Hazelnut trees can be found all over our Northwest woodlands and the hedgerows of older farms, they are our native species of nut. Through the centuries these nuts have supplied so much more than just food for settlers and natives. They have long been associated with wisdom, even magic, and everything from witches' wands, to royal sceptres and water dowsing rods were made from their precious and pliable wood.
The common wild hazel grows in abundance all over the Northwest, and seeking out its nuts is one of the easiest foraging jobs, (alongside blackberrying, which you can often do at the same time). Fresh, green hazelnuts are crisp, and slightly sweet, an utter delight when compared to the dried store bought ones.
Right now is the time to harvest as the nuts are falling from the trees, you will have to be quick to beat the squirrels. When you know what a hazelnut tree looks like, you will see them everywhere. Last week I went hazelnut and filbert picking next to where I work, these are the pictures of the trees I picked from and the nuts once I shelled them.
Below is a picture of what the nuts look like growing on a branch.
Pictured are both filberts, the longer pecan looking ones,
and hazelnuts the traditional round cobby ones.
If you don't have time to gather your own hazelnuts at this time of year, you will find them in farmers' markets where they sell commercially cultivated nuts. They're bigger than wild hazelnuts, but just as delicious when very fresh, check the frilly casing that it's not too dried out.
Along with hazelnuts, there are also filberts, the difference between the two is that hazelnuts are round with short, frilly husks that expose the end of the nut, while filberts are longer, thinner and covered by their husks – their name comes from St Philbert's Day on August 22nd, the date when hazelnuts are supposed to start ripening. .
Once you've eaten your fill of fresh hazelnuts, dry any you have left over. Store in a dry, airy room or shed in shallow layers in slatted boxes, or hang them up in mesh bags. Turn them regularly, or give the bag a shake, to ensure they're drying evenly and, once dry, remove the husks and store in a cool, dry place. And then you'll have hazelnuts!
Dried hazelnuts and filberts are a great addition to all kinds of dishes – toasting brings out their yummy flavours. Whole or chopped, they add crunch to autumn salads and stuffing's; ground, they're very good in biscuits and cakes, particularly when paired with chocolate. I definitely have squirrel-like tendencies this time of year as I harvest and stash in preparation for winter's cold.