It is hard to avoid one item while shopping in the towns and villages of the Dordogne, finds Roger Ratcliffe.
Just about everywhere seems to have a signature food these days. But it’s a safe bet that not many visitors to such places find themselves walking on their noted offerings. Around the town of Brive in south-west France, however, they use their local delicacy to surface footpaths in the way we use woodchips or gravel.
It’s also distilled into a delicious aperitif, and hard to avoid in salads or on the shelves of supermarkets and delicatessens. And driving around you will come across road signs informing you that you’re on the Route de la Noix – the Road of the Walnuts.
In these wooded limestone hills drained by the Dordogne river you could say that walnuts are the kernel of life, even more so than the area’s other great claim to fame – the breathtakingly expensive tuber melanosporum, better known as black truffles. If truffles are the gold of the Dordogne then walnuts are its coal, because they burn the shells as biofuel.
In the Middle Ages, walnut oil was used as currency, but today the value is seen more in health terms. Packed with polyunsaturated fats and vitamin E, the oil and nuts are said to reduce cholesterol, enhance memory and have anti-ageing properties. No doubt there are those who argue that regularly imbibing walnut liqueurs and aperitifs will help this process.
At La Distillerie Denoix in Brive you get the chance to sample the different varieties, and on hand to pour out generous measures is Daniele Paquette, whose family founded the business in 1839.
It is best known for the liqueur Suprême Denoix, a blend of green walnut juice and alcohol aged for five years before being mixed with Armagnac and a syrup prepared over a wood fire. The same equipment has been used for 150 years and it is all there to see in its beautifully polished copper glory.
There are more than 40 square kilometres of commercial walnut orchards and like good French wines the four main walnut varieties – Grandjean, Marbot, Corne and Franquette – are protected by an Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC).
In the extraordinarily beautiful Les Jardins de l’Imaginaire, spreading up the side of the Vézère valley, many of the paths beneath the thick canopy of trees have a walking surface made from walnut shells.
But there’s plenty of other reasons to enjoy this part of France, not least the villages – some of the most beautiful in Europe – tucked away in the many folds and side valleys of the Dordogne. Of these, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that Collonges-la-Rouge is the best. After all, it was here that the Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France Association) was set up.
This was where nobles and officers from the nearby court of the Viscounts of Turenne lived, and their gracious houses are built from a rust-coloured sandstone, which first thing in the morning seems to turn a deep shade of mauve. At its heart is a church, only this one is bigger than you’d expect for a village of 400 souls because many pilgrims on the way to and from Santiago de Compostela used to call here.
By contrast, the nearby village of Turenne could hardly look more different. The Viscounts’ medieval castle tops a conical hill, surrounded by steep lanes of village houses built from grey-white limestone.
Then you discover Rocamadour. It’s small but looks bigger because of the way it is spread up the almost sheer side of a canyon cut by the River Alzou.
Rocamadour’s huge church, the Cité Religieuse, has long been a place of pilgrimage because of a large figurine known as the Black Madonna and the remains of a Jericho tax collector, Zacchaeus, said to have been sent here to live as a hermit by the Virgin Mary herself.
A lift whizzes you from the valley floor to the Cité, or if you really must you can do what Henry II of England once did and crawl on hands and knees up the seemingly endless stone steps of the Grand Escalier (the pilgrims’ staircase).
The long village street is now full of shops selling tourist trinkets and local goods. After a few days in this region, chances are you’ll come away from here with a can of Huile de Noix and a few kilos of walnuts tipping your suitcase towards excess baggage territory.
Jet2 flies in spring and summer from Manchester to Brive. Prices start from £39.99 one way, including taxes. For more details visit www.jet2.com
Roger Ratcliffe stayed at three-star Le Chateau de Lacan, Rue Jean Mace, 19100 Brive-la-Gaillarde, France; and three-star Le Grand Hotel de Turenne, 1 Boulevard Saint-Rodolphe-de-Turenne, 19120 Beaulieu sur Dordogne, France.