That’s right, and I hadn’t really heard of them either, except as the herbal medicine gingko biloba, which is actually an extract made from the leaves of the gingko tree. (Please don’t try that at home; ginkgo extract can have serious side-effects). These beautiful little gems are a delicacy in many Asian countries, renowned for their good luck, chestnutty/slightly bitter taste, medicinal properties, and…they stink.
When I asked the homeowner if we should put the fruit that we cleaned up off the ground before starting the pick into the compost (standard Not Far From The Tree practice), the homeowner assured me that rather, it should promptly go into a plastic bag, securely tied, and they would take it to the dump right away. Wow. I was a bit worried.
Actually, it was a lot better than we feared. First of all, the tree was huge and beautiful, which is always a joy to work with. And the homeowners had been meticulous in maintaining the yard, as it’s only when the fruit begins to rot that the smell becomes apparent. However, when you get close to the rotten fruit, well…Mina here has an under-ripe fruit, which accounts for the smile!
We entertained ourselves during the pick and the preserving party that night trying to figure out what the rotting fruit (and the face-full of steam you get when you strain off a pot of boiling ginkgo fruit) smells like. It went something like this:
“No, a wet dog.”
“A wet dog smeared with stinky cheese!”
“Oh, that’s good! How about a wet dog smeared with stinky cheese that’s rolled in something it shouldn’t have?”
But don’t let the smell put you off! As we found out (because by picking them from the tree we had picked them under-ripe), it is necessary for the fruit to drop and then rot a bit in order for the nuts to be ready to harvest, at which point you take your gloves and squish the nut out, which looks something like a pistachio nut. Gloves are necessary because of the smell and because the juice can cause a temporary itchy dermatitis in some people, as our intrepid volunteer Cindy found out a little bit on her unprotected wrist.
Inside the nut is a small jewel-like seed that turns a beautiful jade colour when cooked. And cooked they must be, as uncooked ginkgo seeds contain a chemical known as ginkgotoxin, which can cause seizures. After boiling the fruit to make removing the flesh easier and gently cracking the nut open, we pan-fried the soft seeds with a little oil and salt, making sure to rub off the papery skin (which is bitter) and I quite liked them. One of the volunteers took the remainder home and dried the nuts, and she said that the remaining clingy flesh came off quite easily after that (thanks Josie!)
These seeds, the “ginkgo nuts”, were a time-consuming and interesting adventure, and I can understand why they can fetch a high price! It’s a lot of work for little return. Most of the return comes from the camaraderie of the work itself :-) So, if you see (or smell!) a ginkgo tree, have no fear! Find someone who knows how or what to do with the nuts, read the article “What’s That Smell in the Park? It’s Dinner” from the NY Times for inspiration, search the web for recipes, and plunge right in…with your gloves, of course!