A nutty trail

A nutty trail

In Mussoorie, the climb and search to reach the walnuts followed by a Garhwali lunch in an unmissable village shows that offbeat adventure awaits in the hill station

Freshly plucked walnuts

The air is redolent with the fragrance of the forest as we tread to the hilltop, our way punctuated in places with black pepper, silver oak and walnut trees. The rays of the early morning sun are still mellow, ensuring a nip in the air. We are on a walnut trail with our guide Pradeep Rai, in search of walnuts that abound in this region.

The trail begins from the hills behind my hotel located in Village Siya. In front of me is the Shivalik mountain range, rising against the azure blue sky dotted with fluffy clouds. The mountain air is cathartic, enough to invigorate me for that hour-long trek as I navigate rocks and jump  over crevices.

A little further into the trail, I spot a walnut tree. It’s early October and the tree is bursting with yellowish-green flowers, while some begin to bear the fruit. I stand  squinting at the sunlight that glints through the leaves, peering at the little green walnuts that hang high on the walnut tree.

Far & near

From a distance they look anything but walnuts, or how I know them to be. With a green soft shell on the outside, they shine in the morning sun like green squash balls. The tree is at least 25 metre in height. Much to my excitement, my  guide nimbly climbs up the tree and plucks a few walnuts to show. Walnuts are encased in a soft green covering that cracks open when thrown from a height. It then reveals the hard brown shell we are familiar with. 

Because the tree is tall and straight, picking walnuts is not easy. Once plucked, the walnut branches are beaten with hard blows to reveal the fruit. Each walnut tree yields anything between two to six crates of walnuts. These kathi walnuts or walnuts with their hard, woody shells are distinct from the more common and nutty kagdi walnuts (or the ones with papery shells.) Walnut trees thrive best in the hilly regions, especially in the North Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh. Kashmiri walnuts are one of the most popular varieties of walnuts in India.  

We trek for another 30 minutes until we reach the pine grove where more than 200 pine trees rise along the mountain slope. The pine trees look magical, and it’s the perfect weather with the slight nip in the air.

My guide picks up dried twigs and lights a stove. He brings out a kettle from his bag and places it on the hearth. Soon we are busy sipping piping hot chai. The place is tranquil, far removed from the city life, with only a shepherd in the distance.    

A few minutes later, we make our way back to the hotel. We navigate through the wild bamboo and deodar trees. Our trail ends in the over 60-year-old walnut tree at JW Marriott Mussoorie, Walnut Grove Resort & Spa. The tree is laden with the fruit. The guide brings out a harness and checks if I would like to climb the tree. I choose not to and instead proceed to the main lawns where I am rewarded with freshly baked walnut cake. The cake is delicious and complements the balmy weather. 

Corn village 

Later that afternoon, we travel to Sainji, a village situated a few kilometres from Mussoorie, for lunch. At first, the village looks nondescript, but as I enter, I realise why it is popularly known as the corn village.

Golden bunches of corn hang outside each house. Unlike a string of mango leaves that is seen outside homes in southern parts of the country, here, corn tied together in bunches act as the toran (a garland tied to the main door to bring in good luck). 

Corn thrives in the hills and is a staple here. Perhaps that’s why my Garhwali thali comprises rotis made with corn flour, not wheat, which makes the meal relatively gluten-free. 

It’s a tradition to unleaf the corn and hang it outside the house post harvest. This allows the corn to dry out well.

Whenever needed, the corn is pulled out, combined with wheat, and used to make flour.

Once the corn is removed, the cob is used to light fire. My Garhwali thali comprises jakhiya aloo, boiled potatoes tempered with native jakhiya seeds, railu (grated cucumber mixed in yoghurt and tempered with jakhiya seeds), kandle ki sabzi (vegetable made with stinging nettle leaves) and makke ki roti (flatbreads made of corn).  

We round off our meal with a sweet rice pudding called jhingore ki kheer.

Before I leave, I’m also offered freshly made walnut halwa — prepared with freshly plucked walnuts. As I bite into the halwa, the fragrance of the ghee, the smoothness of the jaggery and the crunch of the walnuts assails my taste buds.

I know exactly what I am going to use the stash of walnuts I picked on my walnut trail for.