Due to the recent eating fascination of all things low carb nuts are now the new power food. Most are low in unsaturated fats and are a good source of protein, fiber and give a boost to energy levels. Hazelnuts in particular are a versatile nut. I like them best of all because of their distinct somewhat sharp taste.
Historians believe this nut to have originated in Asia which would make it one of the oldest agricultural food crops. Greeks and Romans once prized hazelnuts for their medicinal properties. The Celts equated hazelnuts with concentrated wisdom and poetic inspiration. Lore tells us that St. Patrick rid Ireland of serpents with a rod or branch of hazel. Magician’s wands are traditionally made out of the wood of this tree. There’s a lot of power and strength here.
Fast forward to today and we’re calling hazelnuts well, filberts. Let’s set the record straight. They are not the same but are close cousins. The misnomer may be thought by some historians to have originated from the Old English name, “full beard,” because of the long husk that entirely covers the nut in some varieties. Others thought the name was derived from St. Philibert; August 22, the day dedicated to the saint corresponds to the time, in England, of the ripening and harvesting of the earliest filberts er, ah, hazelnuts.
No matter, what we do know for sure is that there are over 100 known varieties grown throughout the world with the majority grown in Black Sea coast area of Turkey. In the United States, Oregon accounts for 99% of all hazelnut production in the United States primarily in the Willamette Valley. The best, though I’ve never tried them, come from Italy’s Piedmont region.
According to the Hazelnuts Growers of Oregon the nuts are high in dietary fiber, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, vitamin E, and 80 percent of its total fat is monounsaturated. These “good fats” are believed to lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. They also do not contain cholesterol.
Medical documents from about 1,800 years ago detail remedies using hazelnuts. An ointment of burnt hazelnut shells and bear suet was smeared on balding heads; a common cold remedy has the nut mixed with black pepper and a persistent cough was treated with a ground hazelnuts and honey. Not sure if there is any worth in this treatments.
Most of the magic of hazelnuts today is in its most frequent use–baking and confections—particularly in concert with chocolate.
For the record when you’re shopping in your local nut house be it the grocery or virtual shop Oregon nuts are reddish-brown, and the Turkish nuts are more chestnut-brown. It is acorn-shaped and about the size of a grape. The nut’s dark papery skin should be removed by toasting the nuts in a 325°F oven for about 8 to 10 minutes until their skins begin to crack. Watch carefully and closely and smell. When you start to smell them it means the oils are being released. Remove them and transfer the hot nuts to a kitchen towel and vigorously rub them together to remove most of the skin. It’s okay if there is some skin left behind. Let the nuts cool before incorporating into the recipe. It’s convenient too if you do prepare more nuts than you need as they can store easily the fridge or freezer. The baking expert Flo Braker, the author of several definitive books on baking, suggests freezing the roasted hazelnuts as the skins will easily flake off. It works, you just need to anticipate doing it.
My first introduction to hazelnuts came in the form of Nutella. This chocolate-hazelnut spread is to Italians what peanut butter is to Americans and vegemite is to Australians. According to company history, Nutella spread, was created in the 1940’s by Pietro Ferrero, a pastry maker and founder of the Ferrero company. One of the world’s largest chocolate producers it’s treats include Kinder Surprise Eggs, egg-shaped chocolates with tiny toys inside, Mon Cheri chocolates, Rocher chocolates, and Tic Tac breath mints.
Nutella, created during a wartime cocoa shortage, due to war rationing making chocolate a delicacy limited to a lucky few. So Ferrero mixed cocoa with toasted hazelnuts, cocoa butter and vegetable oils to create an economical spread of chocolate which he called “pasta gianduja” (pasta jon-du-ja).
But sole credit can’t be bestowed on Pietro. According to an 1996, Atlantic Monthly article Corby Kummer
writes about the happy marriage of chocolate and hazelnuts:
At the start of the nineteenth century, naval blockades imposed by the English against Napoleon reduced the supply of cacao arriving from the Americas. The chocolatiers of the Piedmont, which was under French occupation, used roasted and ground hazelnuts to extend their short supplies of cocoa solids. In the 1860s the company Caffarel, which still exists, wrapped the candies in gold or silver paper and gave them the name of a popular local marionette character, Giandoja, known for his merry gluttony. Their slim flatiron shape is said to recall the puppet’s cap, but it was probably adopted out of practicality–the paste is too viscous to be molded in any detail. Now every Italian chocolatier produces what have become known generically as gianduiotti. Few labels bear the character’s mask anymore, as the originals did, but the shape and the foil wrapping remain.
Hazelnuts also crest the top of that Italian silver-wrapped chocolate “kiss” of chocolate in Perugina’s Baci all wrapped in a love note in four languages—now that’s love. The Piedmont climate, where Baci manufactured, is an ideal for growing hazelnut trees since the requires a hilly terrain. Unfortunately their admiration is our loss for the country’s demand leaves little to nothing for export.
The small round nut makes appearances in many forms around the world. In Spain it takes the form of garlicky Romesco sauce a perfect suit for fish or grilled vegetables. In Egypt a flatbread dip known as dukkah is a welcome departure from everyday dips particularly if you dip the bread in high-quality olive oil and then into the spread.
However fusion desserts don’t get any better than this banana-hazelnut empanada delight couretsty of the Nutella website. It’s a bow to our Mexican neighbors and a kiss to Italy. I’ve also included my recipe for a homemade chocolate hazelnut spread. I love Nutella but once you try artisan strains in Italy you’ll want to make your own. Trust me it’s pretty powerful stuff.