Tuesday 3 January 2012

Apprentice, workman, craftsman

Like most people in Touraine, we have ready access to fresh walnuts. Ours mostly end up in cakes, both sweet and savoury, though some growers have the patience to crack walnuts by hand in order to take the meats to a traditional huilerie such as Lepine, and return with their own freshly-pressed walnut oil. Because our nutcracker is still in a box somewhere, we had only a mole wrench to crack the walnuts - not a particularly successful tool! I remember as a child using a piece of pressed steel with a point that you inserted in the tiny slot in the base of the nut, and twisted, rather like opening an oyster. This tool was supposedly just the thing for walnuts, but I had no success with it!

When we saw James Gassiot's hand-turned wooden nut crackers, they had to be right - locally made (in le Grand Pressigny) from carefully selected pieces of timber with glorious patterning in the grain. Elm wood is strongly featured, along with yew and fruit woods. The casse-noix is in two parts - a bowl rather like a candle-holder for the shells, and a wooden hammer. The nut fits upright in a little cup and you smite it smartly with the hammer. If you catch it correctly, you chip pieces off both halves of the shell, and you can pull the entire nut meat out undamaged. You can crack hazel nuts in the same way. Bits of shell fly across the room, but it's much more fun than the mole wrench!

M Gassiot demonstrates the casse-noix. The book to his right is his autobiograpy.

A selection of nut crackers and mortars
M. Gassiot takes his portable lathe on its trailer to Marchés Gourmands so that he can create these utensils in front of your eyes. The pictures were taken at the Christmas Market at La Celle Guénand, where he set out his stall in one of the huge cellars of the castle.

Turning a "casse-noix"
On his retirement as compagnon charpentier in 2002, M. Gassiot wrote the story of his life's work as "Apprenti, Ouvrier, Artisan". The son of a master carpenter, he never considered another career, having, as he says, "fallen in at an early age", like Obelix in the magic potion. He started his training at the age of 14 at a wage of 6 Francs a month. A charpentier is a roofer and constructs the skeleton of large wooden buildings. The book is full of pictures of semi-clad buildings where he was involved in re-roofing (including the church in Le Grand Pressigny). There are also pictures of the more modern single-spanned buildings constructed using vast laminated beams. The earliest picture, taken in 1960, shows the proud newly-qualified 18-year-old James with his father and another master craftsman, holding a model roof, and standing in front of a lovely 2CV. Several of the later photos feature a white 2CV van! He started making the nut crackers in 2000, and his description in the book reveals the love that goes into them. Ever innovative, he is the inventor of a rolling seat on rails, made from an old garden chair and the wheels from some roller skates, for picking saffron...


Susan said...

It was Obelix that fell in to the magic potion as a child.

Do you really have to shell your own nuts before taking them to Lepine? They have a big shelling machine. I assumed you just took your nuts and they got chucked in with the latest batch and you received a proportion of oil at the end, like a wine co-op. I believe you have to have a minimum of 40kg of nuts before you can take them to Lepine. If you have to crack them yourself first, I really don't think people would bother.
The saffron picking seat sounds like a good move. Picking any reasonable harvest of saffron is mega backbreaking.

IanJ said...

We bought a pestle and mortar from Mr Gassiot a few years ago and it's still in use today - the quality of his work is very high.
Also, I think he has an interesting English heritage, hence his name.

Pollygarter said...

Susaan - of course it was Obelix! Most people just take walnuts in the shell to Lepine, and they process them in bulk. There's a travelling oil mill that visits Civray for Maison Perrin's annual do, and that requires the nuts to be shelled first.

GaynorB said...

My Tim's tool of choice is a ball pane hammer.

A useful addition to M. Gassiot's invention would be some cloth, which, if put over the nut and under the hammer will prevent flying bits!!

Diane said...

I have about 5 nut crackers can I send you one? Diane

Pollygarter said...

Thanks for the kind thought - but the new one works just fine! I'l blog about the old one when we find it because it's a bit special.