Walnuts may seem like a plain and relatively boring foodstuff but inside each tiny package is a lot of nutritional benefits and an incredibly rich history that dates back many thousands of years.
The history of walnuts
Believe it or not, walnuts are in fact the oldest tree food that we know of, dating back to 7000BC! The oldest archeological evidence that we have of people eating walnuts as a food can be traced back to a Neolithic site in southwest France, from which roasted walnut shells were uncovered during an archeological dig. At this Neolithic site, it appears as though people were roasting walnuts at an open fire, perhaps in an attempt to weaken their shells, making it easier to extract the tasty nut within. When it comes to a written history of the walnut, the oldest literary record that we have dates back to 2000BC, at the ancient city of Babylon (now modern-day Iran), where walnuts were highly prized and reserved only for Persian royalty. Over the year’s more and more people began enjoying walnuts as a convenient and nutrient-dense food, and they were transported with traders, travelling the Silk Road route between Asia and the Middle East being discarded and then cultivated along the way.
As trade spread, the Persian walnut spread with it, eventually being transported by boat to England during the middle ages, where it then went on to America, becoming known as the English walnut due to it having been transported from England. Although walnuts were not new to North America, where the Black walnut was already native, the English walnut (Juglans regia) was easier to crack and to cultivate, and so was preferred and grown commercially on a much wider scale.
The walnut has come a long way from its wild origins and its position as an exclusively royal food and is now cultivated on a mammoth scale for everyone to enjoy. In 2017 the walnut harvest totaled more than 3.8 million tones, a figure that is still growing thanks to the walnuts position as a health-food. At present China remains the single largest walnut producer, closely followed by the USA, specifically the state of California, and then Iran and Turkey. Ukraine, Romania, France and Italy produce significant quantities for the local European market, though many European countries still import a large number of their walnuts from the USA and China to meet their demand.
Despite there being more than 50 species of walnut tree within the walnut family, Juglans regia, the English walnut, remains the world’s most popular cultivated variety and there are now more than 300 cultivars of Juglans regia being grown across the world, improving yield, refining taste and reducing the cropping time of walnut trees in line with global demand.
So the next time you bite into a coffee and walnut cake, or snack on your fruit and nut mix, take a moment to appreciate how many people from all over the world have enjoyed walnuts as a part of their diet, from the Neolithic people roasting them by the fire to those of us in the modern-day. Want to find out more about walnuts? Check out 6 Random Facts That You Didn't Know About Walnuts