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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
300g soft brown sugar
½ teaspoon salt
300g shelled walnut kernels, roughly chopped (but not too finely)
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.
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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