We have a old walnut tree in our yard here on the island. It's riddled with woodpecker holes and no longer produces much, but each year I get a small harvest of tiny but flavourful nuts. Last year, though, I finally got fed up with trying to shell the walnuts after I had picked them in the fall. It would take me hours to pry the shells off a few small handfuls and when I used them in baking I'd often crunch down on an errant piece of shell. Now I pick the nuts while they are green, before the shell has formed, and I make pickled walnuts, an English specialty.
A couple of days before Christmas, while I was chatting on Skype with a friend who lives in Switzerland, she told me about a visit she had recently made to one of the last remaining traditional oil mills there. I was fascinated by her story (and had a hard time imagining shelling enough walnuts to make 32 kilos of nutmeats!) and asked her to write it up and send it along with some pictures to post on this blog. I hope you find her account as delightful as I did. Here's Chris:
So off we went to the oil mill, with two large cloth bags of hulled walnuts, the production of the family tree (32 kilos of hulled nuts), and a large empty milk jug to bring the oil home. I was told that this year was a good year for walnuts, unlike last year when there were almost none. Once again "in the old days", not so very far off really, families who had several walnut trees (which can produce at least 100 kilos of nuts apiece!) would spend evenings together hulling the nuts, talking, telling stories, singing...apparently one or two people would break the hulls with hammers on a stone base and the others would retrieve the pieces of walnuts, being careful to remove as many pieces of nut-shell as possible. Of course you always find a few, later, anyway! My friend's mother says that hulling walnuts is a nice way to spend the dark evenings, and can be done at any time after the nuts have dried a bit after the harvest, so nut shelling actually continues well into February, depending on the time available to do it. Each family can, if it wants, have its own nuts pressed in one batch, and from what I hear that's what most do; it's a 3-hour process or so depending on the quantity of nuts you deliver.
They come out of the hopper into a lovely old wooden container which is so soaked with nut oil that it positively glows. I touched it later, thinking it would leave an oily film on my fingers, but no, it was as smooth as velvet, a really beautiful old piece still in constant use.
When the nuts have been toasted, they are scooped into a cheesecloth-lined round wooden form (also very old), wrapped up well, and put under the press. I enquired about how much weight they were pressed with, and the young man who was handling "our" nuts said, with a completely straight face, "60,000 tonnes!"...and as far as I can tell he was serious!
The lovely golden oil started to flow almost immediately, and when each form was pressed (which took 15 - 20 minutes) it was removed from the crushing weight, unwrapped, and the cake of residue (called nillon) set aside either to be returned to its owners or to be ground or broken into chunks for sale at the small adjacent shop.
Not so very long ago, schoolchildren would be given chunks of the nillon as a snack for school, which I'm told was sucked or nibbled on and I'm sure it was a very filling and cheap snack at a time when treats were few and far between. Now, people can purchase the nillon and use it to make a local specialty called "Ground Walnut Tart" which is rich and filling and served in tiny slices. When it's baking, you can smell the wonderful scent of walnut oil all over the house.
Chris is sending me a bag of nillon to play with (I wonder what the customs officer will think of it?) and I'm looking forward to experimenting with it in my baking. I hope that Chris continues to keep us up to date on her locavore adventures.