Hazel is a well appreciated tree that supply wood, nuts for human consumption and livestock feed. They grow wild all over the country in woodland and hedgerow and have been considered as a magical tree.
Victorians were very fond on hazelnuts and cultivated them in colossal plantations, mostly in the Kent area, supplying hungry mariners and London wholesalers most of the year. These cultivated varieties are more commonly known as cobnuts, based in a game that kids used to play with the nuts.
Definition and species
The name hazelnut applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus, generally known as cobnuts (Corylus avellana), Filbert nuts (Corylus maxima) or Turkish hazelnuts (Corylus colurna) but all named also as hazelnuts in general terms.
They are all deciduous broadleaf trees with globe-shaped or oval nuts up to 2cm long with a hard brown shell. Cobnuts tend to be shorter and more round than filberts, but it depends on different varieties.
There are lots of different cultivars grown in the UK, being the Kentish Cob the most reliable crop with an excellent flavour. Butler is another popular variety for modern commercial production. Other varieties include Cosford, Gunslebert, Merveille de Bollwiller or Ennis. They are used for different purposes, regarding large nut sizes, sweet flavours, early and late cultivars or pollinators.
Hazel is a tree native to the UK and grows all over the country. However, most of the world’s commercially hazelnuts come from Turkey, where Nutella consumes a surprising 25% of global supply.
Now in decline, cobnuts have been traditionally grown in Kent for large-scale nut production, but they have also been cultivated in the regions of Sussex, Devon and Worcestershire and harvested annually in mid-autumn, where you can expect up to 10kg of nuts per tree when they are mature.
The harvesting of hazelnuts is done when the trees drop their nuts and leaves, picking them by hand. Modern cultivation allows shaking them from the tree and picking them with mechanical raking techniques.
Foraging hazelnuts in the wild
These trees grow wild anywhere in the UK, as they have been widely used for hedging and coppicing, shaping vast tracts of woodland and mature hedgerows all over the country. They are usually quite small trees and produce a great amount of tiny delicious hazelnuts.
Ideally, they are picked when the nutshells start to turn brown, as soon as they look big enough. However, squirrels are not very patient and you will have to fight for your treasured nuts. The best is to head into the city, where you will find less wild competitors.
Fresh green hazelnuts are also delicious and have a very different flavour to the hard brown-shelled nuts. You can pick them by hand and crack them between your teeth, eating them straight away. Their flesh tastes like a crunchy nutty vegetable, not usually available in your local supermarket.
Buying and processing
You may be able to buy fresh local cobnuts from the local farm shop or grocer. Even supermarkets have started to stock them as a seasonal treat, typically found from about the middle of August through to October.
They are bigger than wild hazelnuts and are sold in their feathery husks. Whereas most of the nuts we eat are dried, fresh cobnuts are sold green and predominantly juicy, giving the nuts unique culinary uses and a distinctive flavour.
Hazelnuts harvested later or bought with full brown nutshells have their full flavour developed and can be stored in a warm and dry place for a few months in order to get your Christmas nut bowl ready. Just roast them in the oven at 140C for 20 minutes and store them in sealed bags after allowing the nuts to come up to room temperature to avoid losing their crunch.
Shelling small amounts of hazelnuts is an easy task to do with an ordinary nutcracker, but having a bag full of them it will become a tiresome job, especially when they are harvested in the wild and are very small. Try to shell them with a hammer instead and work in different batches.
Some recipes call for skinned hazelnuts, easily peeled with fresh ones. Dried nuts are trickier: just give them a light roast and tip into a clean tea towel when still hot, leaving for two minutes to steam before rubbing and massaging the nuts to release their papery skins.
Hazelnuts are a rich source in protein and unsaturated fats and may be eaten fresh or dried, offering distinctly different flavours and the possibility to store them for a long period.
They have a great affinity for chocolate and therefore they are used very often in confectionery to make praline, chocolate truffles, baklavas and hazelnut paste products such as Nutella or Viennese hazelnut torte.
There are infinite ways of using them in baking when finely ground, as it adds a crunchy texture to cake and biscuit recipes. Use the powder as a substitute of flour to make a torte, sprinkle over the sides of Kiev cake’s meringue or use them to make a layer of hazelnut meringue in a Dacquoise.
They can be used ground for a hazelnut-flavoured coffee with a naturally sweetened and less acidic taste or chopped up to enjoy in granola or muesli. It is also a primary ingredient of the vodka-based liqueur Frangelico and it is used to make strongly flavoured cooking oil extracted from pressed nuts.
Normally regarded as a sweet snack, they are also used to flavour savoury dishes. They are widely used in Turkish cuisine and typically used there in a sauce made from garlic and hazelnuts to serve with shellfish. They are especially gorgeous and unusual with sweet fried scallops, but you can try it in a pesto sauce or sprinkled as a crunchy topping in warm salads.