The Walnut Oil Man

frenchroadOkay, I admit that I have read Patricia Wells' Food Lover’s Guide to France so many times that the pages are no longer glued to its spine. My copy smells old because it is old. It isn’t all that accurate anymore but there is still some relevant information, just less. This book is the reason I have had so many treasured memories of France.

The most memorable one in the whole book for me was finding the walnut oil man - Patricia Wells wrote that he had a water wheel that aided in the extraction, used no electricity, the farm was difficult to find and beware of the dogs. All true, but so much more...

I was the navigator, not the driver that day. I was responsible for finding all the tiny little roads on our paper map to the mill. Half the roads weren’t on the map and any signage was obscured by overgrown trees. It was very rural and our afternoon was turning into either a treasure hunt or wild goose chase. I could feel we were near. When my boyfriend asked if I found the road on the map, I nodded. Not true, we were lost.

You can guess what the driver said as we drove threw the same intersection for the fourth time. “How can we be lost if you are reading the map? You know how to read a map?” “Yayyyy”, I replied - you could cut the tension with a butter knife. One more try, then I would agree to give up the goose chase. Suddenly, I saw it - the faded yellow sign covered with ivy and grown up trees like Patricia had described, only more overgrown.

We followed the arrows to the walnut mill’s driveway. It was a pothole ridden half mile off the main road. We crept slowly so we didn’t damage the car’s suspention. We finally arrived at a dark brown farm house. All excited I grabbed my leather coat from the back seat and started to open the car door when a pack of 7 or 8 dogs appeared, angry and yipping all around our car. Two fierce dogs jumped on our car doors, keeping us hostage inside.

waterwheelWhere was the walnut oil man? How could he not hear his gaggle of barking mean hounds? Okay, 5 minutes more and if he didn’t call off the dogs we were leaving without any walnut oil. In 4 and ½ minutes the sweetest little old man came out of his house, looked at his dogs and they instantly stopped growling and wagged their tails like they knew us. I opened the car door slowly, just incase they changed their mind about us.

The walnut man greeted us warmly and invited us to see his mill. As we followed him he told us that his great, great grandfather had built the mill and farmhouse and how sad he was to have no heirs to carry it on. I felt the weight of his sadness on my chest and I thought how un-simple it had become to buy walnut oil. He decided when he saw my boyfriend and I drive in on his last day and final minutes of his oil extracting career that we were indeed a “sign from the heavens”. He believed that we should be the next owners/guardians of his walnut oil mill. Eeeck!

He already decided that but he had a few more questions: children, you must have children. Children are important. We looked at each other, and replied in unison “maybe, we will” and his next question was aimed more at my boyfriend. “Can you fix things?” “Yes, I can”. When the inquiry was finished we started our tour, first through the farmhouse and then to the 40 foot water wheel on a lively stream that powered the whole place including the oil extraction. I caught myself dreaming about living here and filling this humble farm house with love, kids and food as I followed slowly behind.

With the help of my boyfriend the two pulled open the large wooden door of the oil mill. It was dark, and fragrant and warm inside. The walnut oil man turned the light switch on and two single hanging bulbs illuminated the area with a golden light. On the back wall was a granite caldron with a firebox underneath. A delicate fire was still glowing. Three cloth bags of walnuts still in the shell were leaned next to a small stool and a chuck of wood he used as a table. He sat down on the stool and motioned us with his eyes to watch the process carefully. I had been so lost in the dream that I hadn’t noticed that 8 of his fingers were covered with Band-Aids. I wondered why until I watched him crack open each walnut with a primitive, worn wooden mallet. He missed the shell and hit a finger at least half of the time.

Was it the lack of light or was his vision failing? He wasn’t fast at it and he wasn’t slow or deterred by pain, he never stopped until the last 3 bags of the year were shelled. And then for the final extraction of walnut oil of his life began like a final dance. He contemplated one perfect sized log and placed it on the ambers. It quickly caught fire like a love interest that you wanted to ask to dance all evening.

walnutoilHe flipped a heavy metal lever and the paddles inside the stone cauldron started to move slowly. He dumped the buckets of fresh cracked walnuts in. The wooden arms gently caught them, moving the nuts around as they lightly toasted. The delicate dance had begun. The sound of wooden arms rolling the walnuts over the ancient stone, the fire crackly and popping and the yellow light of 2 single bulbs was humbling but sad. I could sense that he was very sick but yet he pushed himself to make the last oil with the last walnuts of the year as we watched. This was important to him - it was his final legacy.

The air in the mill filled with the scent of toasted walnuts. We watched him try to remove the walnuts quickly from the hot granite cauldron but his energy was waning. We each grabbed a scoop hanging on the wall. The two of us scooped the nuts into the press as fast as our unpracticed hands could. He watched our every movement like he was teaching us ‘the dance’. He sat back on the stool to rest as he watched us scooping the nuts. Unbelievable as this story sounds it truly happened like that. His final dance and maybe our first.

He painfully lifted his tired body from the stool and flipped a different leaver on the wall to start the leather belt on the wheel that powered the extractor. The stone disc groaned slowly as it descended on to the surface of the walnuts. He watched carefully, ready to turn the leaver to slow down the extraction. Oil started to drip slowly into the waiting chipped porcelain bucket. He watched with such intensity. And then the fragrant oil flowed and poured until the bucket was 2/3’s filled and then the flow abruptly stopped. He flipped the leaver in a ceremonious way, like a life complete. No going back to change it.

oilbottleWe filled a couple dozen small green bottles of fresh walnut oil and placed them on the shelf with the other bottles of oil. Now what? Really, how could we be so trite and insensitive to take 4 bottles of oil, pay and depart. How was this dance to end?

We looked at each other, silently wondering if indeed this was our destiny or was it ‘his’ dream chosen for us because we drove into his driveway on the last day of walnut season. We had a lot to talk about that evening, a lot. We assured the walnut oil man that we would return the following day.

The next afternoon we came with cheese, salami, warm bread and flowers to give the news that it wasn’t our destiny, our hearts were heavy and we were very sorry.

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We drove up the long driveway but the pack of dogs didn’t meet us. We knocked on the door but the walnut oilman didn’t answer. We poked around the place looking for our friend. It was so still, lifeless and eerie. We already knew something had happened to him but we asked the nearest neighbor anyway. He had died at the hospital all alone that night after his final dance. We returned to place the bouquet of flowers outside the mill door and left with tears flowing down our faces like his walnut oil gushing into the porcelain bucket.

After all these years I still have a bottle of his walnut oil in my refrigerator. It is filled with walnut oil and precious memories all the way to the corked top.  


Brenda Athanus runs a small gourmet food shop in Belgrade Lakes, Maine with her sister Tanya called the Green Spot.

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