Hazelnuts are the most important nut for foragers because of their quick growth, high yields and the fact that they grow wild anywhere where they’ve been used for hedging or coppicing. In the UK, that’s practically everywhere. If you’d like to grow some, they mature quickly and can tolerate most soils, although they don’t like to be waterlogged.
If you encounter hazelnuts or filberts in the wild, they’ll almost certainly be fresh and green: the squirrels don’t generally miss wild nuts for long enough for them to ripen. Pick them by hand, crack them between your teeth, and scoff them straight down; if you find a lot (and the chances are you won’t) you can open them with a nutcracker at home, but they’re definitely worth eating green. To become the familiar brown-skinned nuts you see in the supermarkets they have to grow to full maturity and dry out a bit, and that means growing them as a crop, well away from squirrels.
If you want to plant some trees for the nuts, you’ll need at least two trees (preferably different varieties) as they’re not self-fertile: choose cultivars with higher yields than the common Kent Cobb, such as Corabel or EMOA1. They are wind-pollinated, and should be spaced about 4.5m (15’) apart. If you’re within 30m (100’) of any squirrel habitat, they’ll be all over the trees like a rash, so beware! They quickly form a dense screen for privacy, with main branches sturdy enough to tolerate swings or climbing children.
Hazel trees planted as one-year maidens begin to bear in three or four years with good yields a couple of years after that, but by maturity, when they’ll be around 3.5-5m (10-17’) high, you can expect up to 10kg of nuts from each tree. They don’t have to be pruned, but if you have the space you might wish to plant more trees and coppice a few at a time so that each tree is done every six years, which lets in more light and keeps everything looking well maintained as well as giving you a supply of sticks for arches, tunnels, plant supports and kindling.
Once your trees really get going, hand picking will no longer be an option. Instead, wait for them to drop and then rake them up. Pick through the nuts discarding any that are damaged or holed, and removing the leafy husks. Holes in the nuts mean you have nut weevils, and the easiest way to control these is to run chickens under the trees from May to July when these pests are emerging.
If you’re considering planting hazelnuts but aren’t quite sure whether to take the plunge, visit the Kentish Cobnuts Association for further information and lists of suppliers – both for the saplings and for the nuts themselves.
Shelling small amounts of nuts is easy enough with an ordinary nutcracker, but if you have a lot to get through it is easier to use a hammer and a clear plastic bag tied or sealed at the top. Spread the nuts out in a single layer and tap each one with a hammer until you hear it pop – with practice you will learn just how hard to hit them, and should crush hardly any. When you’re done tip the contents of the bag out into a baking tray and remove all the large fragments of nut shell, and then pick the shelled nuts out into a sieve and give them a good shake to remove any dust. Any uncracked nuts go back into the bag for processing with the next batch.
Hazelnuts are fine to eat as they are, but for the best flavour you need to roast and skin them. Spread a single layer of nuts out in a shallow roasting tin or tray, and bake in a preheated oven at 140C (275F, gas mark 1) for around 20 minutes. To remove the slightly bitter skins, heap them straight from the hot oven into the centre of a dampened tea towel (dish towel) and fold it up around them, then leave them for two minutes to steam before giving them a really good rub with the towel, which will release most of the skins.
Roasted hazelnuts will store in sealed bags in the freezer for at least a year (some sources say two years), but you can also keep them in sealed containers in the fridge for six months. Whichever method you choose, make sure you allow the nuts to come up to room temperature in the sealed container or bag before using them, otherwise they lose their crunch.