A chat with an oil producer, on his walnut plantation
One of the Périgord region’s finest gastronomic products is undoubtedly the glorious walnut oil. Its deep and divine scent and flavours do miraculous things to ripe tomatoes, salads, cold meats, charcuterie and vegetables. Having been tempted up a steep track by the hand-painted sign and acres of walnut orchards, I visited Franck Monsallier. He grows walnuts to dry and sell or to process himself for various products – walnut oil being one of them.
Franck owns one of the largest walnut plantations in the area, producing 60 tonnes of nuts, and 8000 litres of oil per year. He also represents walnut oil producers for the Syndicat de Défense de la Noix. Whilst Périgord walnuts have an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, their oil is still waiting for one. Franck expects the AOC to be official within 3 years. That’s ages! “The paperwork takes time”… But anyone who has tasted this oil will not need an AOC label to tell them that it is a very noble product indeed.
As well as transforming all different kinds of simple dishes into something special, walnut oil is packed with health-giving properties. It is dripping with omega 3, laden with mineral salts, brimming with vitamins and can help lower cholesterol. Beware, though; heat destroys lots of the goodness in walnut oil, which is one reason it is used for seasoning rather than cooking, and why the traditional heat-pressed oil apparently has slightly less health benefits than the more unusual cold-pressed ‘virgin’ oil, that Franck sells.
I admire the massive walnut press in the barn/shop, as I sample the various oils and a few walnuts. It smells fantastic, and I love the fact that I have a walnut in my hand, the press in front of me, the farmer and producer talking to me, and the resulting oil in a glass; the whole process, from start to finish, in single room. Apart from the tree. But then that’s in the walnuts, too.
The traditional walnut oil has a fuller flavour and much darker colour than the cold-pressed oil. The virgin oil is delicate, with a pleasant floury aftertaste, whereas the traditional one is toasty and very, very walnutty. Unable to decide between the two, I am compelled to buy a bottle of both, and happily bump my way back down the hill with my bounty.
Pasta is delicious mixed with a sauce made from finely chopped walnuts, garlic, butter, a little lemon juice and finished with walnut oil – a tasty and memorable dish. Or try roasted peaches with shredded basil and a drizzle of walnut oil.
Gemma Driver ©