Walnuts, like almonds, avocados, flax seeds and other things rich in good oils and antioxidants, are among the rising stars of the American whole foods health craze. But it never took a good word from Dr. Oz or Oprah to make this nut a favorite in the Périgord region of southern France, where walnuts have flourished for centuries. Mature orchards line the highways and carpet the Dordogne River floodplain, plots of sapling twigs sprout their first year’s leaves in adjacent plots, trees blossom with the promise of a bumper autumn crop, and heaps and heaps of nuts are sold in bulk in virtually every single market. Deeper inside the local shops and households, one finds other things walnut–including fresh-pressed oil and whiskey-strong walnut booze. And following the road signs of the “Route de la Noix,” a meandering circuit of small highways through the woods, travelers discover the Périgord’s most prolific walnut country–and along this route are walnut oil presses, walnut museums, distilleries, and places to taste the Périgord’s variety of other walnut products. I, as it happens, am on vacation here, and for at least a few days I’m disregarding the region’s foie gras, truffles and wine and, instead, am making this visit to the Dordogne Valley a walnut tasting tour.
Here are five ways I’ve recently learned to enjoy this rising superstar of nuts:
1. Drink it: Eau-de-vie de noix. This liqueur–translated into something like “firewater of walnut”– begins as brandy, distilled from wine, but gains its distinguishing marks through several weeks of sitting on mashed-up walnuts. The final product, which may never touch an oak barrel, is usually just faintly yellow with a subtle candy-like nuttiness. The drink is dry–unsweetened–and usually weighs in at about 42 percent alcohol by volume. (Don’t get it mixed up with drinks like vin de noix, eau de noix or liqueur de noix, discussed below.) Drink eau-de-vie de noix straight or on the rocks to best savor its subtle essence–and in the name of France’s cherished food-and-drink traditions, keep the expensive bottle away from that hair-gelled mixologist friend of yours.
2. Drink It, Part II: Walnut wine. You’ll see this billed as “vin de noix” in the Perigord, yet the product is grape-based, made from straight red wine that sits on macerated green walnuts (harvested in the summertime, when bitter and scarcely edible) for several weeks before being sweetened with sugar and sometimes spiked with brandy or vodka. Many households make this drink, as do inns where it may be served to guests. Relatively little is labeled and sold commercially, but visitors to the Dordogne Valley (it occurs in Italy and the Balkans, too) will have little trouble finding a glassful. Walnut wine usually runs about 16 percent alcohol by volume. But those who read bottle labels will observe that a similar product called “eau de noix” runs 18 percent, and that another labeled as “liqueur de noix” measures about 30. They are different renditions of the same recipe. Speaking of which, walnut wine is almost stupid-easy to make yourself; you need just green walnuts, wine, sugar, brandy and a few weeks.
3. Drizzle It: Walnut oil. This is one of those oils that can be so delicious that one hates to do anything with it much more complicated than sipping it from a spoon. It is a product of the autumn, when the walnuts fall by the tons and tons throughout the Périgord. Many farmers rake up at least part of their crop and bring it to the local oil maker. Here, a grinding mill–sometimes decades old–smashes the nuts, rendering a honey-golden juice that comes gurgling out into jugs. Often the walnuts are toasted before being ground, though some farmers of less traditional tendencies are now “cold-pressing” the nuts for a subtler, softer oil–and supposedly with more health benefits. You may find roasted walnut oil to be superior. It is fragrant, rich, warm and toasty. Don’t even think of blending it with balsamic (even though the locals often do, perhaps since they have all they can use), and if you must make a dressing with it, go easy on the vinegar. Also, don’t use walnut oil for cooking, as high temperatures can supposedly annihilate its purported health benefits and burn away its aromas. The best ways to taste walnut oil may be to drizzle it over couscous, charcuterie, a runny egg yolk or a steaming plate of whole-grain bulgur.
4. Eat It: Walnut Bread. The humble baguette may be the oven-made star of the French boulangerie–but walnut bread is better. Produced year-round and available in most good bakeries, walnut bread–sometimes made with whole wheat for a richer, fuller flavor–is often baked into a round loaf with a hard crust, and the nuts are inevitably toasted. Layer a slice with cheese–or drizzle it with walnut oil.
5. Spread it: Walnut cheese. Another specialty of the Périgord, walnut cheese may be encountered as a sticky Tomme-like substance called Echourgnac, made at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Good Hope and soaked in walnut liquor. This treatment produces a strong-tasting and smoky scent–almost like cured anchovies–yet subtle in the walnut spectrum of flavors. One must consciously wish to taste walnut to believe he actually can–but the label of the Trappe Echourgnac, a 14-ounce walnut cheese wheel, verifies that, indeed, the stuff is bathed in “liqueur de noix.” Want a crunchier experience? Try Gourmandise, a blended cheese studded with crumbled walnuts.