Hazelnut heaven

The Hazel tree (Corylus avellana) and its cultivated relative, the Cobnut, are our prime nutty providers.

HAZELNUTS have been providing a multitude of nutty nourishment since hunter-gatherer times and for me picking nuts captures the essence of my childhood in the country, evoking idyllic images of country boreens and warm autumnal colours. But apart from these romantic images, the Hazel Tree and its nutrient dense nut, is potentially Ireland’s most productive and sustainable source of protein.

Autumn heralds the annual arrival of nut picking season and in Ireland the Hazel tree (Corylus avellana) and its cultivated relative, the Cobnut, are our prime nutty providers. Hazel trees are small and hardy, just like multi-stemmed shrubs, which respond well to coppicing and thrive in hedgerows, woods and scrubland. This extremely useful tree can be found throughout the countryside and its nuts are not only a valuable source of food, but its leaves were traditionally fed to livestock and its flexible branches were used in thatching, building fences and shelters and used for making hurdles, furniture, and firewood.

The Hazel was an important tree in ancient Ireland. It was known as the Tree of Knowledge and folklore has it that the Salmon of Knowledge gained the knowledge by eating nine hazelnuts. Hazel rods are said to offer protection against evil spirits, as well as being used for making wands and water-divining. Forked hazel twigs are still used by water diviners today.

Hazelnuts and hazelnut oil not only taste great but are a useful source of Vitamin B6 and thiamine (enhances energy). They are rich in Vitamin E, which is essential for a healthy heart and are an excellent source of protein, fibre, folate, calcium, magnesium and potassium. Although hazelnuts are relatively high in fat, they contain no cholesterol and like other varieties of nuts, they also contain antioxidant properties. Hazelnuts are also known for their high concentration of oleic acid, the same type of “good” fat that gives olive oil its beneficial cholestrol reducing properties. A cup of hazelnuts is said to supply a third of the daily iron requirements and surely the act of picking them will help reduce the waistline.

Nuts are generally ripe for the picking from September through to early November, but early pursuit is advised as birds and squirrels find them equally as tasty as us. Nuts usually grow in clusters of about 3 nuts at a time and the nuts themselves will be surrounded by a leafy green shell. Nuts are at their best when their shells harden and turn brown and they break easily from their husks so fallen nuts collected from the ground are sure to be ripe.

At first, it may be challenging to spot nut clusters amongst the leaves, but once you find your first bunch, your eye will soon tune in to others. Search inside bushes, as well as working around them. A walking stick can prove very handy to bend down the branches if used in conjunction with a basket or bag that stays open when you are picking. The great thing about nuts is that they are ready to eat straight from the tree and their kernel is quite sweet and crunchy when green, but even becomes tastier when you roast them. A nut-cracker could be a good tool to bring on a nut expedition for fear you nestle into a nutty tooth cracking session.

Once you have gathered your nuts, keep them in a dry, warm, airy place in their shells.

They keep best when stored in a single layer or alternatively tied up in a net bag. It is advisable to use up quickly, preferably by Christmas, as they tend to go rancid if stored longer.

Plain, roasted, salted or ground, there are endless amounts of recipes using hazelnuts. If you can manage to resist the temptation to crack and crunch straight from the tree, hazelnuts are very versatile.

They are equally suitable for both sweet and savoury dishes and can be incorporated into all kinds of imaginative recipes. Whole hazelnuts are excellent sprinkled on salads and in muesli and ground hazelnuts are great in breads, pastries, and confections and needless to say they marry particularly well with chocolate and coffee. They be can be used in stuffing mixes for vegetables or blended with other nuts to make a delicious nut roast. The possibilities are endless. Of course, hazel nuts are excellent when just cracked and eaten from the hand, or cracked and simply toasted with butter.


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