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Sunday, June 13, 2010

French Huilerie for Gourmet Nut Oils

Not long ago, I headed out to Availles-en-Chatellerault to pay a second visit to a huilerie that presses the most delicious oils of walnut (huile de noix) and hazelnut (huile de noisette). The first time I'd been there was during harvest season and we waited and watched as a series of farmers brought in their nut harvests and had them individually crushed, ground, fried and pressed.

The old-fashioned stone wheel circled endlessly round and round the platform like a work-worn donkey resigned to its fate, while the nuts ground down to a fine paste. From there, the red-faced workers, wiping sweat from their brows with kerchiefs stuffed in pockets, shoveled the dark paste on to its next home on ancient stoves, where it was fried, dark and rich, to the color of cocoa. You could taste the nuts on your tongue with every breath. Our mouths watered.

From there, it was a short distance to the hydraulic presses where we watched as the oil, as dark and rich as maple syrup, dripped out. My mind was mentally clicking through my recipe file, thinking of all the wonderful ways I could use these treasures in my kitchen. Steamed haricots vert topped with crushed hazelnuts and a drizzle of hazelnut oil, mashed potatoes and garlic with a drizzle of oil instead of butter, pasta with walnut sauce, salads galore...the list went on and on.

As we made our choices of what size and style bottles to purchase, I thumbed through their brochure and spotted a tasty-looking recipe for a walnut salad with shrimp and scallops to add to my repertoire.

On this, my second visit, it was late spring instead of autumn, so the machines were eerily silent, the factory immaculate. I was led to the back room where I made my choices, walnut oil refills for both my friend and me, and a special gift-style bottle with pourer. This particular huilerie has been operating now for 200 years, and, the owner proudly told me, will celebrate its bicentennial this November with a huge fête. I must remember to make my reservation.

The gift bottle I bought is intended as a hostess gift for friends in Italy. Two weeks ago, my friend and I, both our dogs in tow, began a month-long sojourn: 2-1/2 weeks in Veyrier-du-lac on Lake Annecy in the French Alps, followed by 5 days in Cessole in northern Italy, and then a final week in Provence at the height of lavender season. It seemed appropriate then, on the night of our departure, that I make us a supper of that very walnut salad recipe with scallops and shrimp.  C'était délicieux!

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