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Walnuts in the Perigord

Mellen Candage

Perigord is the ancient name of the area that is now the department of the Dordogne (departement 24) in the Aquitaine region in the southwest corner of France. Most French people refer to the area as the Perigord; most outsiders call it the Dordogne. There are four areas within the Perigord - Perigord Pourpre, Perigord Blanc, Perigord Vert, and Perigord Noir (the area encompassing most of the prehistoric sites and so-called because of the black walnuts grown in such profusion there).

Drive through the verdant valleys of the Perigord Noir and you cannot help but be struck by the majestic groves of walnut trees that grace the landscape. Although the trees you see today are newer, there is evidence that the walnut has existed in this corner of the world for 17,000 years or more, and that the nuts figured into the diet of Cro-Magnon man. The walnut has played a prominent role in the local culture and commerce since then. Tenth-century peasants paid their debts off with the nuts; 11th century peasants were expected to tithe walnuts to the church; 13th century merchants considered walnut oil as precious as gold; and in the 18th century, walnut oil as well as wine constituted a thriving trade on the waters of the Dordogne toward Bordeaux and beyond to the Netherlands, Germany, and Great Britain.

Until the end of the 19th century, most families cultivated at least a few walnut trees to add to their income. During the October - November harvest season, they gathered by the fire in the evenings and cracked the shells, using boxwood mallets that helped ensure the nuts would stay whole, as cracked nuts brought in less money. The denoisillage, as it was called, is still practiced today by elderly women known as les dames denoisillenses, their hands stained a permanent auburn. And though since the 1950s modern machinery has facilitated the harvesting and preparation of walnuts for market, many small producers perpetuate the old methods.

As you throttle up the steep climb from the Dordogne river edge to the infamous, perched village of Castelnaud, you will reach a point where in June there is a field of brilliant red poppies on your left. As you gasp at the sudden intensity of color, you realize you must switch to first gear, and it is only then that you notice you are passing a driveway lined with large stones carved in the shape of walnuts - the entrance to the Ecomusee de la Noix, where walnut lore reigns. One of several local sites on the newly designated Route de la Noix, it is a testament to recent efforts to preserve the walnut's place in the region's commerce and culture. Another hint that walnut culture is on the rise was the launching after the 2002 harvest of an official Appelation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) for four nut varieties produced in the Perigord as well as three neighboring departements. The AOC is a guarantee of high quality that will benefit producers of walnut products, even those small merchants who tote their yield of nuts in fertilizer bags to the Wednesday-morning walnut market in Belves in October and November. Until recently, California and other imported, cheaper walnuts were undermining their ability to make a living. Now they are enjoying a burst of prosperity again.

Denizens of the Perigord have the second-lowest rate of heart disease in the world despite living on a diet most would consider rich, and they ascribe their health and longevity in no small measure to the walnut, which is known to have cholesterol-lowering properties. High in potassium, zinc, and copper, walnuts impart energy, and rich in magnesium, they fight stress.

There is an old Perigordian axiom that nothing is lost of the walnut but the sound of its shell being cracked. Regional furniture has long been made from the hard, beautiful wood. Whole walnuts go to fine restaurants, where they decorate salads of greens and fresh cabecou cheese discs or are pressed into the chocolate icing of a gateau aux noix, itself made from a flour enhanced with ground walnuts. Chefs combine them with butter and Roquefort and serve them as appetizers on thin slices of artisanal breads, tuck them into stuffings for baby duckling, and whip them into frozen mousses. Whole nuts are also used to make the delicious chocolate-dusted walnuts displayed in confectionary stores region-wide. Broken nuts head to the walnut mills like the Moulin de la Tour in Sainte-Nathalene, where owner Urbain Tache presses them into the sweet, unctuous oil used in Perigord cooking and salad dressings; to distilleries like La Distillerie Roques in Souillac, where they metamorphose into aperitifs, digestifs, and liqueurs; and to small producers who turn them into delectable jams and spreads, often combined with local honeys. Other entrepreneurs make mustards with them. The leaves are used to wrap fresh cheeses appealingly for display at market, and macerated in alcohol to make vin de noix. Nuts not good enough for these applications are ground and used in making walnut bread (a favorite accompaniment of pate de foie gras) and other confections.

And what to do with the mountains of shells when all the kernels have been picked? The locals grind them to use as kitty litter. You can pick up a sack at the Saturday market in Sarlat.


Mellen Candage is a writer and editor and has been the owner/president of Grammarians, Inc., a publishing and translation company in Alexandria, VA, since 1978. In her "spare time" she is a travel consultant for France and gives culinary and other specialty tours in the Perigord and Provence. Her articles on travel, food, wine, and other European topics have been published in the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, International Living, Wine Tidings Magazine, Writer's Digest, FiberArts, and Parenting. krokosbackpack.net/lacoste/

© Mellen Candage, 2000

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