Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Stories to be Told

There are stories to be read from the winter landscape. Chapters unfold while ambling along a country path.  A perfect adventure includes sunshine, big vistas, charming hamlets and at least one dreamy chateau. With no leaves to hide the setting and scenes fantastically illuminated by the low angle of the winter sun who knows what the story will be; a mystery,  a romance or maybe historical fiction…… 

At the start today’s adventure was anything but perfect - or was it?

Gathering under streaks of pink and gray clouds, we were not sure if the sun had enough force to sweep them away. Everyone had good boots and an umbrella at hand. Dry shoes and socks were stocked in the trunk for our return at the end of the morning’s loop. A loop that took us around a village just up from Bourdeilles’ river valley. St Julien de Bourdeilles sits up hill on the edge of a large flat plateau.
The plot started blandly. There was an old church (of course) with ten or so homes nestled around it. A few twists and turns later we were crossing farmer’s fields.  The most noticeable feature on the walk seemed to be the stone walls. And then it turned out that indeed the most exciting part of the walk were the stone walls. With nothing dramatic on the horizon to distract us from what was right alongside we began to pay attention to what hemmed us in-- miles and miles of crisscrossing stone walls. 

There was a story to be read on this expansive plateau, we just had to take turns reading the chapters. This was not going to be a swashbuckling, romantic adventure, but a gentle tale of rural life. Life hard-earned and precarious.

The sinewy sturdy stone walls tell of months, years, of the Sisyphean task of clearing rock strewn fields. Stones that grow in a field without any effort on the farmers part - except to annually harvest them on bleak winter days. How lucky that the stones could serve a dual purpose, a winter occupation and walls to hold in grazing livestock.

We’ve picked up the rhythm of this classic farm story.  The plateau was once animated by bleating sheep and the raspy scrape of a plow. Once or twice a year the farmer would head off to market. Heading down valley along these paths carefully laid out between the stone walls. 
This chapter has it’s mysteries. How many folks have walked these paths? Were there people passing through from the farthest reaches of France? Where were they going? What had they seen along the way?  The path is often too narrow for two people to pass side by side and the walls stand as high as our shoulders. What would have happened on the rare occasion when two carts would meet along the path? We laughed at the idea of a farmer trying to convince a goat to back up.. We felt for the driver having to deal with this unexpected, aggravating encounter. Walls can be shoulder high for many long meters and there were no lay-bys to help out. 
Another thing about these path was not so much a mystery as a marvel. If one pays close attention you can see that the stones underfoot are not just natures random toss, but have actually been placed one by one like paving stones. Apparently rainy winters and muddy paths have long been a problem here. More fascinating, parts of the rock path seemed to be precisely cut by a mason.  In fact it is a perfectly long table exactly as wide as a set of train wheels, which is the same width as the farmers’ carts that carved this rock over hundreds of years.
There has been tragedy in the long course of our story. We won’t see a single sheep, the farm houses we pass are shuttered or falling in, and here and there the stone walls have succumbed to gravity and tumbled onto the path. Trees are filling in land once so carefully cleared.
By the looks of the scrawny trees trunks the sheep have not been gone all that long from the pastures. By contrast the pillowy clumps of emerald green moss would make one think the walls have been here forever. 
Behind the walls trees are strewn like pick-up sticks. In an ancient setting this is a  recent drama. A tempest passed across France at the changing of the millennium and left the scars of her fury. Solemnly standing among the downed trees we can see the craggy, dead trunks of once enormous chestnut trees. These ruins tell the older story of when the chestnut blight wiped out an entire chunk of the forest habitat. Their loss was another blow to the settlers’ meager resources.

We closed up our loop and changed out of soggy shoes. Today there will be no story of a fairy princess in her hidden castle tower, no knights in shinning armor. We finish off this country story at a mill. A mill where our farm character might have stopped after walking behind his goat cart along the the miles and miles of stone walls. Or maybe, like us, our farmer had a wandering spirit and he continued on down more miles and miles of walls that led to who knows where. And maybe it’s in the who knows where that we will find some adventure in our stories.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Precious as Gold

Love of walnut oil is not something new to the gentle folks of the Perigord region of France.  Roman settlers carefully brought along and planted a variety of a walnut tree that the Egyptians had cultivated. The clever Egyptians had cross-bred trees until they developed a walnut with “meat” that was rich enough in fat to be pressed for oil. The mighty walnut even earned itself it’s own proverb:  “Rien n’est perdu dans la Noix du Périgord sauf le bruit qu’elle fait en se cassant” Nothing is lost of the Walnut of the Perigord except the sound that she makes when she cracks.”

Loving order and precision in all things, the Romans planted every orchard in a square 11 meters x 11 meters. Todays orchards are still laid out in this military fashion..
Walnut oil was considered as precious as gold well into the 1700’s. It is an oil that brought great fortunes to the Dordogne region. It’s multiple uses made it a sought after commodity. The oil  was used for lighting lamps, mixing paints and making soft soaps, but most importantly for cooking. (Now a days we say it has too low a burn point to cook with, but back then one used what could be produced locally and free.)

Just one or two trees on a small farm could help a peasant pay off their debs.  Large land owner’s orchards brought great riches to their properties. Nobles and clergy alike made sure that an orchard of walnuts was planted on their holdings.
The production of walnut oil really took off in the 17th century. Like the wines of southern France, barrels of oil passed through Bordeaux to Holland, England and Germany. Not only the oil was shipped, but the nuts themselves and the valuable trunks of old trees were also loaded on ships. Seasonal markets sprung up in late fall where everyone brought their harvest to a central location to sell to millers who then processed the nuts in their riverside mills.

During the 20th century walnut orchards had difficult times. Millers went off to war and did not return, their knowledge lost with them. The regimented rows of walnut trees were cut down because the strong wood was perfect for making gun handles. World War I, and then WWII, ate up men and trees. 

Luckily in the 1950’s there was a push to plant new walnut orchards. Old timer’s memories were picked to reconstruct the best methods for growth and production. 

Walnuts are gathered in late October and left for a month or so in a sheltered space to dry. Some folks then take sack-fulls to the local cooperative to be sold by the kilo - shell and all, for a little “mad money”.  In days gone by entire hamlets and villages would get together on long winter evenings for nut cracking. Now a days a few families still work together around the kitchen table to crack their own nuts, but for a big operation like our local mill the nuts are shelled by a machine. This past year the nuts had a lot of disease,  so there was a lot of hand sorting of the good meat from the bad. Some things machines just can’t do. Sacks of the precious morsels are then transported down to the mill. Here the millers work their age old magic, magic passed on from generation to generation. The bottled gold is shipped off all over the world and few will know, but all will taste, the long and rich history of the Walnut of the Perigord.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Walnut Oil is King

In our region of France, walnut oil is king.

It's a great replacement for cooking oil!

 It's better than olive oil for salads!
It's a proven anti-aging balm.

It's perfect for suntanning!

It isn't, however, much use as a motor oil.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Walnut Oil

Closing the heavy wooden door behind us we shut out the sound of rushing river water and left the heavy mist blanketing the world outside. We have entered a dimly lit space with muffled sounds. The air is humid, but warm, the walls are white cut stone with streaks of green mold and there are unfamiliar machines placed around the single room. The distinctive odor that lured us from the car is even stronger here, so thick we truly can taste it. Vermonters may be guessing this to be a sugar shack with maple sap bubbling away, but this smell is not rich and sweet. This smell is rich, old, and earthy. Rich as only smells of the damp winter earth can be. We have entered the old mill of Rochereuil down stream from Bourdeilles on the Dronne River. We are here to collect this year’s supply of walnut oil. 
Three or four men stand around a steaming stone cauldron, their conversation muffled in the thickness of the air. From them we get a quick once-over to see if we are friends or visitors, and a amiable bonjour from all. One man is working and the others are clearly here for an afternoon outing and a chat. The working man, also the owner of the mill, stops his steady turning of a pasty brown mash in the cauldron to greet us. He finds slips of paper laid out by his wife that show the orders we placed last week. Walnut oil is in limited production this year and we  have had to wait for a call to say that enough extra had been pressed to be able to fill our last minute orders. I have brought two juice bottles to be filled with the precious gold elixir. My friends have brought two liquor bottles. The miller sniffs their bottles and makes a joke about the secret flavoring their walnut oil will have.

The oil pours like flowing honey from a spigot into our assorted bottles. Each bottle is carefully re-corked, and handed back with clear instructions to be sure to store the oil in a cool dark place. Light will turn the oil rancid.

Someone asks the miller how much walnut oil he will consume this year. Clearly not a question he had been asked before, he laughs, reflects for a moment and tells us actually not very much.   Because he is not a big fan of salads, the dressing of which, is the reason why most most people buy his oil. He will be eating his walnut oil drizzled on green beans and other steamed vegetables, mixed in a simple salad dressing accompanied with slices of goats cheese, or as a secret ingredient in some special desserts. He’ll go through 3 or 4 liters in a year, but he has a client, clearly a big salad eater, that buys 10 to 12 liters each year, none will be shared as gifts.

The conversation turns to the troubles with this year’s walnut harvest and then to the troubles with the local honey production and how to protect one’s bee hives from invading wasps. These are familiar conversation among folks that count on the land and mother nature for a living. There is no predicting a steady income and the work is tedious. We are buying a labor of love as well as a delicious oil.

The miller excuses himself to go back to tending the mash roasting over the fire. We quietly linger a bit longer to soak up the atmosphere before finishing up this year’s adventure to the walnut mill. We will want this moment to return to us on hot summer days as we eat our salads and savor those garden fresh beans sprinkled with this golden nectar. We’ll raise a glass in hopes that the sun and rain will be balanced out just right for the maturing walnuts hanging green in the local orchards and to their future as next year’s harvest.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Look of Permanence

Bourdeilles is a classic European village. Bourdeilles is all stone and tight streets. Her buildings are constructed of stone--  labor intensive, quarried from the earth, permanent stone.
 At least the look of permanence is what first meets the eye of someone who grew up where streets were plotted out first and buildings filled in later.
I started hearing about this house and that house having a section cut off to enlarge the streets. Houses that were built when all the traffic that passed through the village was a person or two, a wheelbarrow on laundry day, and the occasional horse or cow being led out to pasture. Hiding under the imposing chateau and within the protective wall encircling the village, the houses were deliberately tucked up against each other. Alleyways through the village were tight to prevent marauders from arriving in large, aggressive gangs. For hundreds of years the only street in Bourdeilles passed right by the chateau entrance where armed men and provisions were expected to arrive.
At some point when life was less threatened by the vagaries of invaders, politics and religion, the surrounding walls of Bourdeilles were torn apart and used to build new homes. Wanting to create a street lined with businesses, the main road was moved from along the chateau to the center of the village. But wait-- there were houses placed smack dab in that proposed route. Gone, long gone are several of those homes. Anything that impeded the straight-line, enlargement of the new high street was cut up or torn down. Houses were reduced in size and left with their entrances giving right onto the new road. Several houses were completely demolished. The new road seemed grand and efficient. The village businesses thrived and deliveries arrived right to their door steps by ox drawn carts. Old timers can still describe the very, very few cars that were in Bourdeilles into the 1950’s. 

Now a days great big growling, lumbering trucks squeak through the village and it is clear why parts of homes were cut off to let these modern day behemoths through. There are still houses along this route that force the traffic down to one lane. Most of the houses on this truck route show deep scars left by swaying semi trailers.  Renovators beware! If homeowners wish to make any changes to the street side of an ancient house they will have to demolish enough of the house to allow modern day traffic through. Gone would be one of the crazy charms of our “modern” Bourdeilles.

Luckily two main streets have sufficed for today’s passing traffic. The upper side of the village remains a tight block of houses with tiny alleyways heading up and down, left and right, making mysterious turns. Two streets head up this part of the village. One is actually restricted to one way down. (When an ambulance was called in the dark hours of the morning to help with a emergency birth it tried to back up this tiny road and got stuck, much to the chagrin of the to be mother and the amusement of all the neighborhood. The Mom and baby girl were just fine. The delivery was in the hospital!) 
Fortunately, it takes moving off the Main Street to encounter passageways of another time, when no one could have imagined a self-powered, people-moving contraption passing at an unimaginable speed, greedily taking up space through the village. No one would have imagined that their solid stone homes would be dismantled for something called a car. Talk about marauders.