Autumn on the Farm

I return to Danie and Guy’s farm to experience the change of seasons and to witness the walnut harvest. Danie is waiting for me at the train station, and when I get off the train, she wraps me in a big hug. I’m bundled in a big scarf, even though it’s surprisingly warm. But Danie tells me that just hours ago she saw a flock of wild geese fly overhead, the signal of colder temperatures approaching. The next day, it’s bitter cold.

Red and orange leaves cover the trees, and outside the barn are over one hundred pumpkins – all different sizes, shapes, and colors – from Guy’s prized garden. In the kitchen is a big bowl of freshly roasted chestnuts. I snack on a few while gazing at the walnut grove through Danie’s kitchen window. Ten days ago, four baby bunnies were born, and I wonder if they could dodge the silver platter and sauce moutarde, if I tied bows on their ears and named them all Lindsay. C'est possible, non?

For lunch, it’s all things pumpkin. With a sharp chef’s knife, Danie carves out thin strips from a 20-pound pumpkin. She’s experimenting with pumpkin frites, but it doesn’t end well: the pumpkin yields too much water, so the frites lose their shape and become more like mashed potatoes than crispy fries. But the pumpkin soup is delicious. Even so, Guy declines the soup because he is so sick of eating pumpkin. Then Danie presents him with a flan for dessert, which Guy gobbles while Danie giggles: it’s pumpkin flan.

After a short four days, the walnut harvest wraps up. With an 80,000-euro harvesting machine, the Dubois family has collected ten tons of walnuts, much less than last year’s harvest. Similar to a tennis-ball hopper, but bigger and electric, the harvester clamps onto a tree, shakes it, and collects the fallen nuts.

Then, Danie, Guy and the rest bag the walnuts and send them to a group of Turkish and Portuguese workers who crack each nut by hand, which is less expensive than a shelling machine. After hand-cracking a walnut myself, I can’t imagine cracking even one more: It takes a lot of patience and a steady hand to extract a nut in one unbroken piece.

 As the walnuts are shelled, they’re also sorted. Any black or disfigured walnuts will be pressed for oil; pretty but broken nuts are sold to the boulangerie for pain aux noix, or nut bread; and beautiful whole nuts go to chocolatiers to top their praline truffles.

A few of Danie’s friends and I head over to the conservarie to pack the last box of walnuts into three-kilogram and one-kilogram orange-net sacks. After filling each sack, we check the weight, adjust accordingly, add a label, and tie the sacks closed. The scale is the bottleneck. Two of us wait with full sacks, while the third person weighs their sack. The inefficiency makes me crazy. I go into full corpo-Kinder mode, just itching to create an efficient assembly line to reduce “traffic” at the scale: so American; but not very French. I force myself to relax and enjoy the slower pace of farm life in the French countryside.

When we have bagged all the walnuts, a sweet, 85-year-old woman named Paulette and I head into the walnut grove with a big paper bag to double check for stray nuts missed by the harvesting machine. It feels like an Easter egg hunt; but instead of brightly colored eggs standing out against green grass, the beige walnuts almost disappear against the rocky earth.

After a sweaty run on back-country roads, I return to the farmhouse, where Paulette lets me in on a family secret: trou de coeur – small, caramelized cinnamon rolls her mother used to make in Northern France in the 1920s. But I can’t give you the recipe; not because Paulette has sworn me to secrecy, but because there isn’t one.

I come to our baking lesson with my usual tools – pink Moleskine notebook, a black ballpoint pen, and my camera – but they aren’t enough to capture the trou de coeur. For Paulette and her mother, cooking is about feelings, not measurements. When a chicken produces larger eggs, Paulette uses fewer eggs and adjusts the flour accordingly, so she doesn't know how many eggs or how many grams or cups of flour go into the dough. And she certainly doesn’t know how long the trou de coeur should bake. Well, actually, she does: They should bake until they’re done.

Paulette slathers strips of leavened dough with melted butter, sprinkles them with sugar, rolls each into a tight spiral, then snuggles them all into a round tart tin. Once in the oven, the sugar inside melts into the butter and oozes out the bottom, creating a chewy caramel base.

After the trou de coeur have baked until they’re done, and the house has filled with a sugar-sweet aroma, we pull the hot rolls from the oven. The grandkids are already scrambling into the kitchen, following their noses. Perhaps when I return to the States, I will test this recipe with cups, teaspoons, and minutes, but I fear it will lack that je ne sais quoi, that inexpressible something, that Paulette stirs into her batter.