It’s Ginkgo Time!

I was trying to summarizing my entire crazy season in ONE post. Then I thought, screw this – it’s Ginkgo Time!

Ginkgo trees are terrestrial species like ferns and magnolias and go as far back as 270 million years. They are native to east Asia, mainly Korea, China and Japan. Rather than re-writing what is already known, I’ll let you look it up with the American Conifer Society or the New Phytologist Foundation for a more cultural reference. My mother introduced me to these as a teenager while she’d “pop” these in the microwave to steam. They have the texture of a rice ball with a flavour that mixes roasted cashew and gouda cheese. YUM.

We’ve had a really heavy rainfall this summer. So much that the berries started dropping early in mid-September.  All fruit trees experience this “shedding” of fruit. For most fruits, its called the June Drop. This is when the tree will literally “drop” up to half its fruit – in June – to conserve energy to produce its crop for the appropriate maturity time. This happens to late fruiting trees like apples, pears, or plums, apricots etc.  Ginkgo fruit mature and drop starting mid-October to early/mid November. The leaves turn a brilliant gold towards early November, then drop almost all at once. At least this is what I have observed where I am.  

This year they started dropping as early as September. The fruits were still green and not very useful, except to make a mess. Late September, they were their appropriately ripe golden colour. But the these had very small nuts. My neighbour across the street can’t stand the smell of them. Not many can appreciate the acrid smell of bile & parmesan. Can you?  The fragrance of ripe-rancid cheese wafts in the air to indicate the changing of the seasons and intensifies as the flesh begins to deteriorate on the ground.

What is a girl to do? Shamelessly asked for all of them!

Stunned but happy they didn’t have to deal with them, my gravy train started. Bag after bag of delicious, rank golden fruits started to trickle onto my property. By the time halloween arrived, The nuts had ripened to size and I had 1/3 of those nuts stashed in my back yard and garage. By late October, I had 3/4 of the nuts in my back yard.

I started processing just before halloween. Everyone talks about the smell (including me), but I think, about an hour into the process – I could still smell them!  Unlike most hard smells that your brain adjusts to like cigarettes or litter boxes,  this one is hard to shake. I think my mind started playing tricks on me. I couldn’t decide if it was a ripe parmesan smell a minute ago, or a sweet-sour zing second later; maybe sour apple or orange juice; was that overripe pineapple – No, maybe old grapes – Hmm, there’s a slight plum or apple tartness to it…Oh… there’s that pukey tang again…

Now, if you want to gather your own, there are some precautions to consider when picking and processing Ginkgo:

  1. Wear gloves. Ginkgo fruits secrete an enzyme that is very caustic.  Usually after handling just 3 berries, your hands will feel suddenly dry.  Imagine handling buckets of the stuff!  Luckily I have some industrial strength gloves that are chemical grade.  You don’t need to go that far.  Latex gloves will do just fine.  Just remember to change them if and when they tear.  
  2. The smell is inconceivable.  I’ve already covered that above.  So if you’re unsure if you can stomach it, try hanging out in an area that has them fruiting.  If you’re in Toronto, Mount Pleasant Cemetery has three.  Don’t worry, you don’t even have to go in to get a whiff of it!  You can also try St. George St. off UofT campus downtown as the street is littered with them.  *I digress to some minor recent history: Male trees are sterile. So the city thought to only plant males (no fruits=no smell). The problem is that sexing a ginkgo can only be done long after its been planted.  Females will have considerably longer leaf spurs than the male.  So until that starts to show up, you don’t really know what you got.  How long does take to bear fruit? Roughly 25 years.  As far as the tree switching sexes – it doesn’t.  The females, however, in the absence of males, produce its own male hormones to start the fruiting process.  The males stay male. The whole point of all plants on earth is to pass genetic data. So that’s what it’s doing.  Guess what the city ended up with after 20-some odd years of lovely “sterile” golden specimen trees? The whole neighbourhood stinks for about a week or two, staining your shoes and finding its way indoors, then it’s over. 
  3. Get ready to scrub your sins away!. Wear rubber boots. The flesh has a tendency to go gummy-like in a glue-stick-residue kind of way.  It’s similar to the jelly on a tomato seed when your burst them and then it goes tacky-scummy as it starts to dry. It’s just you and your hands until you get that all off the pit! Scrub and scrub that pulp without cracking the shell or quitting halfway. It does eventually wash off, but not without that classic relentless elbow grease. By the way, ginkgo flesh make excellent fertilizer. If you like your neighbours, bury them under the soil or top up your compost bin with plenty of soil and browns to keep things cordial.
  4. Do not eat more than 10. It is also not for children before puberty, according to my mother.  The nut is a potent medicine packed with essential micronutrients for neurological stimulation. Children’s physiology, while growing, is delicate. Let their body do it’s thing as intended by God and nature.  As indicated on  Nutrition and You, children’s systems can tolerate up to 5 kernels, but there are so many other safer means of obtaining micro-nutrients, why risk the nausea, diarrhea, bloating, etc?  
  5. Steam, boil, roast, stir-fry.  You won’t find these in conventional markets, but the asian markets will have these in very small snack-size quantities, some places by the pound. They’re a bit pricey but considering the above gauntlet in harvesting and processing, you can appreciate why they are so. (I may* spontaneously open an Etsy store –  tell me if I should!). Once you’ve tried them, think about what flavour notes stick out the most. This will help you combine the foods you like to elevate your meals or snacks. I like it on its own but have read they’re really nice in stir-fry’s or with eggs.  But remember: not more than 10.

This was a fun journey through Stinko-Ginkgo-ville! Would I do it again? Halfway through processing them (I still have bags and bags to go), I had a passing thought of regret. Like most urbanites, re-connecting ourselves to nature has an element of unexpected labour attached. In the case of ginkgo nuts, its a shocking amount of work if you’ve never done this kind of thing before. I’ve only done it in small quantities – a few bite’s worth, but not a full operation like this.  I’ve hit a goldmine, but I’m the only miner. Yes, modernity and convenience – some I could’t fathom living without. But there is also joy in reconnecting the dots of our cultural history through forage, food and gardens.  

So would I do it again? We’ll see how I feel when the last nut has been cleaned and dried….

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