Corylus Cornuta

by John Brouwer

Every year the co-op experiences a struggle between man and beast. Sometime in the last week of August, a few co-op members and the squirrels keep our eyes on the hazelnut bush beside Unit 46. The trick is to gather hazelnuts just before the squirrels decide the nuts are ripe. Missing by a day gives the squirrels just enough time to harvest the whole bush. Harvesting too early results in a bitter immature nut. If no one notices them, the nuts will be gone in 24 hours and the squirrels will have won again. This year I heard the squirrels in the tree one morning and managed to pick about 50 nuts before I had to leave for work. By the time I got back in the evening the bush had been picked clean. These 50 nuts are now planted in the tree nursery and are protected by a layer of mesh and wood chips to keep out those pesky critters.

Hazelnuts, also known as filberts, are an edible nut delicacy. There are hazelnut species throughout the world's temperate climate and they are used as food wherever they occur. The local native species are beaked hazelnut and American hazelnut.

Hazelnuts are grown commercially in southern British Columbia and Oregon. The commercial hazelnut is a European species characterized by large nuts with thin hulls which foster machine harvesting. BC produces about one million pounds per year. Commercial growers also face stiff competition from squirrels and other rodents and employ all types of sound systems to keep them away. The European hazelnut needs the mild winters and cooler summers of the coast. Commercial cultivation in other regions of the country has been unsuccessful. The problem appears to be cyclical heavy and light crops rather than the reliable annual heavy crops required for commercial success.

North Americans used the name filberts. But when the American commercial growers tried to export filberts into Europe they couldn't find a receptive market as the local native nut was named hazelnut. Following the old adage "when in Rome do as the Romans" the Americans changed the name of their product to hazelnut and developed a reliable European market.

In parts of Europe, truffles are grown with hazelnuts as they are an edible symbiotic fungus which finds a hospitable environment in the soils hazelnut orchards under the right climatic conditions.

The hazelnut was one of the first trees to establish itself on Europe's post-glacier soils.

A Mesolithic waste pit on the island of Colonsay in Scotland was found to contain the remains of hundreds of thousands burned hazelnut shells. Carbon dating placed the site around 7,000 BC making it some 9,000 years old. Similar sites have also been found in other areas of northern Europe.

Some 6000 years later the Greeks developed unique medicinal uses for hazelnut. The Greek physician Dioscorides prescribed a cream of ground hazelnuts and suet on the pate to cure baldness.

Over the last decade foodies have found hazelnut. Most of us have experienced the complementary tastes of hazelnut with chocolate and kids still go for Nutella. But foodies describe hazelnut as follows;

"The rich flavors of the Northwest - robust Pacific salmon, musky mushrooms from foggy forest floors, cranberries from the coast, cherries from orchards along the Columbia River, onions from the high desert east of the Cascades - all find a complement in the earthy, elegant hazelnut.

Raw, its grassy overtones and creamy texture complement a Pinot Gris. Roasted, packing flavors of browned butter and the bite of tannin, hazelnuts venture into Chardonnay or even Pinot Noir territory.

Without all the hyperbole, hazelnuts should be roasted in a 275 degree Fahrenheit oven for about 20 minutes to develop their flavour. They can then be added to desserts and salads and added as a flavouring agent to main courses.

The Greeks did get the nutritional aspects of hazelnut right. They are an excellent source of vitamin E, dietary fiber, magnesium , the B vitamins, and antioxidants. Even the US Food and Drug Administration has gone so far as to state that "Scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove, that eating 1.5 ounces per day of most nuts, such as hazelnuts, as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol, may reduce the risk of heart attack." Others classify hazelnuts as one of the super foods rich in the antioxidants which "mop-up up the free radicals in the bloodstream that can eventually lead to other diseases."

So if you want to get some healthy heart food, keep your eye on the hazelnut bush beside unit 46 next August. If the squirrels keep winning, we made need to install a propane sound cannon to protect this pharmacopoeia – the members in blocks 9 & 10 may want to have some input into that strategy!

September 2010