Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Perigord Walnut

Perigord is the ancient name of the area that is also known as Dordogne in the Aquitaine region in the southwest corner of France. Drive through the valleys of the Perigord and you cannot help but be struck by the majestic groves of walnut trees that grace the landscape. Although the trees you see today are newer, there is evidence that the walnut has existed in this corner of the world for 17,000 years or more.

Denizens of the Perigord have the second-lowest rate of heart disease in the world despite living on a diet most would consider rich, and they ascribe their health and longevity in no small measure to the walnut, which is known to have cholesterol-lowering properties. High in potassium, zinc, and copper, walnuts impart energy, and rich in magnesium, they fight stress.

There is an old Perigordian axiom that nothing is lost of the walnut but the sound of its shell being cracked. Regional furniture has long been made from the hard, beautiful wood. Whole walnuts go to fine restaurants, where chefs combine them with butter and Roquefort and serve them as appetizers on thin slices of artisanal breads, tuck them into stuffings for baby duckling, and whip them into frozen mousses. Whole nuts are also used to make the delicious chocolate-dusted walnuts displayed in confectionary stores region-wide. Broken nuts head to the walnut mills and are pressed  into the sweet oil used in Perigord cooking and salad dressings; to distilleries like La Distillerie Roques in Souillac, where they metamorphose into aperitifs, digestifs, and liqueurs; and to small producers who turn them into delectable jams and spreads, often combined with local honeys. Nuts not good enough for these applications are ground and used in making walnut bread (a favorite accompaniment of pate de foie gras) and other confections.

And what to do with the mountains of shells when all the kernels have been picked? The locals grind them to use as kitty litter. You can pick up a sack at the Saturday market in Sarlat.

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