Hazel is one of the most common trees in Britain, often be found tucked away in old hedgerows and woods, where they have been used to make field boundaries in England and its wood grown as coppice.
It has also a reputation as the ‘Tree of Knowledge’ and it’s regarded as a magical tree. Hazel rods were used for water-divining and they were also converted into magic wands that supposed to protect against evil spirits.
Description and species
The name hazelnut applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus. You are most likely to find cobnuts (Corylus avellana) and filbert nuts (Corylus Maxima), but they have extensively hybridised. Turkish hazelnut (Corylus Colourna) is another species widely planted in urban spaces as an ornamental tree.
Corylus avellana is a large deciduous shrub native to western Asia and Europe, including the British Islands. On the other hand, Corylus maxima is an upright shrub or tree native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia. The first has a short husk, which is the papery casing to the nut, whereas the husk of the filbert is long and covers the nut.
The main feature of hazel are their pendulous bright yellow catkins, called lamb’s tails, that appear from late winter to early spring. They are in fact the male flowers that will become nuts, ready to be harvested in autumn.
Notes on edibility
Hazels have been used for food in Britain for millennia and used to be an important part in village life, where families gathered for nutting. 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.
Now in decline, most of the world’s commercially hazelnuts come from Turkey, where Nutella consumes a surprising 25% of global supply.
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.
Foraging in season
Hazel grows wild anywhere in the UK and are common in woodland, scrubland and hedgerows, at shoulder height as a result of being regularly cut back. They are also used as an ornamental tree in urban spaces, where squirrels are less likely to be competitors.
Hazelnuts can be picked at the immature stage during the latter half of August/September, when husks and shells are still young and green and kernels crisp and juicy. These must be eaten within a week, as they do not keep very well for long and taste like a crunchy nutty vegetable.
However, they are ideally picked when the husks turn brown, during the second half of September, when they start to fall off. Make sure they are worth before filling a bag: very often they come empty on the inside. The nuts should be firm and big enough and the full flavour of the kernel should have developed.
It is recommendable to place a sheet on the ground beneath the tree and shake the branches to pick up the fallen nuts.
Storage and processing
Ripe hazelnuts can be stored in a warm and dry place for at least one year. 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. Place them in a hard surface and shell them with a hammer or heavy stone 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.
Culinary uses and recipes
Hazelnuts are a great addition to cereals, granola and Swiss muesli and add a crunchy texture to cake, biscuits and breads. They can be caramelised, made into hazelnut butter or grind for flour to make meringue to use in Kiev cake or Dacquoise.
Hazelnuts are widely used in confectionery and have a great affinity for chocolate. They can be used to make praline, nougat / turron, chocolate bars or truffles, baklavas and hazelnut paste products such as Nutella or Viennese hazelnut torte.
The ground hazelnuts can be blended with milk or yoghurt to make a creamy smoothie using one part nuts to three of milk, adding honey to taste. Grown-ups can make a hazelnut vodka liqueur inspired on the famous Frangelico.
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.