This summer, Maxence and I took a little more time off than we usually do, and the three and a half weeks (three! and a half! weeks!) we afforded ourselves allowed us to embark on a mini-Tour de France to visit with friends and family: from Franche-Comté to the Vosges in the East of the country, then all sails South toward the Périgord, the Pyrenees, Toulouse, and finally Provence.
We ate like kings, as can be expected, and our luggage got heavier and heavier at every stop as we loaded up with various local treats.
The Périgord walnut wasn’t the least of them: about halfway through our trip, we happened upon La Maison de la noix, a shop entirely devoted to the brainy nut. In addition to all the walnut spreads and jams and terrines and cakes one could dream of, I loved that they sold four varieties of walnuts that you could sample — using their cool low-tech nutcracker — and compare.
“Oh, but you can just use any old knife,” she said, and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.
Most people think of the walnut as being a single thing — a walnut is a walnut is a walnut — but examining and tasting just these four side by side showed how wrong that is, as each displayed a different size and shape, and a different flavor profile, too. The one we liked best was the Lara, a jumbo walnut with a sweet, delicate flavor and very little bitterness. We filled up a big bag and went on our merry way, excited to share them with our friends at the mountain house we were renting together on the Ariège side of the Pyrenees.
But, as you might remember from my minimalist cooking kit, a nutcracker wasn’t part of my traveling arsenal, and the house kitchen — which was otherwise much better endowed than I’d feared — didn’t have one either.
When I shared my dismay with my friend Marie-Laure, she replied, “Oh, but you can just use any old knife!” and proceeded to show me how, with a deft twist of the blade and very little force, she could tame the toughest walnut.
This trick, which reminds me of the classic oyster-shucking technique but is much less likely to lead you to the emergency room, kept us happy for the rest of our vacation, as we ate our way through two kilograms of Lara walnuts. I thought you might find it useful, too, so here goes:
Step 1: Take the walnut in your non-dominant hand, and hold it horizontally, so that the divide between the two halves is like the walnut’s Equator, and the fibrous, plus-shaped seam is facing you.
Step 2: Pick up an ordinary but non-flimsy knife, and insert the tip of the blade horizontally into the seam (take extra care of course not to rip into your own hand; keep the sharp edge away from you and use the counter for support if that feels more comfortable).
Step 3: Hold the walnut tightly and twist the knife like a key in a lock to pry the walnut open.
Step 4: Pluck out the walnut meat, breaking the shell halves further with your fingers as needed.
If some of the walnut meat proves hard to dislodge, use the tip of the knife to tear off the bark-like, middle wall inside the shell: this will free the walnut meat. (Below is a walnut half with the middle wall removed.)
Will you give it a try? Before we part, I can’t resist sharing a photo of my vintage nutcracker, which I am now home and reunited with.
Join the conversation!
Have you ever used this technique? Any other tricks to share on how to make do when the appropriate utensil isn’t available?