A highly versatile autumnal oil from France
“Walnut oil is a lovely oil—quite sweet. It’s very popular in France,” says Noel Fitzjohn of Fitz Fine Foods. “They have zillions of walnut trees; we only have a fraction of the amount here. All the other oils we now use don’t really take off in France because they don’t need them—they stick to what they know.” As the mantra goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—although it’s probably more elegant when rendered in French.
Noel’s suppliers in the Limousin region of central France are currently gathering up the first wet (or fresh) walnuts of the season. To make the oil, the nuts are left to ‘semi-dry’, until the husk cracks open to reveal the meaty kernel that will be ‘milled’ to extract the oil. The extraction process, while rather more mechanised now, previously involved some equine assistance. “It used to be that a horse walked around a circular trough about six-feet across, pulling two big stone wheels that rotated to crush the kernels,” says Noel. The horses have been replaced with presses, but the process is essentially unchanged—this is pure, un-messed with nut oil.
Its high smoke point and mild flavour makes it useful for both cooking and finishing dishes. “I love walnut oil! It’s so seasonal at this time of year,” enthuses Paula McIntyre, regular Borough Market demo chef and director of Slow Food Northern Ireland. “I love it drizzled over a baked Vacherin mont d’Or”—another delicious autumn arrival, to be found at many of Borough’s cheesemongers. “I make a flourless, butter-free cake with walnuts and walnut oil. I also make a bread with walnuts and walnut oil in the dough and grapes studded over the top. When it’s hot, I drizzle over more walnut oil. It’s delicious with blue cheese.”
Shavings of parmesan
The list goes on: “I’ve got a crown prince squash and I’m going to make a warm salad from it, roasted with walnut oil dressing,” Paula ponders. “It’s also good in bagna càuda [a dipping sauce from Piedmont] instead of some of the olive oil; it’s lovely with smoked beetroot and goat’s cheese, or with potatoes baked in charcoal, drizzled over as a dressing with good balsamic and shavings of Bianca e Mora’s Red Cow parmesan.”
While just about the perfect oil, there is, says Noel, one way of enhancing it. “When I cook with it, I actually put it with a little butter, because a) it stops the butter burning and b) butter makes everything better,” he laughs. “I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be improved by a bit of butter.”