Hazelnuts, history – and a sweet treat

Phew. This is the foraging season par excellence, and I’m knackered. It’s a spectacularly good wild food year (so far) and this will be the first of several posts devoted to the art of getting something – at least partly – for free. It’s a wonderful year for nuts especially – a ‘mast’ year, when trees go into overproduction. Nobody really knows why it happens although there are many ideas floating about, but the net result as far as I am concerned is that the squirrels can’t keep up (and that’s one of the theories – overproduce, and some will be left to grow). But this also means that there’s a vague chance of me gathering some hazelnuts too.

Nearby are some woods where the hazels are both productive and accessible; some years I’m lucky and beat the squirrels and foraging dog walkers to the bounty, but I didn’t need to go there this time. I was in a friend’s garden a couple of weeks ago, near the woods,  and I suddenly realised I was walking on a carpet of nuts. My friend didn’t want them (?), so I gathered as many as I could – a sort-of public service, helping her tidy her garden.

hazelnutsAs I sat in front of the television cracking the nuts, such a boring job, it struck me that I was simply doing what inhabitants of this area have been doing for time out of mind, and indeed what the prehistoric inhabitants of most of Britain would have been doing at this time of year. Except they wouldn’t have been in a comfy cottage watching Strictly (go Dave Myers!); they’d probably have been sitting outside a bender-like home and listening to someone telling stories about how the land their father used to hunt over was now too wet to walk on.

Once archaeology has bitten you in the ankle, in my case at the age of about six, it never lets go. The Mesolithic – the period just before the development of farming (if you can draw clear boundaries at all), when there was extraordinary environmental change – has always been my passion; let’s say broadly from about 9000BP to about 5000BP, depending on where you are. Hunter-gathering always held more appeal for me than a settled, farming life with the growth of hierarchy; it was a world I could relate to. And one of the major food resources exploited by the Mesolithic people of Britain was – drum roll, please – the hazelnut.

Like us, they’d have foraged for them at this time of year. Their harvest could have been stored (roast nuts store quite well, and many of the hazelnut shells retrieved from archaeological sites have been burnt), or they might have been processed in some way for future consumption – ground and made into a paste, perhaps. It’s also noticeable that the spread of hazel and the spread of people seem to keep pace; they were clearly a vital resource. There’s even some speculation that the growth of hazel was deliberately encouraged by setting fires which would clear the land. This would also make hunting easier – a double benefit – and there’s no way of telling (yet) which came first; they seem to be simultaneous. At Goldcliff East on the Severn Estuary there’s evidence of this firesetting, plus of the actual preparation of hazelnuts, plus – amazing, this – the direct traces of the Mesolithic people themselves: footprints. And we know hazels flourished in Doggerland before it was drowned; analysis of peat dredged up from the North Sea tells us this. And of course it wasn’t only the nuts; the bendy, flexible wood was useful for many things, too.

As befits such an ancient food, hazelnuts crop up in legend, myth and superstition all the time. Hazelnut shells can be used in divination on Halloween; the wood was sacred and used to kindle the need-fire at Beltane; the ‘milk’ of hazelnuts might be given to Scottish children born in autumn as their first drink because it would bring them good luck and health. In Celtic myth they’re a signifier of wisdom. Even in Victorian times ‘nutting’ had a suitably, er, outrageous and almost pagan reputation. In Flora Britannica there’s a reprinted complaint from the owner of Hatfield Forest: ‘…as soon as the Nuts begin to get ripe … the idle and disorderly Men and Women of bad Character from Stortford … come … in large parties’ – and got up to all sorts of things, and not just picking hazelnuts, ahem, ahem, filth. Disgusting.

I’d probably class as a Disorderly Woman, certainly when I was whooping about my friend’s garden, scooping up nuts. So what did I do with my haul? Recreate a Mesolithic house in my own garden and sit outside it, contemplating the level of the Irish Sea? Nah. When it came to it, I didn’t have that many – the nuts are often blind, and some of the ones I picked up had also been there too long. In the end I adapted a River Cottage recipe.

Toasted hazelnuts in honey hazelnuts

A quantity of hazelnuts
clear honey
Greek yoghurt

You never know how many hazelnuts you are going to have, so just adapt the recipe to suit. Find a small jar (or several if you’ve been lucky), and put it in a low oven to sterilise it while you shell the nuts (you can also sterilize a jar in a pan of boiling water, more economical and practical unless you have shedloads of nuts). Allow the jar to cool. Rub any loose skin off the shelled nuts.

Put a dry frying pan on the heat and put the hazelnuts in it. Roast the nuts, shaking them about so they don’t burn. When they begin to smell warm and toasty, take the pan off the heat and tip them onto a plate. Put a layer of nuts into the bottom of the jar, and add a teaspoon of honey, then more hazelnuts and so on, until you have run out of nuts, making sure they are covered in honey. Press the nuts down into the honey; they will float upwards, but just keep pressing them down as you use them (this is why you need a small jar). Cover the jar and set aside.

This mixture is absolutely delicious spooned over Greek yoghurt – you don’t need much, either. I tested them over ice cream (briefly – I’m lactose intolerant, after all) and found them too sweet, but that’s another suggestion. And they’re perfect on porridge, at least according to me…

And I’ve no idea how long they’ll keep because – well, because I’m eating them fairly quickly. I’d have starved to death in the Mesolithic.

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