With their instantly recognizable shells, walnuts are one of the most well-known nuts in the northern hemisphere. It says a lot about our determination as human beings that we persevered enough in our endeavor to crack the walnut, regardless of how impenetrable the exterior may look at first glance.

I would give a sizable amount of money to know what must have been going through the mind of the first person who cracked a walnut. I have so many questions: did they just spot the seed of perfectly good fruit and think that this would make an excellent source of food.

Walnuts are still some of the most annoying nuts to crack, frustrating young children across Europe for centuries. I’ve seen parents give their children a handful of walnuts and enjoy the few moments of respite as the kids try their best to crack the nuts- it is quite a time-consuming activity.

Walnuts are not a true nut, despite often finding themselves lumped in with tree nuts such as hazelnuts, pistachios, Brazil nuts and cashews. They’re actually the seed of the walnut fruit. In some cases, the fresh fruit of the walnut tree can be used to make sweets and desserts, however their most commonly left to dry so the seed can be removed, cracked and eaten. Walnuts are actually one of the oldest tree foods that still exist today, it looks like people have been eating nuts since the dawn of time, they date back as far as 10,000 BC. Today they are two main cultivated species, first is the Persian walnut, a species named after the region It is believed to originate from, what is now modern-day Iran. This species is also sometimes called the English walnut (a very confusing misnomer) and is the most widely grown across the world. Black walnuts are the second variety and originated in North America. It should be quite evident from this little geography lesson that both species of nuts are almost exclusivelygrown in the northern hemisphere.

Which delicious seed is masquerading as a popular Christmas nut? Read more about the spy in the nut family here.

Different people value different things, and this applies to the walnut in some capacity. As humans, we clearly value the seed of the fruit as opposed to the fruit itself, and some among us value the shell of the seed.

Chinese culture places special significance on walnut shells, they are carved with intricate designs. These could then be used as toys or preciously guarded as the most unique designs can fetch top dollar upon resale. Harvesting walnuts usually starts in autumn, extending all the way to the beginning of winter. By this time most trees have dropped their dry and split fruit, and it is less costly for growers to simply pick the fruit off the ground than invest in the machinery to shake the fruits out of the tree. Because of this timing in their maturity, they are readily available at Christmas and this may be one of the reasons why they are so closely associated with the holiday. And some cultures walnuts are put at the bottom of Christmas stockings and it is the tradition of many European households to gather together and crack walnuts. The cracked nut can appear as two halves separated by a woody membrane and is covered by a thin brown skin. Removal of the skin is optional of course as it can be quite bitter, however the nuts can still be used for a variety of recipes with the skin on. The skins can be removed by boiling or toasting, the former being better for more even skin removal.

Which delicious seed is masquerading as a popular Christmas nut? Read more about the spy in the nut family here.

One can purchase walnuts in a variety of forms, they can be candied or ground, raw or toasted, skinned or not, and as parts of many different savory and sweet dishes. There are many endless ways of incorporating them into the diet. But why would you need them? Well, because they’re good for you! Walnuts contain types of fats called polyunsaturated fats, which are generally better for you than saturated fats. Their nutrient profile is pretty well rounded, containing fats, and some vitamins, fiber, and minerals: They have in small amounts, vitamin E and magnesium.

One of their best-known qualities, (besides tasting good) is that they contain bucket loads of antioxidants, way more than any other common nut. The only potential downside is that these compounds are found mainly in the skins, so if your diet is heavy in skinned walnuts, you may not be reaping the maximum antioxidant benefits. Studies have shown walnuts to help prevent the build-up of harmful cholesterol and that they help nourish good stomach bacteria which promote gut health. the biggest and possibly most important benefit of walnuts above other nuts is that they contain the have the highest concentration of omega-3 fatty acids than any other nuts. This makes them an excellent plant-based source for vegetarians. Nothing general tends to be quite calorie-dense and the same is true for walnuts, a handful contains around 190 calories, and their incorporation into smoothies, fruit salads, and other gym friendly snacks helps provide a boost of energy. They can be incorporated into many snacks to enjoy throughout the day, sprinkled over salads, and fit into any meal from breakfast to dinner.

Which delicious seed is masquerading as a popular Christmas nut? Read more about the spy in the nut family here.

Another special quality of walnuts is their oil, like most of them can be pressed to produce a nutty oil. This oil has a range of uses, from being used as a carrier oil for stronger essential oils, which can then be used to repair and maintain healthy skin and hair. It is also popularly used in the kitchen however special care must be taken. It becomes bitter when heated so it should not be cooked with, it is better suited to dressing salads or making confectionery. Special care should always be taken with nuts, as many people are allergic to them. If you’ve ever experienced symptoms of an allergic reaction after consuming other types of nuts it may be advised to forgo walnuts and when in doubt consult your doctor. For the rest of the population who does not suffer from nut allergies, you are free to enjoy everything that walnuts have to offer. So open a tutorial or two and polish up on those nutcracking skills, so much nutritious goodness awaits you inside.