A walnut lunch with an orange finish

For the first 32 years of my life, walnuts, along with mince pies, brandy butter, figgy pudding, and the Queen’s speech, meant Christmas. A large bowl of them with an ancient nutcracker would appear on the slightly oppressive sideboard around the 15th of December. The bowl would then sit there, rather like the Queen herself, familiar, mildly depressing and collecting dust. From time to time my Mum would proffer it enthusiastically,’ walnut anyone‘ and crack one open. Occasionally the bowl would be brought to the table for with the cheese and someone, probably my Mum, would have one or two, and I remember my Dad juggling with walnuts. But mostly the bowl and its beige contents would sit there neglected, gathering more dust, and generally outstaying its welcome until it disappeared on about the 15th of February.

Every now and then I did crack one open, but that was only because our friend Misou had taught us the cracking one nut open by pressing the seam of it against the seam of another nut trick. Done correctly the shell would split neatly in two and if you were lucky you could pull out two perfect curious butterfly like halves. But what’s strange, is that even though I vividly remember cracking them open and the bowl perched on the sideboard getting dusty, I can’t for the life of me remember eating any walnuts, I’m sure I did, I know I did, I just don’t remember.

Vincenzo on the other hand is an experienced walnut (noci) eater, he is extremely proud of his capacity and speedy cracking skills. Up until the age of 12 he honed his skills eating almonds in Sicily, his maternal grandparents had a farm in Gelà where they grew tomatoes, artichokes, cotton and tended almond trees. Vincenzo and the cousins would position themselves under a vast sack of almonds stored on the raised wooden platform in the barn, poke a hole in the bottom of the coarse sacking and wheedle out almond after almond, cracking open the nuts a hammer. But then things changed, the family removed to Rome and soon after his grandparents left the farm, it was harder to find good almonds and Vincenzo shifted his allegiance to walnuts.

When we first met he was disturbed and perturbed that I didn’t touch the walnuts he bought, ‘Non ti piace i noci‘ ‘ you don’t like walnuts‘ he would ask with a quizzical expression and that slight air of superiority Italians often have when they talk about food (the superiority which used to drive me mad but I now nearly understand.)  I told him the story of the dusty nuts and showed him my cracking skills, which I think impressed him nearly as much as me recognising Lee Morgan playing the Trumpet on Art Blakey’s recording of A night in Tunisia (a guess and a gazillion points.)

At first I wondered if ignoring them had been the sensible choice. Even with the wonderful Walnuts we find here in Rome, the very best Noce di sorrento that arrive from Sorrento in Campania. it took me a while. Walnuts are particular things, creamy and with that wonderful oily, sweet, waxy texture but also slightly bitter and mildly astringent. Like meeting unexpected tannins in a glass of red wine, the puckery feeling, the slightly dry mouth, not unpleasant, just surprising, something I needed to get used to before I could really appreciate walnuts.

Which I did, not only becoming extremely fond of walnuts and the ritual of cracking a couple open after a meal, but also becoming nearly as diligent as Vincenzo at keeping the walnut bowl full.

And then I discovered walnut pesto a soft, delicate, nutty paste – cream if you like –  of walnuts, olive oil, butter and aged parmesan and I really fell for walnuts.

Our walnut pesto started life as an almost classic basil pesto using walnuts instead of pine nuts. We both liked the sweet, creamy, slight bitterness of the walnuts so much, we tried it again without the basil. During our third or fourth attempt Vincenzo suggested we added some butter, I was sceptical at first, but it works beautifully, the pesto is softer and creamier, which makes sense really, especially to the nut butter lover in me. I have since noticed Marcella Hazans suggests adding butter to her classic basil pesto.

We continued to tweak and try, and I kept illegible notes; a bit more oil; more cheese, parmesan and pecorino, just parmesan; more walnuts, less walnuts; blanching and peeling the nuts if they are older so darker and thus rather bitter. Until we arrived here, eccoci as Vincenzo would say, walnut pesto, pale and unassuming but a just delicious delicate, nutty walnut cream we spread on warm toast or stir into soft ribbons of fresh egg tagliatelle.

Of course there is nothing original about our recipe, walnut pesto and all the various walnut sauces (salsa di noci),- I have since found dozens of recipes some with parsley and basil, some with breadcrumbs, others with a little cream or yogurthave been around for centuries. I’m told they make some wonderful walnut sauces in Liguria, especially Genoa where it is called tocco di noxe and eaten with a wonderful sounding herb filled ravioli called pansôti, but that’s another post.

I’m cautious about writing exact measurements for this recipe, walnuts vary from sweet to bitter depending on their age, as we know olive oil can be pungent and peppery or light and delicate, parmesan can be piquant, aged and seasoned or mild and soft, even butter is unpredictable. Suggestions rather than instructions feel more appropriate for this recipe. My advice is that you use my measurements as a loose template, that you start with 100g of walnuts halves and then experiment and balance your ingredients, adding a knob of butter, some oil, some cheese, tasting, added some more of something, tasting again, trying it on the pasta, making it again a week later and adjusting something.

I think this sauce works well with most long pasta but it is really wonderful with fresh egg pasta, its softer more absorbent texture holds the flavour of this delicate walnut pesto better. We like tagliatelle or fettuccine.

So there you have it, dusty and neglected to one of my favourites (and his too.)

Tagliatelle with Walnut pesto (or walnut cream)

We start making walnut pesto in June after summer solstice and the walnut harvest, the nuts are young, pale, still soft and just delicious. Later in the year. like now, when the nuts are older and maybe bitter, I blanche them in boiling water and peel them  – which is a right old faff but worth it, I’d say it’s pretty essential you blanche and peel packeted walnuts and walnuts in their shell really are best.

Last thing, this is another recipe in which you need to add some of the salty, cloudy pasta cooking water to the walnut pesto to loosen and thin it a little so it coats each strand of pasta. I scoop out a cupful just before I drain the pasta so don’t forget and pour it all way.

Serves 2 really generously with some pesto left over to have on toast.

  • 100g shelled walnuts halves or pieces.
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil olive oil
  • A walnut sized knob (About 25g) of butter softened to room temperature
  • 50g finely grated good (aged if possible) parmesan plus more to serve
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  • 200g dried or 300g fresh tagliatelle

Making it by hand with a pestle and mortar

Crack the walnuts open

Unless they are very young and very fresh, drop the walnuts in boiling water, remove with a slotted spoon and quickly pull away the dark skin. Dry the nuts.

Crush and pound the nuts in the mortar with the pestle until they look like coarse sand. Now add the butter and work it into the nutty powder using the pestle, then add the cheese and grind into the mixture evenly using the pestle. Add the olive oil and beat with a wooden spoon. Taste, add more oil or cheese if you think fit, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Making it with a food processor

Crack the walnuts open

Unless they are very young and very fresh, drop the walnuts in boiling water, remove with a slotted spoon and quickly pull away the dark skin. Dry the nuts.

Put the nuts, butter, olive oil in the food processor and process to a uniform, creamy consistency. Transfer to a bowl and mix in the cheese. Taste, season, add more oil or cheese if you think fit, taste etc……


While you are cooking the pasta in lots of well salted, fast boiling water, put a nice big dollop (about 2/3 ) of the walnut pesto in the bottom of a warm serving bowl and dilute it with a couple of tablespoons of the water the pasta is cooking in.

Once the pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the bowl, toss the pasta with the sauce carefully (add a little more pasta water or walnut pesto if you think its necessary) the pasta should be loose and slippery and every strand well coated with the creamy sauce.

Divide between warm serving bowl with serve with more freshly grated parmesan on top and a good grind of black pepper.

After a beige meal, however good, we needed a bright finish.

A salad of sliced oranges, fennel, red onion and black olives dressed with salt and olive oil.


Filed under food, pasta and rice, Rachel's Diary, recipes, sauces

43 responses to “A walnut lunch with an orange finish

  1. I can’t believe that I’ve never heard of this walnut pesto, let alone eaten it. You can bet that this is something that I have to try. But the ingredients make sense. I have been enjoying for years an appetizer by Marcella Hazan of softened sweet butter mixed with grated Parmasen cheese sandwiched between two lightly toasted walnut halves, then rolled in chopped basil.

  2. From the first paragraph, it just hooks one in and you find yourself just skipping happily from word to word, encountering beautiful pictures along the way.

    We love walnuts and A Night in Tunisia which plays quite frequently on my iPod.

  3. suncatcher

    I came across your site after a mention from smitten kitchen a bit ago(love Deb). You have a wonderful blog and I look forward every day to whatever you share. Living vicariously through your thoughts, food and photos and they make me smile.

  4. suncatcher

    Just remembered! I made the onion butter tomato sauce you both posted. Delish! That’s a go-to for me from now on!

  5. Tamsin

    Hi Rachel, I also discovered your site through Smitten Kitchen and now I’m de-lurking to say how great it is. Delicious recipes and great photos. I used to live in Forlì near Bologna (with a Sicilian and a Roman) and found living in Italy really expanded my food horizons. I miss it so much but your blog is a nice reminder.

    I’ve recently developed a love of walnuts, my mum has a huge tree in her garden but we have to fight the local squirrels for the nuts! This looks like a great way of getting even more into my diet. Have you ever tried making walnut bread?

    • rachel

      hello Tamsin
      Bologna with a Roman and Sicilian – wow three wonderful food friends to have
      I imagine you had some very very good meals.
      If you love walnuts I think you will like this pesto.
      No I have never made walnut bread, If you have a good recipe i would love it!

  6. Fabulous stuff. Love the photos too, just wonderful. And I laughed heartily at the walnut/queen comparison.

  7. Tamsin

    Hi again,

    Here’s my go-to recipe for walnut bread. It’s easy to tweak according to what you have on hand. I like to use a little rye flour (farina di segale) – it has less gluten than wheat flour and makes a denser, tastier loaf but I’ve also sucessfully used wholemeal. The recipe makes 2 loaves and can easily be halved.

    400g strong white flour
    100g rye/wholemeal flour
    200g walnuts toasted and roughly chopped
    1½ tsp dried yeast
    2 tsp salt
    1 tbsp walnut oil (optional)
    320ml warm water

    Mix everything except the nuts. Knead together for 5 or so mins. Add in the nuts and knead for a few more mins. Leave to rise until doubled. Knock back and form into two rings (or whatever shape takes your fancy). Leave to rise for 20 mins. Bake at 220°C for 25 mins or until it sounds hollow when you tap it on the bottom.

    Hope you enjoy!


  8. arugulove

    I can’t get over how good this looks. So simple and elegant. Mmm…I really want to make this!

  9. And the orange finish is so beautiful!

  10. Funny, I came here after you posted the comment on Luisa’s gnocchi… You’re living the life I thought I wanted when I went to Milan after graduating college. Instead I got homesick, couldn’t find a job (so I couldn’t get a visa) and went to law school.

    Now that I’m a practicing attorney, I kind of wished I gave it a little more time 🙂

    (Also, I just love that you have a nice Sicilian boy. My mother was born in Sciacca on the Southwest coast there, and I’ve spent many a summer there lounging. Oh Sicily.)

    • rachel

      Hello Christine
      Thankyou for your message.
      I worry that I Romantasize my life here a little too much in the blog…I get really homesick too and
      the cultural differences are difficult and really confusing even after 5 years.
      Sciacca – beautiful beautiful.

  11. Athena

    I have to say I love your blog. I found you through a search for “plain cake” and was smitten by your writing and photographs. I can’t wait to try the walnut pesto and my kids will love cracking the nuts!

  12. Oh, how I have laughed at your Christmas walnuts – this is exactly what happened in our house too – and I admit to continuing in the same tradition. I have 15 days before they mysteriously disappear.

  13. That orange salad looks absolutely gorgeous by the way.

  14. TD

    I never thought anyone could talk about walnuts with so much romance. I really enjoyed this post. I plan to try this as soon as I figure out where to buy some whole walnuts around here.

    On a different note, have you ever considered doing a post on your favorite restaurants in Rome? I am of course asking this partially because I am planning to visit Rome for 2 days in March and I have been looking around for good places to have dinner.

    • rachel

      Hello TD
      I haven’t got around to a Rome post yet, I have plans but
      I am slow. I am really really happy to give you some suggestions though,

  15. I have thought that walnuts make a nicer basil pesto than pinenuts, but I have never made a basic walnut pesto like yours. Hmmmmm. Your addition of butter to the act seems so right—lets those walnuts speak in all their sweet creamy pungent voices.

    I have a friend here who is going to teach a class on pansoti next month—anxious to learn its wild ways.

    Nice finish to the beige meal, by-the-by…

  16. I love walnut pestos – I’ve been known to use arugula where one would use basil for a winter (in San Francisco) version.

  17. Lynn D.

    My husband and I got a job picking walnuts when we first moved to Oregon nearly forty years ago. I wish I had had your recipe for walnut pesto then! Now we have a young tree on our property and I make a delicious vin de noix with green walnuts that can be pierced with a knitting needle. It is delicious. One year it turned to vinegar and we now have a lifetime supply of delicious walnut vinegar as well. So far the squirrels have gotten all of the mature walnuts.

    • rachel

      hello Lynn
      I’d like to be a walnut picker.
      I am rather jealous of your walnut tree and even more so of your wonderful sounding Vin De Noix
      ( and the vinegar.) I would really like to try making Nocino the dark brown, very
      potent Italian liqueur made from unripe walnuts.
      Thankyou for your lovely message.

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  19. another incredibly lovely post on every single level… i adore walnuts and eat them often. i’ve made the pesto but never withour basil and never with butter. it truly sounds wonderful. and wintery. love the orange fennel salad. i make it regularly. it’s one of my most favorite things to eat.

  20. we made ours with a bit of milk-soaked bread. prob. didn’t need it, but it gave it a bit more “body”(if it actually really needed it!?). beige lunches can be good.

    as for walnuts in a bowl catching dust… i think we may have come from the same family. SAME thing happened w/ me except my mom wouldn’t eat them, only dad. cute memory.

  21. G.

    your photos are just so, so lovely. i love them to bits. almost as much as i love walnut pesto. i made my first batch last year and can’t get enough of the stuff.

  22. really beautiful photos, Rachel. it is so hard to photograph beige and white food. i love the salad you prepared, it just smells of Rome, doesn’t it? x shayma

  23. Adrianne

    This made a beautiful, simple meal for my husband and I last night. I loved the addition of butter, and once this long winter ends and I can grow basil on the deck again, I think I will be adding butter to my basil pesto. Delicious!
    Love your photos and your food.

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  25. coconutandquinoa

    Hi Rachel,

    I’ve been really enjoying your blog, love the photos and your stories of life in Italy.
    Made your blood orange fennel salad over the weekend and finally posted the meal tonight.
    Thanks for the inspiration!


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