While writing the ‘Pancakes with candied walnuts’ recipe, we simultaneously read more about walnuts, and found the history interesting enough to share it.
Walnuts have a rich history dating back thousands of years and they are the oldest tree food known to man, dating back to 7,000 BCE. From their homeland in Persia, they came to Central Asia and China, in which the Silk Road played the main role. The walnuts came to Greece first via the armies of Alexander the Great, and later to the rest of Europe via the Romans from the Middle East.
But, our Périgord could also have been the birthplace of the walnut, as walnut residue has been found in Cro-Magnon habitations. The Cro-Magnons were the first modern Homo sapiens in Europe, but coming from Africa, living there between 45,000 and 10,000 years ago. The first fossil skull of a Cro-Magnon was discovered in 1868 at a famous rock shelter site near Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, a village 1,5 hours south-east of Lusignac.
The walnut has always played an important role in mythology, folk customs and witchcraft. In Greek mythology, the walnut was a symbol of wisdom and was dedicated to Zeus, god of the sky. When Dionysus, the god of wine and vegetation, visited the court of King Dion of Laconia, he fell in love with Carya, one of the princesses. When Carya died, Dionysus changed her into a walnut-tree and later became goddess of the nut-tree. The scientific name of the pecan, related to the walnut, is Carya illinoinensis.
In Roman mythology, the walnut was dedicated to Jupiter (or Jove), the god of sky and thunder. According to legend, when the gods walked upon the earth, they lived on walnuts. Which brings us to the scientific name of the walnut, Juglans regia, ‘Ju-piter’s glans’ (‘regia’ meaning ‘royal’).
In France, in the Poitou to be precise, it is an old custom for the bride and groom to dance around the large walnut tree in the centre of the village. It is believed that the bride will thereby produce a lot of milk for the baby to come. In rural France, men would secretly put walnut leaves in the shoes of their lovers to assure themselves of their love and fidelity.
We stay in France, where the walnut tree is one of the most remarkable features of the Périgord landscape. The trees do not like to grow in extreme heat, and they are susceptible to frost, therefore, the perfect climate in France seems to be in the Périgord.
The reputation of the 'Noix de Périgord' is famous and accounts for 60% of the walnut trade in France. In spring, the green leaves of the tree are picked and infused in old red wine and sugar to make 'quinquina', a wine-based aperitif like Byrrh, Dubonnet, Lillet blanc or St. Raphaël. The infused leaves are also used for the production of 'vin de noyer', a walnut-wine you will appreciate as an aperitif, in the hollow of a half melon, or to flavour your desserts and sauces.
Whether true or not, walnuts and walnut shells should not be composted because the trees contain a chemical called ‘juglone’, which is toxic to some trees, plants and vegetables like aubergine, tomatoes and potatoes, so better safe and then sorry when it comes to composting them. But again, this is discussable.
Not discussable is that the walnut shells have a number of industrial uses, e.g., as a thickener in paints and plastics, as a filler in explosives, and for cleaning and polishing. For domestic use, the tiny walnut shell particles can be added to soaps and scrubs as an abrasive element. Apparently, the ground up shells can also be used for fuel.
In October, the walnuts are ripe, and the collecting starts, which in most cases, is still done by hand and is a family thing.
Cracking the shell but not the nut is an art-form, and the skill lies in knowing exactly where to hit the shell, it is recommended to simply use a nutcracker which is practical and reduces the risk of injury……and underneath the tough shell you’ll find a soft heart. The broken ones, the 'invalides', are cheaper and are usually made into oil, the ‘huile de noix’, which is the most important by-product. The oil has a nutty, delicate flavour and contains beneficial nutrients and compounds like unsaturated fatty acids and plant compounds called polyphenols. Consuming walnut oil may improve the health of your heart and lowers blood sugar levels. Thousands of years ago, walnut oil was already used for various purposes like lighting, soap and paint.
The word ‘walnut’ derives from Old English ‘wealhhnutu’, literally ‘foreign nut’ and Middle English ‘walnote’, ‘walnutte’. Proto-Germanic ‘walhazhnuts’. The walnut was called ‘foreign’ because it was introduced from Gaul and Italy. The old Latin name for the walnut was ‘nux gallica’, again a ‘foreign nut’.
The French word ‘noix’ comes from Old French ‘nois’, from Latin ‘nux’ and ‘nucem’, Proto-Italic ‘knuks’ and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ‘knew’.
This was the history of the walnut in a nutshell. So, why not try our pancake recipe with cinnamon and candied walnuts?
Pimm + Marcel
Most of our blogs are written to give you more information about the area where we have our Gîte Loups d'Or. We also write about subjects we think are interesting for you to know. If you have any questions or if you want more information, please feel free to contact us.