Hazel nuts

In my hierarchy of nuts, hazels are top. Followed by almonds, walnuts, and Brazils—after eating them in Brazil and realising they’re poor travellers. Macadamias are also good, but pecans and pistachios I can take or leave.

Although hazelnuts seem made for chocolate, gelato, praline and all things sweet, they also work well in savoury dishes—with pork, zucchini, green beans or mushrooms. Add a drizzle of hazelnut oil to mushroom risotto just before serving. Stuff zucchini with crushed hazels, breadcrumbs, ricotta and herbs.

Corylus is a genus of about a dozen-plus deciduous trees all native to the Northern Hemisphere. Corylus avellana, the common hazel (or filbert or cob nut) is an understorey tree found from Scandinavia to the Mediterranean. One of the first trees to colonise the land after the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age, it is a hardy plant, well-adapted to life in colder climates. The trees don’t have a single trunk, but instead a number of branching shoots, which can make them look more like a shrub than a tree. Unless coppiced, they last around 70 years—that’s short-lived by tree standards.

We have a long relationship with the hazel. Norse, Celtic and Roman mythologies identified it as the Tree of Knowledge. Elsewhere it variously aided fertility, warded off evil spirits and divined water. The wood of Corylus avellana is pliant; it could be bent into wattle walls and fences, woven into baskets and planted as hedgerows. While the nuts are a good source of protein and rich in unsaturated fat—one of humankind’s survival foods. In the enlarged and amended 1636 edition of Gerarde’s The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, he writes that ‘this kernell is sweet and pleasant unto the taste.’ But warns that ‘Hasell Nuts newly gathered, and not as yet dry, containe in them a certaine superfluous moisture, by reason whereof they are windy.’ And not only digestive problems, but also headaches ‘when they be eaten in too great a quantity.’

Hazels from Gerarde's Herball, 1636

Hazels from Gerarde’s Herball, 1636

I grew up with hazelnuts. Kids’ stories about dormice hoarding them for their winter hibernation; picking bunches of yellow catkins (the hazel’s male flowers) to compliment the first snowdrops of spring; roasting the nuts on trays in the oven before grinding them to meal for baking, or to sprinkle on porridge (something I still do); fighting a losing battle with grey squirrels. Trying to gather wild hazelnuts you had to move fast. If you were lucky you might get a handful, but more often than not you’d find grey squirrels had got there first and taken the lot. Oliver Rackham (The History of the Countryside) writes that because of these animals: ‘Hazel, which has shaped our civilisation from prehistoric times, is the most seriously threatened British tree except elms.’ That makes me think of Wordsworth’s Nutting, a blank-verse narrative about a young man’s trek through the woods in search of hazelnuts—written around 1800 before the introduction of grey squirrels to the UK. The poem has a kind of fairytale, Brothers Grimm, quality. After thorns and brambles and ‘pathless rocks’ the young adventurer finds the treasure he’s after.

‘ … the hazels rose
Tall and erect, with milk-white clusters hung,’

Hazelnuts were brought to Australia by early settlers and by returning soldiers and travellers, and planted in a pretty ad hoc manner. The nuts they produced were unsuitable for commercial farming, and for a long time our (modest) domestic demand was met by imported nuts. It was the enthusiasm and pioneering work of a Hungarian immigrant that changed the nuts’ Australian profile. Imre Tokolyi arrived in Melbourne in 1957. To earn a living, he and his wife started baking and selling biscuits. He could find almonds and walnuts to flavour them, but not his favourite hazelnuts—so he decided to grow his own. And in 1981 The Age reported that ‘after 25 years of experiments and dedication, Imre Tokolyi’s dream—to develop hazel nuts as a significant crop in Victoria—is about to come true.’

Here the competition isn’t from squirrels, but nut-loving cockatoos and possums.

A couple of weeks ago I bought some Victorian-grown hazelnuts from The Nut Shop in Sydney’s Strand Arcade. Complex, mellow and very moreish. Plus there’s something I love about those pocket-sized, CBD dried fruit and nut shops—it was a sad day when the Ditters store in Adelaide’s Gawler Place closed.

Of course it’s hard to discuss hazels without mentioning Nutella. Last month I read that the makers of Nutella, the Italian chocolate and confectionary company Ferrero, are investing in a huge hazelnut plantation in the Riverina—sweet news for struggling citrus farmers. I was a fan of Nutella until I checked its ingredients and realised that for all the marketing of it as a healthy breakfast option, it’s about 70% fat and sugar.

I wanted a chocolate hazelnut spread that was lower in sugar, higher in nuts, and with fewer nasties like palm oil. There are heaps of homemade ‘Nutella’ recipes on the internet, but this is what I came up with:

About 170 grams hazelnut butter or spread—one that’s 100% hazels.
50 grams good quality chocolate. I use Green & Black’s organic milk.
1 tablespoon of pure cocoa.

Melt the chocolate, mix well with the hazelnut butter and cocoa. Store in the fridge, but remove about half an hour before you want to eat it.