Hazel (Corylus avellana) is a very common plant, appearing in hedgerows, parks, woodland, and everywhere in between. It is a small tree, with multiple thin stems and branches, and round broad leaves that are pointed at the end. In spring, before the leaves appear, they produce catkins; long, drooping flower-spikes with no petals. The hazelnuts appear in August, sheathed in bracts in clusters of three or four. Beginning green and fresh, the young nuts can be eaten, though do not keep. They darken as the season progresses, falling from the tree when fully ripe, and can be found through until late October. Although hazelnuts are quite distinctive, as ever do not eat it if you are not 100% sure.
Hazel coppicing has been practised for centuries, whereby a thick trunk is cut to encourage multiple thinner stems to appear. These stems would be used as material for fences, and other constructions such as wattle-and-daub walls. Managing an area of woodland by coppicing can extend the life-span of the tree, as well as promoting healthy biodiversity.
In mythology, hazel has been linked with knowledge and wisdom, and there are several versions of a story where nine hazel trees grew by a sacred pool, dropping nuts in the water, that were then eaten by salmon, who thereby absorbed the wisdom. Nutritionally, they are high in protein and unsaturated fat.
Squirrels, of course, are your main rival for this protein, and do tend to get to a large number of the nuts before you have even noticed they are there. If you are lucky enough to get a decent haul, they will keep (if ripe) in their shells for several months.
I’ve come to see that hazelnuts are a complicated nut, and a formidable opponent. Many of the most promising looking ones are empty. A lot of them have tiny holes in the shell, made by the emerging larvae of the hazelnut weevil (Curculio nucum), which should mean that there is no nut in there. This, I learn, is not necessarily the case, and one must crack it open to make sure. A lot of them make no sound when shaken, an indication that there is no nut. Again, not true, and more cracking ensues. In fact, hazelnuts are somewhat like Schrödinger’s Cat in that there both is and isn’t a nut until one opens the shell, collapsing the quantum state, and sending bits of shell all over the floor. It is also true that there is a direct inverse correlation between the effort needed to get into a nut and the likelihood of there being anything edible inside.
They can be eaten raw or roasted. They add a lovely flavour to savoury or sweet dishes, are great in cakes and breads, and (of course) can be infused into booze to make your own liqueur.
This is by far and away my favourite way of using hazelnuts. Once you have removed the nuts from their shells, it is quick and easy to do, and can be served on ice-cream, alongside roasted game, or simply spread on hot toast.
Hazelnuts – you will need quite a lot to make any significant amount of nut butter, but it is worth it.
I tend to take the skins off as they can impart a bitterness. To do this, roast at a medium temperature for 15 – 20 minutes until the skins are starting to darken and blister (they’ll burn easily, so keep an eye on them), and then wrap them in a tea towel. Allow to cool for a few minutes, then rub the bundle between your hands for all you’re worth. The skins should flake off, and you can fish out the peeled nuts. Not all the skin will come off, no matter how vigorous you are, but do what I do and ignore this.
Place the nuts in a food processor, and blitz until a rough paste in formed. Scrape down the sides, and then repeat, until you achieve your desired consistency; from crunchy to smooth. The nut butter will store in an airtight jar, in the fridge, for a few weeks.