The walnut tree stands majestically old and tall in the orchard of Janine, my cross-eyed, big bosom neighbour in the small village of Surice. It sits on the site of what used to be a tobacco factory in the early 1900s, gives tons of fruit each year, and provides a most needed shade for sheeps that would graze during spring and summer. But since a few years, the visits have become rare and even if they are aplenty, the walnuts are left to rot on the cold ground. No one in the village, even Janine who has the excuse of a painful back, comes for walnut-picking every October. Except me (except that I’m not from the village but rather a weekender Suriçoise).
You can feel the rolling, the cracking as you walk on the carpet of walnuts and once in a while, you get a gentle jolt and plop of walnut rain. You have to be on all fours to rummage through the tall grass, eager to find fallen walnuts like a frenzy child hunting for easter eggs. Sometimes, I get so excited that I would grab what looks like a darkening, drying fruit but realize too late that what I have in my hand is no other than a dried sheep’s poo. Welcome to rural life.
Surice is a small farm village, south of Belgium and approximately an hour and fifteen minutes by car from Brussels. We have two country houses on eternal renovation and these past weeks, spent sunny days inside the big house being refurbished for the new tenants. My only respite were the evenings sitting infront of the open fireplace in our little cottage and the afternoons of walnut picking. Janine lets me pick apples and walnuts in her orchard as free as she would let herself in, uninvited during breakfast and recites unabashly her stomach troubles the night before. We gulp our coffee and rush to finish our tartines but not fast enough for Janine to give a full inventory of the village news, gossips and rumours. By then, no need to switch on the radio for the local scoops.
The big news this week was the re-opening of the bakery. One day in June, Christophe the baker put off his ovens, closed the windows and locked the door of the only bakery without saying goodbye. The next day, there was panic in the village for there was nowhere close to buy bread. Since then, people improvised – made their own bread, bought bread from a local grocer a kilometer away, hoarded loaves of bread from the supermarket and froze them. The bakery is the heart of the village. The original bakers were the hardworking family Soumoy, starting with the patriarch Albert, taken over by his son Claude and later passing on the tradition to grandson Michel who unfortunately developed a flour allergy and was forced to give up baking. They were known for the pistolet, a typical round Belgian breakfast bread, good for one person, the size of a bun, crusty on the outside and hollow on the inside. We like it really hollow, so we remove whatever shreds of bread left, spread a thick layer of farm butter and homemade jam, and flatten it with a big crush of the palm. Then the famous and delicious tarts made with sweet yeast dough and filled with different varieties of plums, apricots, runny brown sugar, and creamy rice. In the seventies, the three generations of bakers would roll out no less than 800 tarts every August 15, feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a day that attracted customers from other villages.
But Christophe is back. And like the rest of the villagers, Janine has mixed feelings – relieved not to run far for bread but holding a grudge for being abandoned, taken for granted when Christophe decided to close his doors with no explanation. His comeback has become a village matter of extreme importance and talks of boycott surface during the chats on the sidewalk.
On Sunday mornings, I like to wake up early and walk alone towards the bakery in the cold mist. I buy warm pistolets for breakfast and a fruit tart I reserve for afternoon tea. No need for an alarm clock. The donkey on a nearby field has sent the rooster to the unemployment office by assuming the too early morning wake-up call with his violent bray that “lasts for at least twenty seconds and can be heard for over three kilometers.” If you are having a nightmare, the donkey’s bray will easily bring you back to reality at three in the morning. I was tempted to call him the Bad Ass but decided that his heart rendering brays are callings for company. So, instead I made friends and he allowed me to rub his nose and take pictures as he poses like a pro. On the way back, I pass by the Champignol to buy organic butter, goat cheese, local paté, and vegetables of the season.
Here on the empty streets on the wee hours, it’s quiet, calm and reassuring. Surice is not your dream destination, nothing touristic…it’s just a simple village that allows you to clear the cobwebs in your head, to slip off the artificialities of city life, to be real. But it’s a village that has lived and survived the atrocities of war, one solemn day of August 1914. The German soldiers advanced through the supposedly neutral Belgian territory to attack the French. But a terrible rumour said that a young girl shot a German officer and by vengeance, decided to kill all the men of the village. This is why Surice is called the martyr’ s village. This is the story of the Hubert family. Gephil, a local history and genealogy group, recently published a memoir recounting the mass massacre of August 24, 1914: “At the very moment when we were passing infront of the house of Léopold Burniaux the postman, we heard heartbreaking screams. Léopold’s wife, Eléanore desperately imploring the soldiers to spare her sons while her husband lay dead before her. She screamed for pity as they shot her eldest Armand, a priest since a year and who was home for the holidays. And in the basement, they shot the youngest, 14 year old Albert, who the day earlier broke a leg and for which reason the family was not able to escape. Gaston the teacher (picture below), who was whisked with the rest of the men, marched on the road to the killing fields. Gaston’s tears flowed as he watched their house ravaged by fire, his mother ravaged by sorrow.” This road, where the house sits, is now called the “road of execution.”
Widowed and childless, Eléonore Hubert-Burniaux had to rebuild her life. Her brother Camille “lent” his daughter Gabrielle to be on her side. He also named his youngest son Gaston in honor of one of the family’s martyrs. Gabrielle would devote all her life to her aunt and in exchange, she inherited the two houses (reunited into one) and a box of unopened love letters that Eléonore had hidden to prevent her niece from falling in love and leaving her alone. The house of Tante “Guigui” Gabrielle became the summer house of my family-in-law. She tended to the seven young children of Gaston as if they were her own and on her death ten years ago, named them her beneficiaries. Nobody wanted to keep it except my husband François, the youngest, whose childhood memories in this house, in this village made it impossible to hand over the too familiar walls to strangers. So, we bought it. And this shared loyalty to family has given me a reward, a fruitful friendship with the abundant, 80 year old walnut tree.
Here is a very simple recipe of a walnut pie (I just replaced pecans with walnuts. I also do this with pili nuts from the Philippines and they are both easy to make and very good).
1 blind baked short-crust pastry
1 cup of sugar (a bit less if you prefer less sweet)
1 cup of corn syrup (I use Karo). Or liquid honey or the British golden syrup
1 tsp of vanilla
a pinch of salt
walnuts (quantity depends on you. I fill the pie shell to the brim so this is approximately 2 1/2 cups
Beat the eggs slightly.
Add the vanilla, salt, sugar and corn syrup.
When well mixed, add the walnuts.
Pour over blind baked pie shell.
Bake at 180° until well set and golden brown.
If you want to be decadent, serve with whipped cream.
Keeps for days.