Walnut Time

Our walnut haul so far

Our walnut haul so far

The walnuts start to fall here in SW France around the end of September. By mid-October, it’s positively raining nuts. This year, we were afraid that our crop would be minimal. Many walnuts fell early and were blackened and mummified, presumably because the wet spring and the very dry summer didn’t suit them. However, we needn’t have worried. We have almost filled two boxes already and plenty more nuts are still on the trees.

Blackened walnut

Blackened walnut

Part of the landscape

Walnut trees grow abundantly in this part of France, but they are susceptible to both drought and frost. After the long heatwave of 2003, we noted a number in the hedgerows that just gave up and died – as did one of our own.

One of our grafted walnut trees, which someone planted rather too close to the well behind it

One of our grafted walnut trees, which someone planted rather too close to the well behind it

Some of our walnut trees are wild and produce small, round walnuts. We also have two trees that have been grafted and produce much larger, egg-shaped nuts. These trees are normally very prolific. You can pay anywhere between three and six euros for walnuts in the shops or markets, and they are nowhere near as good as ours.

Walnuts are complicated fruits. The kernel (in two parts, joined together) is surrounded by a woody shell, which in turn is covered with a green fleshy protective coat. At the end of September, the green coats start to crack and eventually open up so that the nuts fall to the ground. The fleshy bits fall too but go all slimy so you have to scrape them up or they ruin your lawn and paths.

Ripe walnut about to fall, alongside a rotten one on the same twig

Ripe walnut about to fall, alongside a rotten one on the same twig

There’s something primevally satisfying about gathering nuts. I love pulling aside the fallen leaves and finding the light brown nuts nestling there, still slightly damp from their green coats. It’s backbreaking work, though, especially in years when there’s a glut. And your fingers are stained for days afterwards. (If anyone knows a quick way to get rid of the stains, I’d be grateful. My fingers look as if they are covered in nicotine).

Staple diet

Walnuts were highly prized in times past. The oil was once one of the staples around here. In fact, during Lent, when people had to forgo butter and other so-called luxuries, they used walnut oil for cooking instead. The main character in Les Cailloux Bleus by Christian Signol, which is set on the Causse de Gramat in Lot, complains of the pungent flavour. This may be because walnut oil keeps for only a few months.

French country novels or memoirs often reminisce about the veillées (evening gatherings), when country folk would meet in each other’s houses and spend the evening gossiping and telling stories while shelling nuts. It was a way of turning a chore into a pleasant tradition. The nuts were then taken to a local mill and pressed for oil, which was used in cooking or preserving.

Walnut oil mill at Promilhanes

Walnut oil mill at Promilhanes

I know of at least two oil mills that still work in this area. We have also visited former mills in Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val (Tarn-et-Garonne) and Promilhanes (Lot). It sounds a nice idea to have your own walnut oil manufactured: I’ve often thought that Huile de Noix de La Lune would make a nice Christmas present. The downside is that you have to shell large quantities of walnuts (at least 15 kg shelled weight), take the kernels to the mill and then pay to have them pressed. So it remains a dream.

Recipes

Walnuts are at their best around Christmas. However, if you want to make walnut tart, one of our local specialities, the fresh bitter ones (or wet walnuts) are best, since they contrast well with the sweet filling.

Tarte aux noix de Quercy (Quercy walnut tart)

Serves 6 greedy or 8 normal people

225g sweet shortcrust pastry
100g salted butter, melted
6 eggs
300g soft brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
300g shelled walnut kernels, roughly chopped (but not too finely)
100ml honey
Zest of 1 lemon
A few drops vanilla essence

Preheat oven to 180C.

Bake pastry case blind for 10 minutes. Leave to cool.
Beat eggs and salt in a large mixing bowl until mixture lightens. Add sugar, honey, lemon zest and vanilla essence and continue beating with a whisk till well incorporated.
Add the walnut kernels and melted butter and mix carefully so as not to break up the nuts. Pour the mixture into the prepared pastry case and place a few whole kernels on top. Bake for 25 minutes until the tart filling is springy when pressed. Allow to cool slightly, then remove from the tart tin. Cool completely before serving. Serve with walnut wine.

Walnuts also make:

  • Jam, with figs and lemon. This is an excellent accompaniment to cheese, especially goats’ cheese.
  • An excellent salad ingredient. Walnuts have a particular affinity with Roquefort (or other blue) cheese and sliced ripe pears.

And, of course, there’s walnut wine, a traditional apéritif in this region. However, this is made with the green walnuts that are still on the tree in June and not with ripe walnuts. They are steeped with sugar in wine and eau de vie.

Walnuts are also are source of monounsaturated fats and Omega-3 fatty acids.

Goodness in a shell

Goodness in a shell

This post is taking part in the #AllAboutFrance linky, where you can read some of the best posts on the web about everything to do with France.

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You might also like:

Walnut Wine
Walnut Oil Mills and Windmills
Figs and Fig Recipes
Chestnuts and Chestnut Recipes

Copyright © 2016 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.
This entry was posted in Food/drink/recipes, History and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Walnut Time

  1. Pingback: The End of Summer | Life on La Lune

  2. Pingback: French Flavours: D is for Diablotins au Roquefort | Life on La Lune

  3. If you ever need help picking (and eating) those walnuts…feel free to call GGG! A red beret boping amongst those trees would be a colorful addition 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      You can come and help us to shell them, then we’ll get to the 15kg in a trice! A red beret certainly would be colourful – very grey here this afternoon and we can’t see the supermoon!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. 15 kg is a very large amount of shelling, I agree that it’s too much. My husband adores walnuts and buys them all winter. I like them in salads and bread but they’re not my favourite nuts. It’s interesting to here more about how they grow/are produced. Thanks for linking with #AllAboutFrance

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m very partial to walnuts and they are supposed to be very good for helping to lower the cholesterol level. One local baker makes very nice walnut bread, which is delicious with cheese – but he did say that older people need to be careful of their teeth!

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  5. I love walnuts! Thanks for sharing a bit about how they get from tree to table.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Ashley says:

    There’s a surprising amount of walnuts here in Provence as well. Have you ever tried making walnut wine? I did my first year here in France and we’re still drinking it 3 years later! I must say that it’s delicious. Here’s my recipe. http://curiousprovence.com/vin-de-noix-homemade-walnut-wine-recipe/
    I can imagine it would have been a convivial atmosphere to sit around the fire and shell walnuts. I was at the market the other day and passed an old woman shelling almonds with a hammer and promptly eating them! It was a great scene.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve never tried making walnut wine, although I have a good recipe donated by a friend, to which I give the link in the post. I like drinking it, though! I don’t associate Provence with walnuts, although there’s no reason why they shouldn’t grow there, provided it’s not too dry. I haven’t the patience to shell walnuts except for a few for my own consumption!

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  7. Alastair Gordon says:

    What fascinating facts you have put together! We have a good crop of walnuts here in Catalonia this yea from a tree which I planted about 15 years ago. The job of shelling large quantities is indeed a pain but my neighbour has invented a curious machine made out of (I think) old car parts which crushes them gently; it doesn’t save time but does save nuts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m always surprised at how quickly after planting walnuts start producing a crop. Your neighbour’s machine sounds like a Heath Robinson contraption. Even armed with that, I’m afraid I wouldn’t have the patience to crack all those walnuts! Hope you are both well.

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  8. Not too many round here this year, and I’ve seen them at €7.95 per kg in local shops which would suggest there’s a bit of a shortage in our area. We’ve gleaned some, but not nearly as many as usual. And the one walnut on my little tree – well, the squirrel got that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Good grief! We are sitting on a fortune here…I’ve never seen them at that price before. That does indicate a dearth of them where you are. Perhaps I should give up writing and go into walnut farming!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have a fig, orange and walnut jam recipe which is yummy if you are interested. We had a walnut tree on the steep slope behind our cave (separate building next to house) which sadly became deseased. I miss the sound of the walnuts falling on the cave roof. Our elderly neighbours who now live near paris love to gossip on their annual holiday next door and tell us about the veillees that happened in our huge cantou fireplace. They were less keen on the storage of said walnuts in our loft. Apparently they would be kept awake by the walnuts being rolled around by various small ‘betes’! (Our houses are mitoyenne). I was interested to read about the short shelf life of walnut oil, i didn’t know that, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      It sounds lovely with orange. The recipe I have is for lemons, where you add the zest to the other ingredients and then the rest of the lemon cut in thin slices. I have to admit, though, that I have not yet made it – simply enjoyed someone else’s version. I’d like to know the orange recipe, though.

      We don’t store our walnuts in the loft. Nonetheless, we still get mice (and possibly other beasts) rolling them around the ceiling, so they must bring them in specially from outside.

      I imagine that the commercially-available walnut oil has been treated in some way to increase its shelf-life, but I had read that, made the traditional way, it doesn’t always last long.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Osyth says:

    Walnuts are also very prevalent around Grenoble and the eau de vie a friend of us (aged 84) makes for us is absolutely divine. I wonder what the similarities in climate and soil are in the two places that make it so. We don’t tend to get Walnuts or any other nut trees in Cantal ….

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I’ve seen sweet chestnut trees in parts of Cantal but no walnuts. I know they don’t like extreme cold – and we all know that Aurillac can be the coldest place on the planet in winter. Mind you, I’d have thought Grenoble would be cold, too, so that may not explain it. Perhaps the soil is the answer. There is a digestif version of walnut wine as well as the aperitif version, but the latter is more popular here.

      Like

      • Osyth says:

        Yes, in fact Marcoles (where our little project once the village watchtower house is) is in the heart of the Chataigneraie Cantalienne and the local wood is Chestnut. In fact we pick up loads of sweet chestnut in the far North West of the département where our appartement is also. I tend, rather perversely not to think of chestnuts as nuts …. Grenoble and its walnuts remains a mystery – I will try and solve it when we are there for the first half of next year!

        Liked by 1 person

      • nessafrance says:

        We have been meaning to go to Marcoles but haven’t yet got there. I know what you mean about not thinking of chestnuts as nuts. Interestingly, there are very few chestnut trees where we are, but you only have to go a few km east and they start to appear. Around Najac/Laguépie they had a thriving chestnut industry and exported them all over France.

        Like

  11. Sharing an evening with a purpose is my kind of evening…a bit like gathering in the kitchen and all helping with the cooking or having a cup of tea whilst shelling peas.

    Like

    • nessafrance says:

      I like shelling peas and those types of task, but shelling 15 kg of walnuts (shelled weight) is probably a bridge too far for an impatient person like me. In times past, people told stories and jokes and sang to pass the time while doing these mundane tasks. Some of the older people around here lament the passing of the veillées and say that people are much less neighbourly than they used to be.

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  12. Fig and walnut jam – a perfect combination. I eat it with vieux comté, Making my mouth water already.

    Liked by 2 people

    • nessafrance says:

      I love it. In Corsica they serve fig jam with the very pungent cheeses that they make on the island. I’m not sure they always use walnuts in the jam. This year, I am determined to do more with our walnuts. We end up giving a lot away to friends – which is fine, because they love them. But perhaps we should be a little more imaginative in how we use them.

      Like

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