Cobnuts, Filberts and Hazelnuts

Cobnuts, Filberts and Hazelnuts – what’s the difference?  The words are widely interchangeable, with Hazelnuts being the most generic.  Cobnuts are hazelnuts that are cultivated for consumption, sold fresh rather than dried; the nuts are usually larger – longer, more ovoid, than wild hazelnuts.  Filberts are a subsection of Cobnuts, to be classed as a Filbert the husk must completely enclose the nut.  The confusion is not helped by the fact that the most popular variety to be cultivated, Lambert’s Filbert, is commonly known as a Kentish Cobnut.

Hazels are the nut most suited to the British climate as, unlike sweet chestnuts or walnuts, they will set a crop even in the worst summers.  The catkins, which appear in spring, are the male flowers and wind is sufficient to pollinate the inconspicuous red female flowers on the same branch.  Although the ideal soil for hazels is said to be a deep, damp, limestone, they survive in a wide variety of situations and are present in woodland and hedgerow all of the British Isles, forming multi-stemmed thickets that may be harvested for bean or pea sticks.  Left un-pruned the tree would eventually grow to about 20ft, but if you intend to harvest the nuts it is better to keep them at a height of no more than 7ft.  At this height they can form an under-storey beneath oaks or beeches.

One of the main reasons that cobnuts became associated so closely with Kent is that they were harvested just before hops, so the same pickers moved from one crop to the other.  Also the soil around the Sevenoaks area seems particularly to suit them – not limestone but a free-draining, pH neutral, Ragstone.

If you are hoping to eat the nuts you will have to deal with your main competitor – grey squirrels.  They will strip a tree in no time.  Eating the squirrels is one option, their flesh is, unsurprisingly given their diet, quite nutty in flavour and so the two flavours combine well on the plate.

Hazelnuts produce delicious oil with which to dress salads.  It has been available mail-order from Hurstwood Farm for the last couple of years and this year is joined by a deluxe roasted nut version.  When fresh the flesh of cobnuts is crunchy yet slightly milky.  Eat them just as they are, with cheese or, if you have plenty, as the star ingredient in a Cobnut tart. Roasting the nuts intensifies the flavour, a point to bear in mind when cooking with them. After roasting grind only what you need for immediate consumption as the nuts will store better whole.  For the same reason, when buying any nut oil do check carefully that you are getting the latest vintage as it goes rancid fairly quickly.  Keep in a cool place and use ideally within three months but certainly before the start of the next season.

There really is no reason why, as a country, we should not become self-sufficient in hazelnuts.  Nuts are extremely good for us, and if we produced more we might be greater users of them.  Here are some quick ideas and classic pairing, for more detail see Recipes.

Cobnut classic combinations:

Cheese – serve fresh cobnuts or include them in the accompanying bread

Damsons/Plums – in season at the same time, try a proportion of cobnuts in a crumble topping

Chocolate – the Piedmont region of Italy is famed for its hazelnut chocolate (Gianduia)

Honey – hazelnuts are often preserved in a jar of honey

Raspberries – autumn raspberries with hazelnut meringue

Herb of the Month – Rosemary

Being a hardy perennial with luck you will be able to harvest Rosemary all year round making it hard to pinpoint one month to which it is most relevant.  However in early September, if I have not done so before, I make a final trimming of the Rosemary bush to infuse it in oil.  Why preserve it if you can pick it all year?  Well, the oil is great for roasting potatoes, basting lamb, or drizzling over just cooked Focaccia and in all of these recipes the leaves are apt to burn if you add them directly.

Rosemary with lamb is a classic combination with good reason, but there are many more culinary uses for Rosemary that deserve to be better known.  It can be used in sweet as well as savoury dishes, being a particularly good partner to chocolate.  I also love it in bread or with sweeter vegetables like squash (this is where the oil comes in handy again).

Growing Rosemary

Being evergreen, Rosemary is just as popular in the garden as it is in the kitchen – possibly more so, as I can think of several bushes that are grown without any thought of eating them.  The most popularly grown variety is “Miss Jessop’s Upright” which has densely packed dark green needles with pale blue flowers.  There are many other varieties, some with pink or white flowers, some with a prostrate habit making them suitable for trailing over a wall.  It is usually quite easy to grow, although since moving to a more exposed area I have lost several young plants in harsh winters.  If you are in a similar position you might want to protect the plant with horticultural fleece in winter, or grow it against a wall to give some shelter. If you want to cut the plant back further than just a light trimming, the best time to do so is late spring, after it has flowered.  Never do so if there any danger of frosts.  You can take cuttings of softwood in the spring, or semi-hardwood later in the summer, to propagate new plants.  It is worth doing this every 5 years to ensure you always have an established healthy plant growing.  Like most herbs that originated in the Mediterranean, Rosemary needs a well-drained soil and a sunny position.  Planting it near Sage is said to be generally beneficial to the sage.

Medicinal and Other Uses

The essential oils of rosemary have anti-bacterial and antifungal properties.  It was burnt in sick chambers to freshen and purify the air, worn in neck pouches to sniff during the Plague and, in Victorian times, carried in the hollow handles of walking stick for the same reason.  How effective this was I’m not sure!  You will also find rosemary in herbal shampoos as it has a reputation as a hair tonic.  An infusion used for the final rinse after washing dark hair is said to improve the shine.

There are numerous other reputed medicinal properties including as a remedy for headaches if applied directly to the head, an insect repellent, a mouthwash for halitosis, reducing flatulence, and stimulation of the digestive tract.  The essential oil should never be taken internally, nor large doses of the leaves.  An infusion should contain no more than a teaspoon of leaves per cup.


Rosemary Oil

Boned Leg of Lamb cooked over the fire

Rosemary Crème Anglais

Rosemary Focaccia

Spelt, Rosemary and Raisin Bread

Time for greater diversity in our orchards?

The prolonged cold and wet weather this spring resulted in poor pollination of many fruit and vegetables.  Apple harvests are, on average, about 30% down but hardest hit will have been those growers who put all their eggs in one basket by concentrating on just one or two commercial varieties.   But this is not the only reason we should be reviewing the way we grow orchard fruit nowadays.  Research carried out in Germany by Hans-Joachim Bannier and published on the Diversity website suggests that the dominance of just six varieties worldwide is having a longer term affect on their vitality, contributing to their dependence on chemical fungicides.

Commercial orchards may be sprayed with chemicals up to 30 times a year, such is the range of pests and diseases that can afflict them coupled with the supermarket requirement for blemish free apples.  You are unlikely to find organically certified top-fruit grown in this country and there is controversy over whether those certified in other countries would be generally accepted as organic here.  For example, one method is to build a “firewall” against disease by spraying trees around the perimeter so that those fruit within that perimeter can be classified as organic.

Bannier’s research highlights the fact that at the time most countries made their decision about which varieties to grow commercially the key considerations were factors such as shelf-life, hardiness for transportation and crop yields, but little consideration was given to disease because of the easy availability of chemicals to deal with this.  Where disease was considered, such as scab, this was dealt with by including crab apple in the cross, but unfortunately, because everyone used the same variety, we have ended up relying on a single gene and resistance based on a single gene is not particularly stable.

Many growers are not even aware of the extent to which the varieties they grow draw on such a small gene pool.  New varieties advertise the immediate parentage, but rarely go back much further.  Tracing a few generations quickly shows the extent to which the world’s commercial varieties share many of the same genes.  By far the most commonly used “ancestor variety” is Golden Delicious – 347 times crossed into a total of 255 of the 500 varieties examined by Bannier.  Yet Golden Delicious is particularly susceptible to scab, a fact which Bannier considers the root cause of the majority of scab problems in modern orchards.  In contrast he notes that there are orchards growing older varieties that thrive virtually scab-free for generations.  The extensive use of fungicides masks the natural attributes of different varieties and in order to properly assess these it is necessary to grow both old and post 1920 varieties in untreated orchards.

Unlike modern mono-cultural commercial orchards, traditional orchards contained not only a wide variety of fruit trees but also developed an ecosystem built around a species rich orchard floor.   This was beneficial for wildlife, hence the inclusion of Traditional Orchards in the UK’s Biodiversity Action Plan, but also helped ensure that there were insects for pollination and also as helpful predators.  Writing on his blog Real English Fruit, Dan Neuteboom, discusses how such an orchard floor might have helped with pollination this year.

In fact traditional orchards, where the trees were often under planted with other crops or shared with chickens and pigs, were excellent examples of the type of thinking that is now being put forward by proponents of Permaculture₁ and Agroforestry₂.  Both talk of the benefits of incorporating fruit trees into the wider picture of agriculture for their mutual benefit.  Perhaps this year’s poor harvest, which has already resulted in supermarkets having to relax their usual requirements in respect of the appearance of fruit and vegetables, will be a catalyst for a complete review of how we grow our orchard fruit.

Further information: