Royal Nut: A History Of The Walnut
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Who doesn’t love a walnut cake? But did you know that this nut is one of the oldest tree foods in the entire history of human civilization? Although it is considered a "nut" and used as one in the culinary world, it is not a true nut. Walnut, or particularly the Persian or English walnut (Juglans regia), is the edible seed of a stone fruit or drupe of any tree of the genus "Juglans." After full ripening of the "nut," the kernel is eaten and the shell is discarded.

The golden age of walnuts can be seen from the fact that walnut trees blossomed throughout Europe during the Middle Ages. During the Byzantine era, it was also known as the "royal nut." Even in Ibn al-Awwam’s 12th-century book called "Book on Agriculture," there is an article on walnut tree cultivation. Originally, walnut was known as the "Welsh nut," because it was brought to German speakers via France or Italy. As it happens, in Polish, "orzechy woskie" translates to "Italian nuts." Even ancient literature has mentions of walnuts. A good example would be the first-century Roman author Pliny the Elder, who wrote the book "Natural History" and mentioned in it the extensive use of walnuts. He claimed that the walnut trees found in Greece were brought from Persia. Many writers, including Pliny, also described a peculiar wedding custom wherein the groom scattered walnuts among the young people who sang "obscene songs."

Medically speaking, for more than two millennia, medical practitioners have been using walnuts in their regimens. This can be seen at a famous medical school in Salerno, Italy, where walnuts are included in their regimen. A German medical handbook believed to be from the twelfth century touted walnuts as a cure for a number of conditions. Walnuts were mainly used in the medical world due to their innumerable benefits like omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, fiber, and many vitamins and minerals. Even in the ancient Mediterranean world, walnut was considered to be the most important nut from a health standpoint, as can be seen from the fact that many Greek and Roman medical writings have detailed descriptions about the use of walnut. 

The Greek physician Dioscorides, who was in the Roman army during the first century CE, traveled far and wide to collect knowledge about the plants of the Mediterranean. His only surviving work, called "Materia Medica," was completed in the middle of the first century and contained detailed descriptions about the use of walnuts. He believed that when walnuts were eaten with figs and rue, the nuts cancelled out the poison. Some unbelievable claims made by him were that walnuts along with honey and rue help with inflammation of abscesses or swelling and dislocations, and when walnuts are mixed with onions, salt, and honey, it can heal dog bites. 

But perhaps the most bizarre claim made by him was that if walnut kernels were burned, ground with wine and oil, and applied to an infant child’s head, his or her hair would grow abundantly and get rid of all the bald spots. But even though these claims sound too good to be true, most of these recommendations would appear in subsequent medical works for almost two thousand years after the publication of "Materia Medica."

Now that we've seen how ancient and old walnuts are from a medical standpoint, let's take a look at how ancient walnuts are in the culinary world. After seeing the medical benefits, many cookbook authors started incorporating walnuts in their books. A good example would be Thomas Dawson, who wrote a cookbook in the sixteenth century claiming that walnuts could be used to prevent bad breath caused by eating onions. But later in the seventeenth century, the focus shifted from medical benefits to culinary applications. Walnuts were an ideal ingredient for any dish because they were readily available, inexpensive, and easily preserved and stored. 

As a result, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they were used in a variety of dishes and recipes, including salads, sauces, soups, pickles, and desserts. The highly popular Waldorf salad, which is a combination of apples, bananas, cherries, chicken, cream cheese, dates, and pineapples, started incorporating walnuts in its recipe as well.

All in all, from all the points mentioned above, it is clear that walnuts are almost as old as mankind. Even if you look at it from a medical, philosophical, or edible (or comestible) point of view, the ancient existence of walnuts is extremely clear. So, the next time you enjoy that piece of delicious walnut cake, just remember the rich and ancient history of that delicious topping!