Friday, January 29, 2016

Walnut Oil is King

In our region of France, walnut oil is king.

It's a great replacement for cooking oil!

 It's better than olive oil for salads!
It's a proven anti-aging balm.

It's perfect for suntanning!

It isn't, however, much use as a motor oil.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Walnut Oil

Closing the heavy wooden door behind us we shut out the sound of rushing river water and left the heavy mist blanketing the world outside. We have entered a dimly lit space with muffled sounds. The air is humid, but warm, the walls are white cut stone with streaks of green mold and there are unfamiliar machines placed around the single room. The distinctive odor that lured us from the car is even stronger here, so thick we truly can taste it. Vermonters may be guessing this to be a sugar shack with maple sap bubbling away, but this smell is not rich and sweet. This smell is rich, old, and earthy. Rich as only smells of the damp winter earth can be. We have entered the old mill of Rochereuil down stream from Bourdeilles on the Dronne River. We are here to collect this year’s supply of walnut oil. 
Three or four men stand around a steaming stone cauldron, their conversation muffled in the thickness of the air. From them we get a quick once-over to see if we are friends or visitors, and a amiable bonjour from all. One man is working and the others are clearly here for an afternoon outing and a chat. The working man, also the owner of the mill, stops his steady turning of a pasty brown mash in the cauldron to greet us. He finds slips of paper laid out by his wife that show the orders we placed last week. Walnut oil is in limited production this year and we  have had to wait for a call to say that enough extra had been pressed to be able to fill our last minute orders. I have brought two juice bottles to be filled with the precious gold elixir. My friends have brought two liquor bottles. The miller sniffs their bottles and makes a joke about the secret flavoring their walnut oil will have.

The oil pours like flowing honey from a spigot into our assorted bottles. Each bottle is carefully re-corked, and handed back with clear instructions to be sure to store the oil in a cool dark place. Light will turn the oil rancid.

Someone asks the miller how much walnut oil he will consume this year. Clearly not a question he had been asked before, he laughs, reflects for a moment and tells us actually not very much.   Because he is not a big fan of salads, the dressing of which, is the reason why most most people buy his oil. He will be eating his walnut oil drizzled on green beans and other steamed vegetables, mixed in a simple salad dressing accompanied with slices of goats cheese, or as a secret ingredient in some special desserts. He’ll go through 3 or 4 liters in a year, but he has a client, clearly a big salad eater, that buys 10 to 12 liters each year, none will be shared as gifts.

The conversation turns to the troubles with this year’s walnut harvest and then to the troubles with the local honey production and how to protect one’s bee hives from invading wasps. These are familiar conversation among folks that count on the land and mother nature for a living. There is no predicting a steady income and the work is tedious. We are buying a labor of love as well as a delicious oil.

The miller excuses himself to go back to tending the mash roasting over the fire. We quietly linger a bit longer to soak up the atmosphere before finishing up this year’s adventure to the walnut mill. We will want this moment to return to us on hot summer days as we eat our salads and savor those garden fresh beans sprinkled with this golden nectar. We’ll raise a glass in hopes that the sun and rain will be balanced out just right for the maturing walnuts hanging green in the local orchards and to their future as next year’s harvest.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Look of Permanence

Bourdeilles is a classic European village. Bourdeilles is all stone and tight streets. Her buildings are constructed of stone--  labor intensive, quarried from the earth, permanent stone.
 At least the look of permanence is what first meets the eye of someone who grew up where streets were plotted out first and buildings filled in later.
I started hearing about this house and that house having a section cut off to enlarge the streets. Houses that were built when all the traffic that passed through the village was a person or two, a wheelbarrow on laundry day, and the occasional horse or cow being led out to pasture. Hiding under the imposing chateau and within the protective wall encircling the village, the houses were deliberately tucked up against each other. Alleyways through the village were tight to prevent marauders from arriving in large, aggressive gangs. For hundreds of years the only street in Bourdeilles passed right by the chateau entrance where armed men and provisions were expected to arrive.
At some point when life was less threatened by the vagaries of invaders, politics and religion, the surrounding walls of Bourdeilles were torn apart and used to build new homes. Wanting to create a street lined with businesses, the main road was moved from along the chateau to the center of the village. But wait-- there were houses placed smack dab in that proposed route. Gone, long gone are several of those homes. Anything that impeded the straight-line, enlargement of the new high street was cut up or torn down. Houses were reduced in size and left with their entrances giving right onto the new road. Several houses were completely demolished. The new road seemed grand and efficient. The village businesses thrived and deliveries arrived right to their door steps by ox drawn carts. Old timers can still describe the very, very few cars that were in Bourdeilles into the 1950’s. 

Now a days great big growling, lumbering trucks squeak through the village and it is clear why parts of homes were cut off to let these modern day behemoths through. There are still houses along this route that force the traffic down to one lane. Most of the houses on this truck route show deep scars left by swaying semi trailers.  Renovators beware! If homeowners wish to make any changes to the street side of an ancient house they will have to demolish enough of the house to allow modern day traffic through. Gone would be one of the crazy charms of our “modern” Bourdeilles.

Luckily two main streets have sufficed for today’s passing traffic. The upper side of the village remains a tight block of houses with tiny alleyways heading up and down, left and right, making mysterious turns. Two streets head up this part of the village. One is actually restricted to one way down. (When an ambulance was called in the dark hours of the morning to help with a emergency birth it tried to back up this tiny road and got stuck, much to the chagrin of the to be mother and the amusement of all the neighborhood. The Mom and baby girl were just fine. The delivery was in the hospital!) 
Fortunately, it takes moving off the Main Street to encounter passageways of another time, when no one could have imagined a self-powered, people-moving contraption passing at an unimaginable speed, greedily taking up space through the village. No one would have imagined that their solid stone homes would be dismantled for something called a car. Talk about marauders.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Flying By

"Americans?"   "New Yorkers."

Monday, January 11, 2016

Popcorn Time

With the coming of the New Year the topic of our evening walks was often about the perception that time is flying by.When did it start flying? Is there a physical appearance to time flying? Will time fly by even faster every year? Will Tom’s recent (bizarre) project to understand Einstein’s Theory of Relativity help us out or confuse matters even more?

December’s weather was warm and dry so our walks were long and leisurely with lots of time to chat. Then came the New Year and right away the weather changed. Heavy, grey clouds kept the sun away and there were waves of rain or mist. Going out for a walk meant heads down, hands shoved in pockets, feet set on a course, and little interest in conversing. 

Sunday the 3rd was damp and dreary. At some point it started to pour outside and we had missed our opportunity to take our walk. Instead we kicked the dogs into the backyard to take care of their “business” and we settled in to build a big fire in the fireplace. A rainy, cold day, a warm hearth and a leisurely pace to the day of course led to the notion of popcorn.

Now popcorn is not a common snack in France. It’s tricky to find and when served at all it is served in a tiny bowl for adults as a cocktail snack or at the movies, in a small box only, covered in sugar - never salted. 

I mentioned that it was a popcorn moment and Tom said, “We should make an effort to find some.”  I was pleased to be able to slyly reply that I had some just waiting. To cap it off, Tom remembered that we have two cans of Dr Pepper purchased in a specialty store in big city Perigueux..

It’s been years since I popped popcorn. I pulled out an old pan, heated the oil just so and poured in a reasonable amount of kernels. “Ok’ - as my GrandDad would say - “let her rip….”
I remembered that I needed to be patient, to take a deep breath and let time pass slowly until tink, tink, listening to the slow build up of kernels hitting the lid and just as the tinks changed to a full blown, pop, pop, pop,pop,pop, to start shaking that pan like crazy. Along with the exhilaration of the sound, my anticipation of the buttery corny taste was getting the better of me. But patience was still needed until I could hear those last few poof, poof in the overcrowded pan.

Oh that smell of butter, toasty corn kernels, and just a tinge of just so burnt. 

With the big bowl between us in front of the fireplace time stopped, maybe it even went backwards. 

I was there in the kitchen with my Grandfather and his brothers. Our weekly Sunday outing to the Farm where he had grown up. There was not a care in the world and time was nowhere to be seen. The wood stove was warm and toasty, the old men laughed and joked with each other, and the children gobbled up mouthfuls of that funny treat of popcorn.

That same feeling blanketed me here in front of this roaring fire. Those old men were with me for a few minutes. I could feel the luxury of a rainy Sunday afternoon. Tom and I talked about memories and we had a notion of why time is flying. To lean a little on the lyrics of a pop song, memories are the air underneath time’s wings. The more you have, the faster you fly.  It’s a good thing that popcorn provides a nice bit of tasty turbulence to slow time down a little.