If you’ve never tasted hickory nuts, you owe it to yourself to try them. The fall crop has dried and cured sufficiently and right now is their peak season.
They’re not available in our stores, so you have to buy them online. But there, especially on eBay (ebay.com/bhp/hickory-nuts), your cup will runneth over with these choicest of all wild American nuts.
If you buy them shelled out, they’re expensive — about $20 to $30 a pound. That’s because the nutmeats are devilishly difficult to separate from the thick shells that encase the meats in swirling chambers of bone-hard material. Processors use machinery to smash open the hard shells, but pieces of shell will inevitably get through the process, and so the nutmeats have to be picked over by hand — sometimes many times — to make sure the shell bits are completely removed.
They’re also sold as unshelled nuts on eBay and elsewhere, usually for about $5 to $8 a pound, but be aware that to pry a cupful of nutmeats from their bony chambers will take you a good hour unless you’re lucky enough to have nuts from the rare tree that is genetically generous enough to produce nutshells that are easy to pick. “Rare” is the operative word, but such trees do exist.
As to the flavor of the nuts, it’s incomparable. Think of hickory smoked meats. What makes hickory smoking so good is the rich, intense flavor the perfumed smoke imparts. Hickory nuts are the nut world’s equivalent of hickory smoking.
Pecans are a Southern relative of the hickory, and while their flavor is delicious, it pales in comparison to freshly shelled hickory nuts, whose volatile oils and esters make them so unique. No other nut comes close, except maybe for the intense black walnut whose flavor, while deep and rich, has a dark and somewhat bitter edge to it, unlike the buttery-sweet and bright, richly nutty hickory.
If you’re old enough, you may remember a TV ad for Grape Nuts cereal that featured the late wild forager Euell Gibbons claiming that the cereal “tastes like wild hickory nuts.” That was nonsense — marketing talk — and Gibbons, with whom I worked at Organic Gardening magazine and knew well, ruined his reputation as a wild food truth-teller, even as he carried his remuneration off to the bank.
There are 19 species of Carya — the genus that includes hickory, pecan, butternut, and other wild nut trees east of the Rockies. The two tastiest and most important species of hickory are the shagbark and shellbark types, with shagbarks — so named for the shaggy bark that peels off the tree trunks in long, rough slabs — having a slight edge in flavor. Both these species grow wild across the northern Midwest east to the Mid-Atlantic states, so your online providers may be located anywhere from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania. Any location in that range will be fine.
If you buy nuts online, look for freshly shelled or, better yet, to get the best flavor, unshelled shagbark nuts. They should be raw, not roasted or dried. If you buy them unshelled, you’ll not only save yourself some money but you’ll get their full flavor as they emerge from their shells.