Nuts are a popular snack and ingredient around the world—not only for their taste but for the various health benefits they can provide when eaten in moderation. One nut, perhaps most well-known for being the key ingredient in a certain popular chocolate-hazelnut spread, is a large, red-brown nut called a hazelnut.
Grown in Europe and the US, hazelnuts are encased in a smooth, hard brown shell but are most commonly sold shelled. The sweet-tasting, cream-coloured kernel is small and round, with a pointed tip. Its thin, dark brown skin is faintly bitter, so some people like to remove this before eating.
Also known as cobnuts or filberts, hazelnuts are good eaten raw but the flavour takes on a more mellow, sweeter character when they are roasted. Like almost all nuts, they have a high fat content, which means they’ll go rancid pretty quickly if not refrigerated.
Among the top ten nuts, measured by worldwide consumption, hazelnuts are in sixth place. They follow the peanut, almond, walnut, cashew, and pistachio. (Yes, the peanut is not botanically a nut, but it’s counted as a nut for statistical purposes in this case.) Turkey is the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, with Italy, Spain, the U.S., and Greece being the other players in the world market. Something like a quarter of the world’s crop is used by Ferrero SpA, the Italian company that makes Nutella and other chocolate-hazelnut combinations.Once upon a time, these roundish nuts were of vital importance.
So, the hazelnut is a middling sort of nut, a treat more than a staple. And yet, once upon a time, these roundish nuts were of vital importance. That time spanned from the Mesolithic into the Bronze Age, 8,000 to 3,000 years ago, in northeastern Europe. Using Ireland as a case study of hazelnut exploitation, the archeologists Anne M. G. McComb and Derek Simpson, writing in the Ulster Journal of Archeology, explore the centrality of the nut to the diets of prehistoric peoples.
The secret to the historical success of the European hazel, Corylus avellana, was that it was one of the first temperate shrubs to colonize the land after the retreat of the ice sheets. In Ireland, Hazels established themselves about 10,000 years ago. Judging from pollen samples, they probably reached their peak spread about 8,000 years ago. After that, the arrival of broadleaf forest (oak and elm) would have overshadowed the low-growing hazels, forcing them to more peripheral habitat.
To get an idea of how prolific the European hazel can be, the authors surveyed a sample hazel about 4 meters tall. This particular plant was in County Down, in a hazel coppice, meaning it had been harvested for a long time. In late August, they counted 950 hazelnuts on the plant and another 20 unopened nuts on the ground. The majority of nuts fell in the first week of October, when 580 were retrieved from the ground. Wild boar (and, later, domesticated pigs) also would have eaten these nuts, as would numerous other mammal and bird species. Mesolithic peoples had competition.
But the hazel wasn’t just a source of food. Hazel wood was used for firewood and charcoal-making. It may also have been used for the “construction of dwellings, trackways, drying racks, fish weirs, fencing, palisades, etc.” The leaves also seem to have been an optional fodder for domesticated animals.
Now, there are several species of hazelnuts, including a couple native to North America. The American hazelnut and the beaked hazelnut were eaten by indigenous peoples on the continent. Extrapolating from this knowledge, McComb and Simpson write: “The wide versatility of the hazelnut kernel as demonstrated by the uses made of it by the North American indigenous peoples, indicates that […] the people of prehistoric Ireland had likely developed many different ways of processing hazelnut kernels.”
Because hazelnuts are so concentrated, a “rich source of fats, protein, and carbohydrates,” they’re an excellent energy source. However, they lack fiber and moisture, so eating them in excess can “cause digestive disturbances.” Peoples with access to them must have learned quickly to mix them with grains, meats, and vegetables. Best known now as a component of sweets, the hazelnut also has had an epic career in savories. Today, this versatility continues: hazelnuts also produce oil, flour, and liqueur.
Although it’s not a Mesolithic dish, the most sublime hazelnut combination—and this may be a subjective opinion—is with chocolate.
What Are Hazelnuts?
Hazelnuts (sometimes called filberts or filbert nuts) are nuts of any tree from the genus Corylus, especially Corylus avellana. Hazelnuts grow within protective husks, in clusters on hazelnut trees. When they ripen, the hazelnuts drop from the husks onto the ground, where they can be harvested. Both in-shell hazelnuts and shelled hazelnuts are available at grocery stores as ingredients for the kitchen.
The History of the Hazelnut
Archaeologists can date hazelnut consumption back almost 10,000 years ago to the ancient Mesolithic and Neolithic eras, when raw hazelnuts were a key part of the diet of hunter-gatherers. In ancient China (around 2000 BC), hazelnuts were considered a sacred food, and in ancient Greece (around 40 AD), the physician Dioscorides wrote that hazelnut paste could cure coughing, cold, and baldness.
In modern times, hazelnuts found a resurgence in popularity in 1946, when Italian Pietro Ferrero invented Nutella, a spreadable chocolate-hazelnut cream. Now, 25 percent of the global supply of hazelnuts is used by the European company Ferrero SpA to make Nutella and the hazelnut-based Ferrero Rocher chocolates.
Where Do Hazelnuts Grow?
Hazelnut trees are very hardy and can survive in climates prone to drought or cold temperatures (even without full sun), and as such they are widespread over North America (especially in Oregon), Europe, and Asia. The top three exporters of hazelnuts are Turkey, Italy, and the United States.
What Are the Different Ways to Eat or Cook with Hazelnuts?
Hazelnuts are a sweet and mild nut, and while they’re most popularly used in desserts, they are also versatile in the kitchen.
- In desserts. Hazelnuts are often chopped and used in desserts like pastries, pies, truffles, biscotti, cookies, tarts, and macaroons.
- In entrées. Try hazelnuts in savory meals, especially in traditional Italian food like pasta, ravioli, and pesto. Chopped hazelnuts are also common on top of salads and to coat fish or poultry.
- As flavoring. Hazelnut flavoring is one of the most popular flavors for coffee creamers, and it is also used to make hazelnut liqueur, which can be mixed into cocktails.
- Pressed. Hazelnuts can be pressed to produce hazelnut oil, which is used as a cooking oil in place of canola or olive oil.
- Ground. Hazelnuts can be ground up into hazelnut flour, which is used as a gluten-free alternative to wheat flour.
- Nut butter. Arguably the second-most common form of hazelnuts in the United States, hazelnut spread, hazelnut paste, and hazelnut butter are popular to use in desserts or as alternatives to peanut butter.
- Raw. While not as common, hazelnuts are a great snack food either raw or dry roasted.
What Are the Health Benefits of Hazelnuts?
Hazelnuts are filled with healthy fats and vitamins, and as such they offer a variety of health benefits. Hazelnuts are a good source of:
- Antioxidants. Hazelnuts are high in vitamin E and vitamin A.
- Monounsaturated fatty acids. These fatty acids are recommended as the healthiest fats to consume for a healthy heart, and they can also help regulate cholesterol levels and blood sugar.
- Dietary fiber. Hazelnuts are high in dietary fiber, which contributes to overall gastrointestinal health.
Buy, Care & Store
Hazelnuts in their shells look good, but they will go rancid more quickly. Ready-shelled nuts in airtight packaging last longer. Unopened packets of hazelnuts should be stored in a cool, dry place – they’ll last for up to 3 months. Once opened, they should be kept in an airtight container.
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Buy, Care and Store
Food Safety is critically important to the Walnut Industry. Walnuts are grown and processed under strict quality control standards in order to deliver a high quality product for you and your family to enjoy year round.