Walnut trees are everywhere as you move up the valley to the Hautes Alpes. Apples and pears are the main crop in the valley of the Durance, and they stand in regimented rows, health and safety hairnets to repel marauding birds, but the walnut will have none of this. It concedes to be planted in rows, but then it goes its own maverick way. Traditionally a symbol of masculinity and power, it still smacks of mystery in an era of science and accountability. Here it is said that you should never take your siesta under a walnut tree, you risk headaches, dizziness and even an encounter with Satan. The leaves and roots excrete juglon, a chemical which prevents the growth of damaging weeds around the base of the tree, so it is quite conceivable that the waking soul would feel nauseous and disoriented and even, in a purple haze, bump into Old Nick, doubtless himself rather grumpy at having failed to shift the Fruit of Knowledge from its careful packaging up the valley. In England, we have little truck with mystery:
A woman, a spaniel and a walnut tree,
The more they’re beaten the better still they be.
Probably also with a foundation in botany (the tree, not the dog or the woman), it lacks the enticement of the French fable.
trees in January
and in late May
and this morning
They begin the year with typical individualism. I used to think our tree was dead – it remained resolutely budless and silent when all the others were singing happily and waving flowers around. Then, almost overnight, the leaves unfurl. We are now in high summer, and the fruit is visible, though it’s still six weeks or so to harvest. The trees, as aloof now as ever, stand cool and dark, while cicadas and bees motor around the surrounding vegetation.
My neighbour has a behemoth of a mill, cast iron from the mid-19th century, and people still bring their walnuts to him to be ground. The oil is delicious, in a small glass, or poured over white cheese and bitter leaves. Wet walnuts are lovely but I prefer them a little drier – they are the leading light in so many dishes, with pomegranate molasses, in a salad with parsley, or with honey in baklava. In England, I love the Betjeman feel of coffee and walnut cake and here, this recipe, adapted from Richard Olney’s A Provencal Table fits perfectly:
4 oz butter, 8 oz sugar, 5 eggs, 1/2 lb shelled walnuts, pulversied but still coarse, 2fl oz grated carrot, 8 oz flour (this is one recipe where wholewheat or spelt flour works quite well, it adds to the texture)
Cream butter and sugar, beat in eggs one at a time. Stir in carrots and walnuts and gradually add flour.
Bake in lined tin for about 40’ at 180o.
Lovely by itself with a cup of tea in this corner of a foreign field, or, if you want to jazz it up, slice, spread with some rosewater labneh and serve with apricot puree. After which you will need to lie down. Be careful where you choose.
I could live in a walnut shell and feel like the king of the universe. The real problem is that I have bad dreams.
Hamlet (Wm Shakespeare)