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Nut job: secrets of an AOP noix man

Autumn means walnut harvest, so Jane Hanks spoke to a Grenoble producer to learn what goes into producing high quality noix

Now is the time to eat walnuts as the harvest has just finished in most parts of France, with the last nuts collected at the beginning of November.

France is the biggest producer of walnuts in Europe, and the second exporter in the world, with the main region centred around Grenoble in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes and the second region in the Aquitaine.

There are two areas with an Appellation d’Origine Protégée: one is the AOP, Noix du Périgord given in 2002 for the Corrèze and the Dordogne, and the second is the Noix de Grenoble, which this year celebrates 80 years as an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, AOC (the prestigious French label for an AOP, which is the European term and was only introduced in 1992) and an AOP.

The Noix de Grenoble is grown along the Isère valley and covers three departments: the Drôme, Savoie and Isère and 261 communes with around 7,000 hectares of orchards. Walnuts have been grown in the region for centuries, but became the main crop at the end of the 19th century when both silk and wine production were largely wiped out by disease.

Two Americans living in Grenoble started exporting them to their home country and so very early on, local walnuts gained an international reputation. The industry was well organised and forward thinking and applied for an AOC when the label had only just been introduced and was, at that time only applied to wine.

The Noix de Grenoble has to be grown in the delimited area to gain the AOP label, but it must also be more than 28mm long and sold in its shell.

Smaller ones and damaged ones have to be sold for less money, and may be transformed into walnut oil or patisseries. The prized Noix de Grenoble is sold to be eaten as a kernel freshly cracked from its outer casing.

The walnut farmer

Christian Nagearaffe is a walnut producer at Montmiral, Drôme and has 40 hectares of trees. Each hectare has between 80 and 100 trees on it. He originally made his living from making goat’s cheese, but gradually built up his stock of mature trees by adding to ones he inherited from his parents until, in 2008, he was able to earn enough from walnuts to stop farming goats.

“The difficulty in starting up is that trees take up to between 12 and 15 years to come to full maturity and produce a decent quantity of fruit”, he says. “However, I now have a good range of trees and planted the last ones in 2012.”

Three varieties are grown in the region; the Parisienne, which is almost oblong in shape with a white flesh; the Mayette, which is rounder and has a fine and delicate taste; and the Franquette, which is grown by Mr Nagearaffe and has a strong, aromatic flavour.

He says the French varieties are superior to the cheaper ones you can buy in the supermarket and which have been most likely imported from the USA and Chile. “If you compare the two, you will find that the imported nuts are bland in taste, while the French walnuts have far more flavour with a slight, bitter note. They are sold as high quality walnuts.”

He says the advantage of buying them in their shells is that they are then naturally conserved: “A walnut is unlike other fruits in that it can keep for up to two years in its own shell. If the nuts are sold as kernels they are fragile and have most likely lost some of their nutritional qualities, because the fine protective skin between the kernel and the shell is easily damaged when it is cracked open.”

Besides producing a fruit with a long shelf life there are other advantages to growing nuts: “They are self-pollinating, so we do not need to bring in bees. There is a flower and a long catkin which liberates its pollen to fertilise the flower, from which the nut develops. There are very few predators and I can use organic products to treat the two insects which cause problems, which work well and means I do not have to use chemicals.

“At harvest time we need to employ far fewer seasonal workers than for other fruits, like peaches and apples, because after waiting for the walnuts to fall naturally to the ground, we are able to collect them using a special machine. We use the machines about three times during the two to four week harvest period. I have to take on just four or five employees.”

Ready for sale

After the harvest, the walnuts are washed and then dried before being sold on. Most of these processes take place on individual farms. A very small proportion of nuts are sold straight from the tree just after harvest. They are slightly more bitter in taste and have a softer consistency. They do not keep for long, unlike those which are dried.

It is a food which is seeing an increase in popularity as its many health virtues are now recognised by a widespread public. It is rich in magnesium, copper, zinc, potassium, phosphorus and fibre content and contains unsaturated fatty acids, omega 3 and omega 6, with no cholesterol so it is good for the heart. It also contains several vitamins and very little salt. Consumption of walnuts has gone up by 15% in the last ten years.

Farmers have no difficulty in selling their crops, though Mr Nagearaffe says production is unlikely to increase massively in his area: “It is difficult to start as a new producer because you have to wait for several years to see a return for your investment, and there is a lack of new land to plant on.”

He sells his walnuts to traders who sell on to specialist food shops and supermarkets where they are more expensive because of their higher quality.  More than 50% of Noix de Grenoble are exported to other European countries; Germany, Italy, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain.

Mr Nagearaffe says 2018 is a good year as their region escaped the worst of the drought and there was enough rain to provide a decent crop with a reasonable quantity of good sized nuts.

He is happy to have become a walnut farmer: “The trees are beautiful and are part of our heritage. They can produce nuts for at least 30 years, longer than other fruit trees and are passed on from one generation to the next.”

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