I have a large hazelnut tree in my back courtyard, it’s tender leaves turning what would be an unbearable hotspot into an oasis. We have had countless meals under its branches, my children climbed up its smooth, bent trunk for years, my daughter’s best treasure hunt was collecting hazelnuts, prying them out from between bricks, behind firewood and flower pots, and I have loved every stage of its development, from the time it was a nimble branch that I stuck in the ground, to its golden maturity now.
The Ancient Hazelnut
Hazelnuts are ancient, appearing even before the first mammals did. In France it is likely they have simply always been present, though I like to think that the Vikings brought them, and the Gauls used their branches for shelter. Or, who k nows, perhaps it was Julius Cesar who contributed the hazelnut to France. They’re everywhere in Normandy as a wild plant, not one that is cultivated. It’s always amazed me that they aren’t part of the regional cuisine. But honestly? The Normans are fixated on their walnuts, their shellfish, their dairy products so I guess it’s forgivable they’ve overlooked the hazelnut.
Overlooked Nut, Not Tree
While the nut may be overlooked, the tree isn’t. Norman farmers incorporated it into the mix of trees and shrubs they used to create the “bocage” or hedges that surrounded their fields to define and protect them. Having tried to keep my own hazelnut in check I understand its tough, supple contribution. It was a large part of what confounded the Allies during World War II as they tried to ram their tanks through the bocage on their way to Paris, and were foiled by its strength.
Hazelnut in French Cuisine
While the hazelnut may not figure largely in Norman cuisine, it does in French cuisine as a whole, to the tune of 20,000 tons per year. Hazelnuts are turned into praline and folded into cakes and creams, sprinkled atop pastries, folded into doughs, ground into a paste and used to flavor yogurt, and are indispensable to the French chocolate maker. Of all the nuts I’ve eaten, the hazelnut remains my favorite, perhaps thanks to my tree which produces the finest I know.
Here we eat hazelnuts fresh, before they are mature, as a tease to the new season. A fresh hazelnut is a thing of wonder, for it is bright white, milky, tender but wetly crisp and so magically weird that you can’t stop eating them. In a few weeks they will have dried on the trees and become the hazelnut we know and love, but smart growers pick kilos of fresh ones first to tempt us all.
Get Some, Quick
If you can find some of these get them, quick. I love to eat them as is, or slice and put atop freshly cooked green beans, or in a salad, on fish or as part of a bowl of grains like quinoa or spelt. They’re good any time, any place. If you cannot get them, soak dried hazelnuts in water for about 2 hours. The result will give you a similar flavor and effect.