Corylus avellana, the Common Hazel, is a species of hazel native to Europe and western Asia, from the British Isles south to Iberia, Greece, Turkey and Cyprus, north to central Scandinavia, and east to the central Ural Mountains, the Caucasus, and northwestern Iran.
It is an important component of the hedgerows that were the traditional field boundaries in lowland England. The wood was traditionally grown as coppice, the poles cut being used for wattle-and-daub building and agricultural fencing.
In this green state they are quite different from the hard, brown-shelled, Christmas nut-bowl hazels they will eventually become (if left to grow to maturity, and then dry out for a couple of months). Their flesh has the crisp crunch of overgrown peas, and a sweet vegetably taste that quickly becomes rather addictive.
Hazelnuts are often found in countryside hedgerows, but also in abundance in back gardens (however you should never go and pick nuts from someone else’s garden). You may also find a farm near you, which opens for a ‘pick your own hazelnuts’ day, similar to those you will find in the summer, selling strawberries and raspberries. The start of September will bring the squirrels out looking for them!
Once you have gathered your hazelnuts, you will need to store them in a cool, dry place for up to six weeks prior to shelling them. This allows them to dry and become edible. To crack the nuts after they have dried requires a great deal of patience. You should aim to break the nuts open with a nut cracker, however you may find you resort to using a hammer before the day is out.
In Britain, hazel is often planted as a hedge plant and makes a welcome habitat for numerous small creatures that make themselves at home among its roots and branches - right by a handy food supply. But not only mice, squirrels and birds appreciate the nuts. Lucky is the forager who catches them at just the right moment. Hazelnuts are a rich source of vitamins and amino acids. They are also rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E, which may explain their reputation as an aphrodisiac food. Another explanation may be their highly suggestive shape, especially while they are still tucked in their protective sheathing. Or, perhaps that reputation arose at a time when 'nutting' used to be a community event that provided some welcome opportunities for disappearing behind the bushes with a sweetheart.
Whatever the explanation may be, some people still swear by hazelnut's seductive powers. Hazelnuts are very versatile. Of course, they can be munched right off the bush, but cracking is a little tedious. It is best to collect a bunch and let them dry for a few days until they can easily be freed from their sheathing. They still have to be cracked - an activity best done in company.
The nuts can be eaten raw or they may be lightly toasted to remove the inner skin, which is a little bitter and astringent. Once they are completely dry they can be ground and used almost like flour, adding a beautiful nutty taste and texture to breads and cookies. Commercially, hazelnuts are available in many different forms: whole, shelled, ground, sliced, crumbled and even as a very tasty and healthy oil with a lovely nutty flavour that makes it a delicious choice for salad dressings. It is also very useful for home-made cosmetic preparations, as it is the only base oil with astringent properties.