One of the things I find most endearing about the the French is how they find a use for just about everything. They were eating pigs, lambs and cows (among other critters) from “nose to tail” long before anyone had heard of the term in the U.S. They use the leftovers from making wine to make hard alcohol (known as Eau de Vie or “the water of life” in France, or Marc after aging in barrels, it is similar to Grappa in Italy). Our neighbors in Orthez, who keep chickens, ducks and rabbits, even encourage us to toss the odds and ends of unused baguettes from our table into their yard, so that the livestock can turn them into meat and eggs.
This national characteristic came to mind recently when I was lucky enough to be the recipient of several pounds of beautiful local walnuts. These came compliments of Nikos and Alex who run The Shop Agora on 15th and thanks to a tree in the yard of one of their employees (thanks Amanda!).
Being a city boy (roughly speaking), it took some trial and error for me to develop a reliable shelling method. I finally arrived at a technique that uses my marble mortar and pestle…not elegant, perhaps, but effective.
Of course, first and foremost with walnuts is the nut. It is hard to tell scale from this photo, but these are big, robust beauties and, upon cracking, they turned out to be full of flavor, so toasty and delicious they are great just eaten raw. They were fully magnificent in a salad of mixed lettuces with warm goat cheese croutons and a grain mustard-walnut oil vinaigrette.
Having devoured the contents of the shells, I decided to try my hand at making walnut scented Cognac using the shells. After all, why let any part of something this good go to waste. Flavoring Cognac with walnuts is not a new invention but something I first saw while traveling in France. I vividly recall tasting walnut flavored alcohols, wines and liqueurs during a visit to the region around Albi, in the French southwest.
Closer to home, Bruce Naftaly, at the much lamented Le Gourmand use to gently macerate walnut shells in brandy each Fall, tucking the batches away for the following year (and I have personally tasted a batch made by Le Gourmand sommelier David Butler).
Anyway, the method for doing this is so simple that I hesitate to call it a recipe.
1) Put Cognac over the shells
2) Leave in a cool place for 1 year.
3) Strain, and enjoy.
Variations are possible; I have seen bay leaves added to the shells to add an note of menthol, or a peel of orange, or a sprig of thyme. Or the flavored Cognac, once strained, may be sweetened slightly. But, given the quality of these shells, I think it will be best to just focus on the flavor of the walnuts.
See you next year, little friend.