Walnuts, the treasure of Perigord – Meanderings through Franc
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
If Dordogne and Perigord are well known for foie gras and truffles, vast areas of this beautiful hilly region are covered with walnut trees that have been producing their godsend walnuts for centuries. 17,000 years ago the Cro-Magnon Man who lived in caves close to the Eyzies-de-Tayac in Dordogne used to eat walnuts picked from wild walnut trees. Of course today selected trees grow in Dordogne and the three main species Franquette, Corne and Marbot produce big and tasty nuts. All year long local towns such as Sarlat, Bergerac or Nailhac celebrate this precious fruit during special festivities and if you spend some time there you will discover all different aspects of this cultivation.
From roots to leaves everything finds its use in a walnut tree. The walnut wood is one of the most precious species used by cabinetmakers and the burr walnut made with the roots and stump is even more sought-after. A decoction made with the leaves is often used as an insecticide to keep ants, flies and other bugs away. Local people also make a “walnut wine” by letting green walnuts macerate in red wine during several weeks then drink it as you would drink port wine. The green shells are also used to make walnut stain, one of the best vegetable-dye used to colour wood in brown, red or green.
But of course walnuts are the real gems of these trees not only for their irreplaceable taste but also for their countless medicinal properties. In ancient times it was believed that walnut halves that do look like our cerebral hemispheres were to be eaten to prevent brain diseases. Today numerous studies confirm what was only empirical knowledge. Unless you have the misfortune of being allergic to nuts you should eat walnuts on a regular basis. Eating 6 to 8 walnuts 4 times a week can be a precious source of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, trace elements, melatonin and vitamins. It is said to be a good way to prevent cerebrovascular accidents, cardiovascular diseases or colon cancer and walnuts are not to be forgotten if you follow the Mediterranean diet.
Driving along the picturesque roads of Perigord you will surely see many mills built on the bank of a river. They grind walnuts and hazelnuts to make oil and many of them are open to the public. First the nuts are ground with a 500 kg stone grinder and turned into a paste that is slowly heated in a huge cast-iron pan to enhance its aromas. Then a huge hydraulic press extracts the golden liquid from the warm paste while a delicious smell permeates the room! Then the oil is allowed to settle for several weeks before being bottled without any preservative or artificial flavour. Remember that once opened you should keep your bottle in the fridge to preserve all its nutritional quality.
Local markets are the ideal places to meet walnuts and oil producers. In this
unique lively atmosphere of a French morning market they will make you discover unexpected ways to eat walnuts: with local cheeses such as the Rocamadour, in countless cakes, salads, jams, wines or liqueurs… Every Wednesday and Saturday morning the Sarlat city centre is invaded by stalls brimming over with tempting local produce: foie gras, truffles, figs, cheeses and of course walnuts. With its centuries old medieval houses and its maze of small streets Sarlat capital city of Perigord Noir, has one of the largest Medieval heritage in Europe. Thanks to André Malraux who was the iconic Minister of Culture when General de Gaulle ruled France, Sarlat that had been bombarded during WW II was saved from total destruction and completely restored during the 1960’s. This brilliant renovation allows us to see it the way it did in its heyday.
For the mere pleasure of eating a wonderful nut or to take advantage of its numerous nutritional qualities the Noix du Périgord is not to be forgotten when visiting this appealing and beautiful region.
To visit mill and discover the oil making process:
-Close to Sarlat in Saint Nathalene go to the Moulin de la Tour: www.moulindelatour.com
-In Neuvic sur l’Isle; Moulin de la Veyssiere www.moulindelaveyssiere.fr
-To visit the walnut orchards and a mill in Villamblard ; www.huile-de-noix-du-perigord.com
-A museum is dedicated to the Perigord walnut and its history through time in Castelnaud la Chapelle not far from Sarlat; Eco-musée de la noix du Perigord. For more information ; www.sarlat-tourisme.com
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny and courtesy of Dordogne and Lot tourism offices