Mike Alexander, Garden Variety’s man in Europe and French horticulture expert, provides insights into walnuts, an important part of southern France’s agricultural and culinary culture.
In this area of rural France, many of the people you run across in late October and November will have hands stained a dark tannic color that is usually associated with very heavy cigarette smokers. But in this case, the discoloration is actually the result of hand-picking walnuts, the region’s biggest crop during the season. (The color-fast stain from black walnut hulls was once widely used to dye cotton, wool and silk.)
English walnuts (Juglans regia) have been grown in Europe since Roman times but recent years have seen a massive increase in production, especially in Asia —China produces nearly 40 times more walnuts than France.
We may be outdone by the Chinese but the walnut is still a very important crop in France, both in terms of economics and culture. Walnuts are native to Persia but arrived here with the Romans, who fed walnut porridge to their legions before marching into battle. Also associated with enhanced sex drive and fertility at the time, they were often tossed over newlyweds like rice is today to wish them a happy and “active” honeymoon and beyond.
Modern science is opening up a whole new window into some of the health benefits of walnuts. Unlike many nuts, which are high in saturated fats, walnuts are predominantly made up of the “good” unsaturated fatty variety. High in protein and amino acids, they also contain higher levels of antioxidants than almonds, peanuts or hazelnuts. And, recent research seems to indicate that walnuts have the ability to quickly lower cholesterol, but before rushing out to buy a bag remember the flip side: a single average-sized walnut contains about 26 calories, meaning handfuls add up fast, so stick to small servings.
With the season now in full swing, many villages are putting on their annual Fete de Noix or walnut festival. Although the festivals revolve around the walnut, they are also an excuse to have a get-together at a time when we are on the verge of another hard winter. Growers set up shop to sell their products, which in France means much more than just nuts. Being a nation of cooks and bakers, there will be all sorts of walnut-filled cakes and cookies, as well as things that might not spring to mind when thinking of nuts. Some favorites around these parts are walnut mustard and “vin de noix” or walnut wine, which is drunk as an aperitif or poured over a slice of melon, a popular summer snack. Walnut oil is also very popular in the kitchen, as is walnut-infused vinegar.
I find it amusing that every year at the annual fete, smartly dressed salesmen present the latest nut-gathering technology. Wise old farmers stand around and listen appreciatively as these out-of-towners promote the advantages of machines that will take the backache out of gathering nuts from the ground. But next year come the fall, the nut orchards will once again be filled with people bent over gathering nuts with blackened hands.
I’ll close with a few snapshots from our local walnut festival:
Mike Alexander, GV’s European correspondent, lives in Southern France where he manages a large estate garden. A horticulturist for more than 20 years who has professionally gardened in the UK, France and Africa, he writes regularly on gardening, food and environmental issues for magazines and Web sites in the U.S., France, South Africa and New Zealand.