It felt like the first touch of autumn today and my mind turned to getting in some wood for the winter. On the way up the hill I noticed there were many windfall hazel nuts on the ground and picked up a few to take home for later as my teeth aren’t up to cracking them any more. In fact I crammed so many into my elasticated trousers that they kept falling down on the way down the hill!
It was a good year for Clustering Filberts, or are as they are more commonly known – ‘Cob nuts’. Many of them had delicious kernels just ripe enough to inspire a bit of research and a cooking session or three.
The term Cob nuts is quite recent. It refers to a 19th Century game played by children with the nuts, it was a precursor to marbles and was known as ‘Cob’. The British name ‘Hazel’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘haesel knut’, from ‘haesel’ a hat or cap.
Nutting was a common family activity before the First World War in Britain and village schools would close on Holy Cross Day (September 14th) so everyone could go nutting for hazel. The Hazel tree was cultivated by the Romans and early Gaelic reference cite it as a important food source in the Celtic diet. Other sources show Hazel nuts to have been an important source of food for many thousands of years.
The human use of the Hazel tree has a long history. It is traditionally associated with wisdom and was revered by the Celts as a magical plant, used in fertility rites and the fire festivals of midsummer. In Ireland the tree was once known as the Coll and was a Holy tree, the unauthorised felling of which was once a capital offence.
Sacred groves of Hazel could also be found in Scotland and the memory of the place name Calton, near Edinburgh, comes from the Gaelic ‘calltunn’, meaning Hazel. Many people have suggested that the design of arched, church ceilings is a reference in itself to the sacred groves of these trees.
Hazel rods are still used for all sorts of dowsing purposes and are apparently at their best if cut on the Eve of St. John’s Day, 23rd June. In other places, such as the Austrian Tyrol the wands were cut only on Good Friday. Modern witchcraft tells us that the Hazel is ruled by Mercury and should be cut at the proper time of a waxing moon and an auspicious set-up between planets.
Like the forked twig of Hazel, the nut was traditionally attributed with divinatory powers. Halloween was once called in parts of Britain ‘Nutcrack Night’. This was the night when you could (amongst other things) find your true love by observing the behaviour of Hazelnuts placed on a fire. As the poet Gray wrote:
“Two hazel nuts I threw into the flame,
And to each nut I gave a sweetheart’s name.
This, with the loudest bounce me sore amazed,
That with a flame of brightest colour blazed.
As blazed the nut, so may thy passion grow,
For ‘twas thy nut that did so brightly glow.”
Rituals like this show how integrated people used to be with nature, the source of their foods and medicines, even survival. We have lost this intimate contact with nature in our present culture. This separation from nature is at the heart of many of our general health, social and environmental problems.
Wild Hazelnuts though, are a health food. They are recognised as a great source of antioxidants that may offer protection from certain cancers, heart disease and premature aging. Hazelnuts are especially rich in the essential fatty-acids that help with normal tissue growth. For vegetarians, nuts are a useful alternative to meat as they include B vitamins, phosphorus, iron, copper, potassium and protein. Nuts (in general) provide a useful source for vitamin E and thiamin, which are destroyed by roasting. Hazel nuts, according to Richard Mabey’s ‘Food for Free’:
“contain weight-for-weight, fifty percent more protein, seven times more fat and five times more carbohydrates than hen’s eggs.”
He suggests that on a good year, they can be gathered as early as mid-August, but are not yet mature, the centres are crunchy rather than the nutty (even fishy) taste we might usually experience with mature hazel nuts. I actually prefer the taste of earlier hazel nuts to mature ones – some of them have a beautiful creamy taste of fresh sap.
Gathering the windfalls in mid-September I cracked open fifty or so for lunch, discarding any that were marked or ‘under attack’. My preferred method of shelling is a light hammer and a stout piece of granite with a ‘recess’. They varied between tiny little sweet kernels and full-size but not quite mature nuts. I decided to try my own version of Richard Mabey’s nut cutlets – which turned out more like ‘Hazelnut Falafels’.
I shelled about another fifty or sixty. This is a bit fiddly and does take a while, like most wild food cookery. I saved all the shells and put them in my kindling box – nature doesn’t waste anything so why should I? I picked some Parsley and Basil, and two slices of bread (shredded) and put them all in a blender for a bit, giving it a shake during the blending. Then I added a few twists of fresh-ground black pepper and worked in an organic egg to bind the mix. Using a spoon I formed small balls from the mix and rolled them in some flour. Then I lowered them into hot oil for a deep fry – until they turned golden-brown, about a minute or so.
They were absolutely delicious. A few drops of soy sauce add another layer of flavour, as did a touch of lemon juice. I tried one out on a Vegan friend and she thought they were excellent in taste and texture. That was such a well-spent morning. I gathered enough wood for about a fortnight of fires and enough hazelnuts for several good meals. I also stored some to see how long they would keep. As I write this it is mid-March in the ‘next year’ and most of the hazelnuts are still edible.
The next day I thought I would use up the rest of the nuts in an attempt at Hazelnut Meringue, as described in ‘Wild Food’ by Roger Phillips. I shelled the rest of the nuts and crushed them with some ground almonds. I beat three egg whites until my arm ached but couldn’t really get them stiff enough for a good meringue. Then I mixed the crushed nuts with the egg whites and some sugar and put them in a mini-muffin baking tray in the oven for about 15 minutes at gas mark 4. What came out certainly wasn’t a meringue but it was delicious anyway – I think I’ll call them ‘Hazelnut Delights’. I enjoyed the mini hazel cakes topped with whipped cream and mashed peach.
Later I made fresh Hazelnut truffles with a mixture of double cream and plain chocolate. Hardly healthy but toasting the Hazelnuts slightly in a frying pan brought out the most amazing flavours. Delightful beyond belief!