De l’huile de faine (Case FRC 10929) was a pamphlet I cataloged early in the project, but it remains a memorable one because I have long been interested in matters culinary. The author, Jacques Antoine Boudin, was a député from the rural Indre region of France who delivered this address to the Convention nationale. Let others discuss France’s widespread financial problems, social inequality, and foreign policy. Boudin had another topic on his mind, or perhaps I should say, in his stomach: beechnut oil.
According to Boudin, olive oil, the oil of choice for consumers, was not in sufficient supply to meet France’s demand, and the oil they did have access to was costly. The time had come to stop impoverishing themselves in order to purchase cooking oil, and to stop paying what he calls a tribute to foreign nations in the form of oil purchases. Boudin wanted to help France make use of an abundant natural resource to help replace this staple of the French diet.
The recent years’ beechnut harvest was apparently impressive, specifically in the Compiègne forest area, formerly the site of royal hunting parties. One key aspect of Boudin’s plan was to allow citizens to forage beechnuts on national forest land, such as that in Compiègne, a practice that had been illegal since an ordinance dating to 1669. However, even beechnuts on private property were either going to waste, or at best being used for pig fodder because of some bad press that beechnuts had been getting since the early 1700s. Boudin says that beechnut oil had a reputation of having an unpleasant taste in addition to reports claiming it caused various health problems. A lifelong consumer of beechnut oil, he heartily refuted those claims and even brought vials of beechnut oil for the members of the Convention nationale to sample.
This pamphlet contains detailed advice on how to harvest, store, and prepare the beechnuts for pressing, as well as a suggested price per bushel. Boudin highlights beechnuts’ advantages over olives, saying that beechnuts are less prone to spoilage while harvesting in humid weather and can be put up in dry storage for a long time prior to processing, like wheat. Boudin also makes some remarkable claims about beechnut oil’s shelf life, stating that it had a “delicate” flavor at five years, and was still edible at 10 or even 20 years and beyond. Luckily for the members of the Convention in attendance that day, the samples he brought ranged in vintage merely from one to three years.
I didn’t glean any indication of beechnut oil’s true shelf life after a brief glance at my trusty Harold McGee reference book On Food and Cooking, so I recommend caution if you are inspired to taste-test a ten-year-old bottle of this oil.