The annual walnut harvest is cause for celebration for this California family.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Matthieu Kohlmeyer appears to have a charmed life, especially as he relaxes with friends and family in early fall in a walnut orchard in Woodland, California, where a bounty of ripe nuts hangs heavy on the trees. As the founder of La Tourangelle, which produces artisanal nut oils, Kohlmeyer celebrates the start of another harvest with a menu spotlighting the ingredient in dishes redolent with crisp, toasty flavor. It is Kohlmeyer's sixth harvest in California since arriving from France to produce the first French-style walnut oil in the States.

His family owns Les Huileries de la Croix Verte et la Tourangelle, a 150-year-old mill near Saumur in the Loire Valley of France where they make toasted nut oils using time-honored methods. When they decided to expand to the United States, instead of exporting the French oil, they exported Matthieu, then 24 and fresh out of business school. It's a strategy similar to the one French Champagne producers employed when they set up shop in Northern California (Moet and Chandon opened Domain Chandon; Louis Roederer and Tattinger followed suit). French production methods were combined with an American crop to produce products that were equal or superior to other domestic offerings.

Exporting French oil would have been less expensive and risky than starting a new company in a foreign country. Kohlmeyer notes that exporting French oils to America, though less expensive, would present distribution and quality concerns, and add expense for the consumer. One of their objectives was to produce a reasonably priced and accessible oil. "California is one of the largest walnut producers in the world, and the nuts are delicious," Kohlmeyer says. "We decided it was worth the gamble to take our business to the source.

"We do not pursue short-term profit; we invest long term," he says. "Our goal is to produce the best product possible and become part of the local culture where we work." (In fact, in France, villagers still gather home-grown nuts at harvest time and take them to the family's mill for fresh oil.)

Kohlmeyer faced many challenges launching the business. "It was incredibly frustrating," he admits. Previously, walnut oils produced in the United States were highly refined, made from a combination of low-quality nuts and broken bits of shell that had to be filtered and deodorized. The result: Oil that didn't smell or taste nutty. Following the French method, Kohlmeyer set up an operation to sun-dry whole walnuts, shell them, grind, and roast the meats to enhance their flavor, and then expeller press and lightly filter the oil. "If you use fresh walnuts, you have great flavor," he says.

This simple concept required Kohlmeyer to start from scratch, importing huge custom-made cast-iron roasters, extractors, and a press from France. He had to acquire building permits for equipment no one in this country had seen, and was refused three times. "At some point I thought, 'Let's just go back to France,'" he says. But with the firm support of his wife, Christine, he carried on and eventually secured the necessary permits and built the mill.

Then he had to introduce the oil to the American market. His research showed that shoppers were willing to pay a premium for extra-virgin olive oils, so to his mind, artisanal nut oils were the next step. Convincing buyers at stores, however, was another story. "Initially, there was no interest beyond specialty stores," he recalls. Retailers like Williams-Sonoma and Sur la Table stocked La Tourangelle products right away. "But I couldn't even speak to supermarket buyers. They wouldn't look at me seriously."

Armed with an easy smile, beguiling French accent, and lots of patience, Kohlmeyer persisted. He continued to call on supermarket chains, took his product to trade shows, told his story, and offered samples of his oil to anyone willing to try it.

"Walnut oils have gained a lot of popularity in the last couple of years," says Dawn Green, vice president of retail food for Williams-Sonoma, which also carries walnut oil from France. That's partly due to the good news about the heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids in walnut oil, she says, but quality also plays a major role. "We always look for the best of the best. La Tourangelle is an exceptional walnut oil―a very pure, artisanal product." The fact that it costs far less than imported oils helps, too. As consumer awareness and demand began to grow, other stores started to carry the oils, and now La Tourangelle sells 15,000 tins of walnut oil per month at gourmet shops, health food stores, and supermarkets nationwide.

Lounging under the trees at harvest time, Kohlmeyer has much to celebrate. He has successfully introduced artisanal nut oils to American cooks, and his products (he also makes pistachio, almond, pecan, and other oils) are available at more than 5,000 stores nationwide. You, too, can celebrate the flavors of the season with this menu spotlighting walnuts and roasted walnut oil.