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  • Writer's pictureThe Wild Foodie

The Hazel Tree: A Cornucopia of Edible Delights

The Hazel tree, scientifically known as Corylus avellana, is a remarkable species that has been revered for centuries in the United Kingdom for its myriad uses and bountiful harvests. This versatile tree is native to Europe and parts of Asia, thriving in temperate climates and moist, well-drained soils. Whilst it is appreciated for its timber, hedging capabilities, and ecological importance, it is the tree's edible offerings that truly captivate enthusiasts. In this comprehensive exploration of the Hazel tree, we will delve into its historical significance, detailed description, cultivation, and above all, its delectable nuts and their culinary applications.

The Hazel Tree
The Hazel Tree

Historical Significance and Folklore

The Hazel tree holds an esteemed position in British folklore and mythology, with references dating back to ancient times. In Celtic mythology, it was associated with wisdom and poetic inspiration, often depicted as a magical tree that bore nuts of knowledge. In British folklore, it was believed that Hazel trees had protective properties, guarding against evil spirits and witches. The tree was even said to bring luck to those who planted it near their homes.

The nuts themselves have been a staple in the British diet for thousands of years.

Archaeological evidence suggests that they were consumed by prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies, and they were a significant food source for early British civilisations. The Celts and Romans regarded Hazelnuts as symbols of fertility, abundance, and good fortune. Hazelnuts have even been discovered in the ashes of ancient Roman settlements in Britain, attesting to their popularity as a foodstuff in antiquity.

Hazel Tree Identification

Hazel trees (Corylus species) are native to the UK and can be easily identified by their distinctive characteristics. Here's a guide to identifying hazel trees:

Hazel Tree Leaves
Hazel Tree Leaves

Leaves: Hazel tree leaves are rounded with a slightly heart-shaped base. They have a serrated or toothed edge and a pointed tip. The leaves are usually soft and green, measuring around 6 to 12 centimetres in length.

Bark: The bark of mature hazel trees is smooth and greyish-brown, with shallow fissures or lenticels. Younger trees may have smoother and lighter-coloured bark.

Catkins: Hazel trees produce catkins, which are long, pendulous, cylindrical clusters of flowers. These catkins are usually yellow or yellowish-brown in colour and appear in late winter or early spring before the leaves emerge. Male catkins are longer and more conspicuous, while female catkins are smaller and less noticeable. The catkins are a great way to spot a stand of hazel on winter walks!

Hazel Tree Catkins
Hazel Tree Catkins

Hazelnuts: Hazelnuts, the fruits of hazel trees, are small round nuts that grow in clusters, typically enclosed in a leafy husk. The nuts themselves are light brown with a hard, woody shell. Hazelnuts mature and become ripe from late summer to early autumn.

Growth habit: Hazel trees often have multiple trunks and grow in dense clusters or stands. They can reach heights of 3 to 8 metres, depending on the species and growing conditions.

Habitat: Hazels thrive in a variety of habitats, including woodlands, hedgerows, and open areas. They prefer well-drained soil and partial shade but can tolerate a range of conditions.

When identifying hazel trees, it's helpful to consider a combination of these characteristics, including the leaves, bark, catkins, and nuts. Taking note of the tree's surroundings and habitat can also provide additional clues for accurate identification.

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Foraging Hazelnuts

Foraging hazelnuts can be a delightful and rewarding experience. Hazel trees (Corylus species) are native to the UK and can be found in woodlands, hedgerows, and even some urban areas. Here's a brief guide on foraging hazelnuts:

Season and timing: Hazelnuts are typically ready for harvest in the late summer or early autumn, usually from August to October. Keep an eye on the trees during this period to catch them at their peak ripeness and before the squirrels see them!

Locating hazelnut trees: Look for hazelnut trees in woodlands, hedgerows, parks, and other natural areas. They prefer well-drained soil and partial shade. Hazel trees often grow in clusters or stands, and their distinctive leaves and catkins (flowers) make them relatively easy to spot.

Harvesting hazelnuts: Hazelnuts are ready for harvest when the husks turn brown or golden and begin to split open. You can gather fallen nuts from the ground or gently shake the branches to dislodge ripe nuts. Collect the nuts along with their husks to help protect them during transportation.

Husking and processing: Once you have collected hazelnuts, remove the husks by hand or use a glove to rub them off. It's essential to handle the nuts gently to avoid damaging them. After husking, let the nuts dry for a few weeks, or cure, in a well-ventilated area to reduce moisture content and enhance their flavour and shelf life.

Storing and using hazelnuts: Store dried hazelnuts in a cool, dry place in airtight containers to prevent them from becoming rancid. Roasting the nuts can enhance their flavour and make them easier to shell. You can enjoy hazelnuts as a snack, use them in baking, or incorporate them into various dishes like salads, pestos, or desserts.

Edible Delights: Hazelnuts in British Cuisine

Hazelnuts, also known as cobnuts or filberts, are the true culinary treasure of the Hazel tree. In the UK, they have been cherished for their unique flavour and versatility in various traditional dishes and confections. Let's explore some of the ways in which hazelnuts are used in UK cuisine:

Snacking: Hazelnuts are a delightful snack on their own, providing a satisfying crunch and a rich, nutty taste. They can be enjoyed roasted, salted, or simply raw.

Baking: Hazelnuts are a popular ingredient in baking, adding texture and flavour to a wide array of recipes. From classic hazelnut cakes and cookies to indulgent chocolate-hazelnut spreads, they bring a delightful nuttiness to sweet treats.

Roasting and Cooking: Roasted Hazelnuts add depth and a nutty aroma to savoury dishes. They can be finely chopped and used as a coating for meats, added to stuffing mixes, or sprinkled over salads and vegetable dishes.

Nut Butters: Hazelnuts can be ground into a smooth and creamy nut butter, offering a delicious and nutritious alternative to traditional spreads. Hazelnut butter is a versatile ingredient, perfect for spreading on toast, adding to smoothies, or using as a dip for fruits and vegetables.

Traditional Delicacies: In the UK, Hazelnuts have been used in traditional delicacies such as the famous Kentish cobnut tart, where the nuts are combined with sweet pastry and a rich filling. Additionally, Hazelnuts have been a key ingredient in Christmas confections like marzipan and nougat.

Health Benefits of Hazelnuts

Hazel Nuts in their husks
Hazelnuts in their husks

Beyond their culinary appeal, Hazelnuts offer numerous health benefits. They are a rich source of healthy fats, including monounsaturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids, which are known to support heart health. Hazelnuts are also packed with dietary fibre, vitamins (such as vitamin E and B vitamins), minerals (including magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium), and antioxidants. Incorporating Hazelnuts into a balanced diet can contribute to improved cholesterol levels, reduced inflammation, and overall well-being.

Summing Up

The Hazel tree, with its historical significance and abundance of edible delights, continues to capture the imaginations of people across the UK. From its mystical associations in folklore to its versatile culinary uses, the Hazel tree and its nuts have played an integral role in British culture and cuisine. Whether enjoyed as a simple snack, a flavourful addition to baked goods, or a key ingredient in traditional delicacies, Hazelnuts offer a unique and delectable experience. So, the next time you stroll through a British woodland or encounter a Hazel tree in a garden, take a moment to appreciate its edible bounty and the rich tapestry of flavours it brings to our lives.

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