Last weekend marked a regular celebration of French patrimoine (cultural heritage). I’ve already described the hive house we visited at Promilhanes, which was fascinating. Thanks to everyone for all the comments I’ve received on that post. In our area, one of the main themes of the weekend was mills and milling. Only a stone’s throw from the hive house I described, we saw an ancient walnut oil mill, which was exhibited for the day.
Walnut oil mill
I’ve already written about a walnut oil mill with ancient origins in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. The one we saw last weekend was similar, but probably smaller. Housed at Mas de Méric in Promilhanes (Lot), the present owner, breathless with enthusiasm, explained to us the function of all the old equipment, how they made the oil and what they did with it. He bought up and restored the property about 30 years ago.
Walnuts were once a staple crop in our region. You can still see many walnut trees lining the roadsides or gracing the fields. But their numbers are declining. The oil-mill owner told us that the exceptionally harsh winter of 1956 saw off a lot of walnut trees. They don’t like drought and extreme cold is tantamount to drought. Similarly, the past decade has seen extended periods of drought, which have affected the trees. Our own walnut trees suffer periodically and I suspect that only the heavy rain we had this spring has kept them going.
Walnut oil is to the Quercy/Rouergue what olive oil is to Provence. It was used for a wide variety of purposes, from cooking and preserving to fuelling oil lamps. The quality of the oil depended on the processes it went through. Collecting the nuts was tedious and back-breaking work. It is graphically described in various fictional accounts of life in the region. Shelling came next, often done by neighbours at veillées (evening gatherings), where people would tell stories to while away the monotony of the work. Often, it was done by cracking the nuts with a stone. We learned that brides were given the valuable present of a sack of nuts on their wedding day.
The shelled kernels were placed in the mill. According to the mill-owner, 10 kilos of nuts provided 4-5 kilos of kernels, which in turn produced two litres of walnut oil. The kernels were crushed by a huge millstone, turned by a horse or mule harnessed to it. This yielded a first pressing. The regular passage of the horse had gouged out a channel in the rock floor of the building over the years.
The resulting pulp was then heated in a wide pan over a fire and turned periodically with a wooden spatula to produce a stronger oil. They were careful not to use a mature wood utensil, since the heat would have singed it or even made it burst into flame. So the spatula was made out of green wood. The pulp that was left once all the oil was squeezed out of it was used as animal feed.
Rare windmill in working order
After the oil mill, we continued to a restored windmill, which in fact we last visited during the blisteringly hot summer of 2003. Then, we saw flour being milled in the old way inside the mill. This year, unfortunately, the owner had been hospitalised d’urgence and we could see it only from the outside. It’s one of a number of windmills that formerly functioned in the area, presumably because Promilhanes is exposed to the prevailing winds.
According to the notice on the door, the windmill was built in 1828 and went through various incarnations, including being driven by wind, locobomile (whatever that is) and gas-driven motor. It lost its sails in 1941 but was restored between 1973 and 1984.
We were struck by the infectious enthusiasm of the people whose little piece of patrimoine was on display last weekend. Thanks to their efforts, we can get a glimpse of how people lived not so long ago. The man who owned the oil mill remembered visiting his aunt and uncle there with his sister (who was also there last weekend). How things have changed in that time.
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