We arrived in the Périgord region of southwest France this year smack in the middle of the walnut harvest. The nights were cold, the days bright and sunny, and the late afternoon light cast a golden glow on the withering leaves of the trees that were just dropping their fruit.
The Périgord is one of the largest walnut-producing regions in the country. And the frenzy that surrounds their annual gathering is reminiscent of what one sees elsewhere in France during the grape harvest. There is much chatter about the weather, and in this context it is not small talk. A cold, wet spring can hurt the nut crop. Autumn rain soaks the velvety green casing on the fruit, causing it to crack open and drop. After that, the nuts must be collected before they rot. It’s a mammoth task.
In 2016 my husband, Ken, and I had witnessed this ritual during an extended autumn stay. On two other occasions we had hoped our visit would coincide with the harvest but missed it by a week or two; nature can’t be rushed. Our timing this October was fortuitous. After a lost year during which we barely left our New York City home, we were trying to resume our passion for foreign travel. And watching the harvest all around us provided a sense of renewal.
Our stay in the Périgord, during the second week of October, would be the fourth segment of a ten-week sojourn during which we cocooned in rural Europe instead of in surroundings that had become stifling and stultifying. Having covered the tourist attractions on previous visits – the prehistoric caves; châteux overhanging the Dordogne River; and weekly markets – all we wanted were comfortable lodgings where we could live like locals.
In October we could have our pick of vacation rentals in this popular second-home region. We chose a meticulously renovated stone house in the shadow of the Montfort château, which is privately owned so gets few visitors. Part of a community of 30 homes, most of which had already been closed for the winter, it was also at the edge of a walnut grove. And a short walk took us to others where we could observe the harvest in progress.
Until I visited the Périgord, I never thought much about what goes into harvesting a walnut. Then one day some locals who saw me watching their travails invited me to take a turn. The manual device they were using looks a bit like a child’s push toy. One rolls it over the walnuts and they get picked up in an oval-shaped basket. It’s good aerobic exercise, but hard work.
To loosen what’s still on the tree, some people use a pole, but there is also heavy equipment that does the job – basically a tree-hugging tractor. Its vibrations bring on a shower of walnuts and dried leaves. After that they might be gathered by hand, or with vacuum-like farm equipment.
Along the aptly named Route de la Noix (Walnut Road), walnut orchards are interspersed with cornfields. Here one can watch walnuts being harvested by high-tech and low-tech means. Elsewhere we have seen townsfolk with plastic bags, helping themselves to fallen nuts along the side of the road and even adjacent to a parking lot near the Musée National de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies. Some landowners discourage this by posting signs or putting up tape around their property.
After getting the lay of the land, I once asked a native, “Do people who live in the Périgord actually buy walnuts?” She laughed uncomfortably before replying, “Some do, some don’t.” I reframed the question: “Does everyone have a friend with a tree?” She answered yes, but added, “You can go in your car and take walnuts that haven’t been gathered.”
I did that during our first trip to the Périgord. We had stopped at the edge of a walnut grove to take a picture of the Beynac château on the other side of the Dordogne River. As I positioned myself for the shot, I was tripping over walnuts underfoot – walnuts that seemed to be going to waste. So I went back to the car, retrieved a shopping bag and filled it.
For the next week I had walnut fever. I washed the nuts, dried them in the sun, bought a nutcracker, broke it and replaced it with another. After shelling the nuts, I roasted them in the oven. Everything I cooked wound up with nuts on top.
Not surprisingly, walnuts and walnut flavors find their way into many Périgord food products, from cakes and cookies to candy. There is even Trappe d’Echourgnac – a semisoft cow’s milk cheese that resembles Port Salut and has a dark-brown rind that has been rubbed with walnut liqueur. On a fixed-price Saturday lunch at Le Saint Louis restaurant in the city of Périgueux, I once ate chicken cordon bleu made with Trappe cheese, instead of Swiss or Gruyère, which is more typically used for that recipe.
Indeed, the locals, who have had so much experience with walnut fever, have become very sophisticated at merchandizing it. That’s much in evidence at the Écomusée de la Noix – an old farmhouse in the village of Castelnaud-la-Chapelle that’s been turned into a museum about Périgord walnuts. It’s surrounded by groves of the Domaine de Vielcroze, which also produces the walnut oil sold in the museum gift shop. (You can taste the different varieties – hot processed, cold processed and organic – before you make a purchase.)
Watching the high-speed equipment they use to process the nuts (in person in season or other times in the museum video) is like seeing an episode of How It’s Made. Whereas we had dried the nuts in the sun, they use a three-level device with a turbine hot-air dryer to limit exposure to humidity. (The goal is to preserve this crop until the following year.)
Even more impressive is their mechanical nutcracker that can process 25 kilos (about 55 pounds) of walnuts in 20 minutes, whereas they estimate it would take at least six hours to remove the kernels from that quantity of walnuts by hand. They might revise that estimate upward if they ever saw me use a nutcracker.
The goal is to get the nut out whole, and then halve it. The halves are for cake decoration. Those that break are called invalides (an unfortunate, politically incorrect word choice), and are incorporated into cakes, cheese and bread.
This year I left harvesting to the pros and bought walnuts at the Wednesday morning market in the village of Sarlat. There I saw a vendor demonstrating the use of a nutcracker widely sold in this region. He inserted the nut in the little cylinder that looked like a large pipe bowl and gave the handle a gentle squeeze. Then he removed the nut, turned it over and repeated the process on the other side. This gave the shell enough cracks that it could be peeled off with one’s fingers.
Our most recent Périgord rental came with that tool, but I own two of them, bought on previous trips to France when kitchens didn’t have this utensil. (Some French people crack the nuts with their bare hands by just squeezing two together.) Back home in New York I buy walnuts pre-shelled. But I use my French nutcracker to open many varieties of bottles with twist-off caps, containing everything from vinegar to Champagne. Each time it uncorks a pleasant memory of walnut fever in the Périgord.
Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer and journalist, is the author of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home and Estate Planning Smarts: A Practical, User-Friendly, Action-Oriented Guide. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.