I haven’t posted much about food in this blog, because those posts went to the frothier venue of Facebook, where you can go and look at them if you like. But I am sure I do not need to mention that food is a major obsession in France. Everybody is an expert, on cassoulet, about creme caramels, about cheese.
Springboarding off of this, the authorities have cleverly leveraged the agriculture of their nation into a powerhouse by creating the notion of the appellation, the legal definition of a product. We toured the Martell distillery, which produces perhaps 90 percent of the cognac sold on this planet. You can double-distill wine anywhere you like, but you can’t call it cognac unless you’re right around the town of Cognac in central France. The same appellation d’origine contrôlée applies to Camembert cheese, Bordeaux wine, Chambord liqueur, and a zillion other products.
The one I found most bemusing, however, was walnuts. The walnuts of the Périgord region have their own AOC. Really? Since we were in the Dordogne in autumn we tried them. They’re yummy all right, and we ate several bags of them and bought a local nutcracker as a souvenir. But are they really unique?
The only way to find out is to compare. And here we may see our French nut cracker, with three American walnuts, purchased at a farm market in Reston, Virginia. These nuts were probably grown in Loudoun County, a little west of where I sit as I type this. (From which the astute reader may deduce that this post, #20, is the last one in the series about France.) They are the same size as the walnuts we ate in September, certainly the same species although possibly a different variety. And … yes. The French are right. The walnuts of the Périgord are distinctive. They have their own flavor, the terroir that is the boast of wine and cheese makers. I can taste it. Whether they’re better or worse is a different debate. (For certain these were more expensive. In France there are walnuts everywhere, and the price plummets at harvest time.) But these appellations are not fantasy. They’re actually controlling something real.