community and people to see and learn how walnuts grow. Kids love finding them under the trees.”

This year they had about 600 people come to the orchard which was completely picked out with over a tonne of walnuts collected.

Mrs Milic said that it was not as high as last year due to the lower yield this season.

“We would have had more people but we had to cap the number of tickets sold because we just didn’t have the availability of walnuts for collecting,” Mrs Milic said.

“Visitors commented on how much they enjoyed the experience of collecting walnuts and being able to explore the orchard.

“I think the popularity of this and other agritourism events is indicative of a growing community interest in getting out of the city into nature and learning about agriculture and where food comes from.”