Papa – my French girlfriend’s father – was in ‘ribbing the English’ mood, specifically me. If he was to be my father-in-law, I had certain standards to meet. It was a game he liked to play at my expense, not least because he knew I took it all in good sport…much of the time! Well, when I understood what was going on.
‘Dîtes-moi”, he began, and then promptly switched to English, as if he’d already passed the sum of my linguistic ability, ‘what do franquette, corne, grandjean and marbot all have in common?’
If my brain had been in gear, and maybe not fuzzled by too much Côtes de Bergerac, I may have harnessed a clue from the fact that we were in the Périgord looking for truffles. But we were way past that stage. Even so, I was not to be outdone.
‘They are all bottle sizes’ I ventured, having spotted the grandjean among them, and, being a Chevalier de la Commanderie de Saulte-buchon, a Champagne Knight, as indeed I am, believed them to be champagne bottle sizes that had somehow fallen from the illustrious company of jeroboams. In retrospect, it reminded me of the time I thought ‘jarret’ was a fish, just because I was lunching by a river. Oh, quelle surprise when a chunk of pig’s leg turned up on my plate.
Papa laughed, and there was a smirk on the face of said girlfriend, although I had a sneaking suspicion she didn’t know either.
‘Non, pas du tout’, he exclaimed. ‘Zay all have shells’.
Well, of course they do. Since he was a colonel in the French army it stood to reason he would discuss military armaments with me.
‘What, like bullets?’ I asked.
‘Non, they are all – how you say? – nuts.’
I knew how they felt. And then he went on to explain how they were all varieties of nuts, in particular walnuts. And not just any old walnuts, but walnuts with a pedigree, with their very own Appellation d’Origine Controlée. And, of course, they were all from the Périgord, because that’s where the best walnuts in the world come from…isn’t it?
Walnut trees, it seems, have been cultivated in Périgord orchards probably since Neanderthal man trekked the landscape looking for the caves at Lascaux in which to start an art gallery. The green-skinned walnuts are harvested in September, and separated from their skins. If they want to earn their AOC label, fresh, rich-in-water walnuts have a shipping deadline in mid-October. And then the dry nut takes over, collected in the early part of October and immediately washed and dried by hot-air ventilators.
Now you might think that a nut is a nut. But, non. The franquette, apparently has an elongated shell and a delicate taste; the corne – isn’t that part of a unicorn? – has a hard shell, but yields a sweet-tasting nut with a fine texture. Grandjean, it turns out, isn’t a champagne bottle at all, but a medium-sized walnut meant only for cracking. The marbot is the preferred breeding stock, and has a finely veined nut meat.
It was all too much. It was driving me nuts. Not least because most of that knowledge came to me in a mélange of English, French and Franglais, and I’m sure there was some German in there, too…although that may have been indigestion.
But it just goes to show…you can’t put a good nut down; why, they even have their own Facebook page. They’ll be on the stage next, dancing to something by Tchaikovsky.
Recipe for traditional French walnut cake…
Dr Terry Marsh has written extensively for magazines and produced guidebooks for walkers to the French Pyrenees and the French Alps.