Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Precious as Gold

Love of walnut oil is not something new to the gentle folks of the Perigord region of France.  Roman settlers carefully brought along and planted a variety of a walnut tree that the Egyptians had cultivated. The clever Egyptians had cross-bred trees until they developed a walnut with “meat” that was rich enough in fat to be pressed for oil. The mighty walnut even earned itself it’s own proverb:  “Rien n’est perdu dans la Noix du Périgord sauf le bruit qu’elle fait en se cassant” Nothing is lost of the Walnut of the Perigord except the sound that she makes when she cracks.”

Loving order and precision in all things, the Romans planted every orchard in a square 11 meters x 11 meters. Todays orchards are still laid out in this military fashion..
Walnut oil was considered as precious as gold well into the 1700’s. It is an oil that brought great fortunes to the Dordogne region. It’s multiple uses made it a sought after commodity. The oil  was used for lighting lamps, mixing paints and making soft soaps, but most importantly for cooking. (Now a days we say it has too low a burn point to cook with, but back then one used what could be produced locally and free.)

Just one or two trees on a small farm could help a peasant pay off their debs.  Large land owner’s orchards brought great riches to their properties. Nobles and clergy alike made sure that an orchard of walnuts was planted on their holdings.
The production of walnut oil really took off in the 17th century. Like the wines of southern France, barrels of oil passed through Bordeaux to Holland, England and Germany. Not only the oil was shipped, but the nuts themselves and the valuable trunks of old trees were also loaded on ships. Seasonal markets sprung up in late fall where everyone brought their harvest to a central location to sell to millers who then processed the nuts in their riverside mills.

During the 20th century walnut orchards had difficult times. Millers went off to war and did not return, their knowledge lost with them. The regimented rows of walnut trees were cut down because the strong wood was perfect for making gun handles. World War I, and then WWII, ate up men and trees. 

Luckily in the 1950’s there was a push to plant new walnut orchards. Old timer’s memories were picked to reconstruct the best methods for growth and production. 

Walnuts are gathered in late October and left for a month or so in a sheltered space to dry. Some folks then take sack-fulls to the local cooperative to be sold by the kilo - shell and all, for a little “mad money”.  In days gone by entire hamlets and villages would get together on long winter evenings for nut cracking. Now a days a few families still work together around the kitchen table to crack their own nuts, but for a big operation like our local mill the nuts are shelled by a machine. This past year the nuts had a lot of disease,  so there was a lot of hand sorting of the good meat from the bad. Some things machines just can’t do. Sacks of the precious morsels are then transported down to the mill. Here the millers work their age old magic, magic passed on from generation to generation. The bottled gold is shipped off all over the world and few will know, but all will taste, the long and rich history of the Walnut of the Perigord.


Anonymous said...

Have really enjoyed your postings about the walnut and oil. It was all something I knew nothing of. Thanks!!!

Mary Jo said...

Your sumptuous words about walnut oil have finally created a desire in me to taste this liquid gold. I'll be on a mission to find it and try it. Wish me luck.

Kathie K said...

Fascinating. I'm really enjoying learning about walnut/oil production in France. This is new to me.