Walnut oil mills and windmills

 

Walnut oil mill at Promilhanes

 

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.

Pan for cooking the walnut pulp

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

Restored windmill at Promilhanes

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.

Windmill’s history

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.  

Promilhanes windmill close-up

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.

Copyright © 2012 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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13 Responses to Walnut oil mills and windmills

  1. Pingback: Walnut Time | Life on La Lune

  2. Fascinating post. I adore anything nut-related and walnuts are my favourite of all nuts. I usually have a bottle of walnut oil in the cupboard. Creuse is quite famous for walnuts but I don’t know of any old oil mills in this area.

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  3. maggie says:

    Perhaps a locomobile is something like a tractor; a movable source of power. There is an old metal wheeled tractor-like machine about 500m away from the windmill; I want to ask the windmill owners whether it might be the locomobile. From the mill, go through Mas de la Bosse then turn right towards Promilhanes (the southern of the two routes from Mas de la Bosse to Promilhanes). The tractor is on the right. What I want to know is what is ‘gaz pauvre’….have you run across that term before? Another treasure near there is a sculpture garden on a dirt track; a sign names it le Plantural; unfortunately it is private property, so I’ve never been inside. if you ever see it advertised as open, it would be quite interesting. The sculptor lives in the Mas de la Bosse hamlet (house has metal sculptures around it). So much to see in our wonderful countryside!

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    • nessafrance says:

      Yes, you’re probably right about the locomobile. I’ve looked up gaz pauvre and, as I thought, it’s the same thing they used to run vehicles on during World War II. It’s combustible gas produced by the incomplete combustion of coal or wood. In war films you often see cars with an apparatus, a gazogène, strapped to the side, which is what produced the gas. Thanks for the tip about the sculpture garden. I’ll look out for it next time I’m over that way. Maybe it will be open.

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  4. Sue Whatmough says:

    Very interesting as ever. We have a magnificent walnut tree which yields lots every year. One of our rituals is cracking them during Scrabble games – whoever is waiting for the other to go, cracks walnuts while they wait. We now have several rapidly growing small trees, a couple of which should start fruiting in a year or so. The soil here is terrific, well the walnut trees seem to think so, they grow far faster than the ones I’ve seen over the years at my cousin’s place in Dordogne.
    Walnuts are hugely good for you. I did a blog on them a while ago:
    http://blogs.angloinfo.com/pot-pourri/2011/11/20/the-wonderful-walnut-and-what-it-can-do-for-you/

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    • nessafrance says:

      I remember your post on walnuts. They have suffered around here from drought in recent years. Our own are, fortunately, okay but only thanks to the rain we have had this spring.

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  5. Kate Swaffer says:

    I love your blogs, they always make me feel like I am visiting these places. Thank you

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  6. Deborah says:

    As always, your posts are full of wonderful details and background information! I can just picture the walnut-shelling evenings – probably quite painful on the fingers.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Deborah. These evenings were very common in times past when people lived in small communities. It could be a little claustrophobic but they were very close and helped each other out, which doesn’t happen anything like as much today.

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  7. Lovely blogs on these interesting buildings … I loved the bee house.

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    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Liz. I am coming to realise that the bee house is a very rare thing – I haven’t been able to find other examples, although it can’t have been the only one.

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