Moving to the countryside Part 36: foraging for hazelnuts

A surprise windfall of hazelnuts leads to a cracking evening for editor Fergus Collins

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Since late July, the woods have been all a-rustle with the plunderings of grey squirrels. They enjoy beechmast but hazelnuts are the prize and the splintered shells rain down with a steady patter that gives me a sinking feeling. There’ll be none left by the time the nuts ripen. 

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Occasionally there are the false nuts – ones that look whole but upon cracking reveal only a shriveled brown memory of a nut inside. The cunning squirrels are able to smell this and so don’t blunt their teeth breaking in unnecessarily.  They ignaw them… (You’re fired – Ed)

My relatively near neighbour Rob Penn recommends trapping and eating the squirrels and so get your nuts that way. I respect that but it seems a tad extreme. I resigned myself to nutlessness.

So when I saw hundreds of whole hazelnuts along the canal towpath, I didn’t get excited. The paltry leavings of the squirrels, I thought. Until I trod on one in my size 10 wellies. Through the crushed shell gleamed a creamy white kernel –now splattered beyond medical help.

I tried another – it was perfect, too. These windfalls were, incredibly, untouched by the tooth of squirrel-kind. Within minutes I’d stuffed a couple of hundred into my pockets.

Later that evening, while watching tv, I cracked my way through them. Like all nut cracking, it’s a delicate process of removing the rock-hard shell without damaging the fragile treasure inside. I was watching Game of Thrones and so, during particularly tense or shocking scenes, I looked down to find the nut I was working on smashed to oblivion.

Still, by the end of it, I had enough whole nuts to cover a roasting tin. Why roast? Well, it improves the flavor by, give or take, 1,000 per cent. Essentially, it removes the water content making them crunchier and intensifying the nutty flavor.

I looked online for advice on how long to roast and at what temperature but couldn’t find any consistency. So I tried 200°C for 15 minutes, checking after 10. The smell of roasting nuts filled the house and I took them out to cool when they were a perfect shade of brown. And so delicious.

After immediately crushing a handful and sprinkling them on ice cream for the whole family, I stored the rest in an airtight jar.

Next day, I was back at the canal and filling a shopping bag. It’ll take the whole GoT boxset to crack through them though.

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Raw nuts prior to roasting

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After roasting. A few ‘disappeared’ at this stage – possibly squirrels

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The best place to keep your nuts is in an air-tight jar… (You’re rehired – Ed)