Friday, February 09, 2007

Just nuts

Walnuts have been around in France for a long time…a fossilised nut dating from the Tertiary era has been discovered in Ardeche and fragments dating from the Neolithic period have been found in the lake dwellings of Charavines in Isère. The image of Stone Age man cracking nuts around the fire is comfortingly familiar, even without the paper hat and the cheap sherry…

The walnut was sacred to the Ancient Romans. They thought it looked like the human brain – the outer husk was the scalp, the shell represented the skull and the crinkly nut inside, the two hemispheres of the brain. This is interesting because my own brain, judging by its performance these days, probably looks and functions exactly like a walnut. It was the Romans who brought walnut trees to France after having successfully cultivated them on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. They established plantations in the Narbonne area, in Perigord and here in the Dauphiné where they thrived.

During the Middle Ages, the walnut was used to pay rent and for a little farmhouse in the Dauphiné region you would have had to shell out a few sétiers (just over a pint) of walnuts. They were so important in mediaeval life that a new profession was created, that of ‘walnut measurer’, although it was a limited career choice as only two posts existed for the whole of France. However, up until the nineteenth century, the Dauphiné peasants’ main income came from silk worm farms and vineyards. It was not until disease killed off the silk worms in 1858 and grape phylloxera wiped out the vines in 1870, that they turned to walnut cultivation. It was a good choice. Walnut orchards demanded far less work than vineyards and the new Grenoble to Valence railway line made export easy. Certain species of trees were more prolific than others – legend has it that one in particular was brought by a young demoiselle as part of her dowry, for her marriage to a local lord. These trees were nurtured and protected so that today, Grenoble produces the finest walnuts in the world. Over fifty percent of the total French production comes from this region while France itself is the third biggest exporter behind The United States and China.

In 1938, the Grenoble walnut was awarded an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée and - just like fine wine - it meant that the quality was strictly controlled. To qualify, the walnut must be one of three varieties: the franquette, the mayette or the parisienne. These are only three of many. All walnuts look the same to me but to those in the know, each variety has its peculiarities: they are elongated or round, pale or deeply coloured, bland, sweet or bitter. Their names are sometimes bizarre and – like roses – they are often named after events or people: Oswald, Lent or Conference Souvenir; Big John, Fat John or Distaff.

Harvesting is mostly done by a harvester these days but in some places – particularly on the mountain slopes – it is still done by hand. Back at the farm, the nuts are sorted, washed and dried then packed up and sent all over the world. Technology has replaced the veillées of old where the whole village would get together in the evenings to shell walnuts and tell each other stories by the fireside, sing songs, play games and eat together. Now computers bleep, machines whirr and business booms while the ancient nut presses and dryers are quaint ruins left to crumble quietly in the shadow of the Vercors.

Both the tree and its fruit have many uses. The nut is a fertility symbol and in parts of France walnuts are mixed with onion soup and served to newlyweds or they are thrown at them instead of rice – presumably shelled beforehand. Biting on a green walnut is said to relieve toothache and a poultice of crushed walnuts and pork fat cures boils. Walnut oil was once used in lamps or as axle grease, which is hard to believe when you see the price of a tiny bottle of the stuff today. The husk was used to dye hair and clothes and stain furniture and was even used as a self-tanning lotion as recently as the 1950s.

The tree itself was considered cursed: people believed that witches held their meetings in its shade and so they would rip off its branches and throw stones at it as punishment. French folklore warns against falling asleep beneath a walnut tree for fear of waking up with a fever or pneumonia – or perhaps, quite simply, a face full of walnuts. It would serve them jolly well right, too.

The wood is of superior quality – it doesn’t split, it is fine-grained and easy to sculpt and polish. It is highly resistant but also beautiful to look at. Unfortunately, it fell victim to these very qualities during the First World War, when all the trees were cut down to provide wood for rifle butts. New trees were planted when the war was over so one catastrophe at least was averted – although not the most important one.

The walnut is omnipresent in Grenoble. Eat it as it is or candied; in the form of sweets, nougat or jam, or made into wonderful tarts and cakes. Savour walnut bread or walnut-covered cheese with a salad tossed in walnut oil. As an aperitif, drink eau de Noix or ratafia, both made from walnuts. I cannot think of a better way to find out if la noix de Grenoble is really all it’s cracked up to be…


stargazer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
stargazer said...

I was editing my last comment and experimenting...anyways - the Brits limit the walnut to cakes and chocolatey things mostly don't they? I had some walnuts in clove syrup from a Turkish friend recently - very sweet and probably needed to accompany something else - they were lurking in this dark brown liquid for some time and ended up being disposed of.
Guinea pig is 18 this month. She's left for Austria today on a school ski trip. How old is your GP? The poor wee things, being experimented on all this time. Mine squeaks less these days.

savvycityfarmer said...

Pour me up a glass of that please...with or without walnuts.

angela said...

Walnuts are another reason why French poeople are less prone to heart attacks; crunching a few after a meal will remove some of the fat/cholestrol.
Interesting article.

Gigi said...

stargazer - GP is 18...very 18. She's hardly ever at home - dropped out of Uni, spends all her time rehearsing with her band etc etc...we'll have to catch up on photos!

cityfarmer "cheers"

angela - and does drinking vin de noix count as well? :-)

Tinsie said...

Very interesting post. Thanks!
BTW I never knew there were different varieties of walnut - they definitely all look the same to me!

Anonymous said...

I hate walnuts. I call them doornuts- cos they taste like a door.

However after reading this, I am tempted to give them a try after 40-odd years of disdain.

I'm reading your back pages after being led here by Jalpopnik (I think?) for 'vroom vroom' which was very charming, tyvm.

Really enjoy your amiable musings. Will check back periodically, I think I am hooked.

Gigi said...

Hello anonymous...I've never tasted doors but if they taste anything like walnuts, I'm willing to give them a try :-)

I bet you've never tasted walnut wine, though, have you? Or walnut beer? Not doorish at all.

I don't often write about cars, I'm afraid but do check back from time to time - you're very welcome!

Numpty McHoon said...

Anonymous here (herewith known as Numpters).

That's okay, cars are not my only interest. Travel, travel writing (Bill Bryson), life outside the USofPain- and more, much more, I just wish my brain was big enough to take everything in.

Walnut wine and beer you say? You have my attention.

Doors have woody, nutty flavor, not unlike walnuts.

Gigi said...

Nice to see you back, Numpters! I love Bill Bryson too...especially Notes from a Small Island. He's got Britain down to a T.

I'll be writing about the brewery that makes the walnut beer sometime soon - I just need to get off my fat bottom and go and visit the place :-)

leduc said...

I just came across this blog and really enjoyed the walnut story! I was near Grenoble last year and thought the walnut orchards were beautiful. There is a walnut museum somewhere I think just south of the city, I wonder if you know it?