Corylus avellana, Corylus americana

Any of a genus Corylus of shrubs or small trees of the birch family bearing nuts enclosed in a leafy involucre (whorls of bracts near a flower).

Etymology: Middle English hasel, from Old English hæsel; akin to Old High German hasal, Latin corulus.

Culinary Use

The hazelnut, traditionally eaten fresh (green) or roasted, varies widely in flavor based on the season grown. From the milky, juicy, almost sharp taste of the autumn hazelnut to the earthy sweetness of the mature, summer nut, the hazelnut provides a rich taste experience alone or among other cooking ingredients.

The hazelnut has found a welcome place in the dessert traditions of Germany and central European countries; in cakes, confectionery, and biscotti especially. Lokum, a Turkish dessert is prepared from a delicate but gummy jelly made by cooking a mixture of syrup and cornflour with rose or orange flower water; after the mixture is dried, hazelnuts and puréed apricots are added. Italian desserts call for the hazelnut, such as torrone, a confection - traced back to Medieval times - of boiled honey and sugar syrup mixed with beaten egg white, hazelnuts, and preserved fruit.

Savory Spanish dishes call for the introduction of hazelnuts. The famous sauce of Tarragona (province of northeastern Spain on the Mediterranean, pop. 542,044) - salsa Romesco - is based on the texture and nuances of the hazelnut flavor. A Catalan sauce, the salsa Romesco, combines a pounded mixture of fried bread, grilled tomato, almonds, and hazelnut with paprika and chili powder made into a smooth paste with Priorat wine and wine vinegar.

Hazelnut oil, like its companion walnut oil, adds depth and fragrance to sweet dishes, cakes and scones; and to savory pastas, vegetables dishes, and salads. Grilled radicchio with prosciutto, blood orange and hazelnuts: not to be missed.

Early Cultivation

References indicate that the cultivation of hazelnuts most likely began in Europe during classical times. The first evidence of the hazelnut dates from the texts of Theophrastus (4th Century BC) and Pliny (1st Century AD) in which they refer to the import of the hazel from Asia Minor. Pliny cites the source of its Latin root avellana from Abellina -- now known as Damascus (city in southwestern Syria; pop. in 1999, 1,451,000).

The hazel had grown wild in Greece and Italy, and so it was presumed that the imported trees were of superior quality and cultivating potential. Circumstances surrounding the the fall of the Roman Empire caused the cultivation of the hazelnut to dwindle well through the 16th century. Around 1615 in Italy, however, interest in the hazelnut grew; the area of Campagna became the international center of hazelnut cultivation and export.

European Competition for The Royal Nut

The most important competitor to Campagna, Italy at this time (ca. 1650) was England, specifically the area near the town of Maidstone, Kent (county in southeastern England bordering on The Strait of Dover; one of the kingdoms in Anglo-Saxon heptarchy; pop. in 1999, 1,485,100). It is in England that the first divergent strains of hazelnut emerge: the cobnut -- from the Old English cop (head) -- applied to round nuts with short husks leaving visible the end of the nut; and the filbert -- long thought a corruption of 'full beard' but is now thought to refer to Saint Philibert, the canonized king of Normandy (hazelnuts ripen on his birthday, August 22) -- which are longer nuts with complete husk coverage.

Slow But Steady in The Colonies

Native Americans had enjoyed the taste and nutritional benefit of the hazelnut for centuries, though early American settlers lacked significant interest in it. The Massachusetts Company sent away for finer English varieties (1692) so that widespread cultivation in England preceded American growth by only a few years. The native American hazelnut, the Corylus americana, possesses a heartier, more robust flavor than the European varieties, though that distinction does not indicate its preference as the richer nut.

Contemporary Cultivation

In the United States, the most popular and widespread variety has been the Barcelona hazelnut. More recently, the Ennis -- bearing larger nuts and a wider climate potential -- has become a worthy competitor. Of the Italian varities, the Tonda Gentile delle Langhe on the Piemonte (Piedmont region of Northwestern Italy bordering France and Switzerland just west of Lombardy; pop., 4,357,559). Italy also has the well-thought of Whiteskin hazelnut, their closest contender. However, Turkey is the world's largest producer of the hazelnut.

Nutritional Information

Amount per serving: 100 g.
Calories: 628. Total Fat (grams): 61.

Saturated Fat: 4
Polyunsaturated Fat: 8
Monounsaturated Fat: 46
Cholesterol (mg): 0
Sodium (mg): 0
Potassium (mg): 680
Total Carbohydrate (g): 17
Dietary Fiber (g): 10
Sugars (g): 4
Protein (g): 15

Duke, James. Handbook of Nuts. New York: CRC Press, 2001.
Spiller, Gene. Healthy Nuts. New York: Putnam, 2000.
United States Department of Agriculture. Nutrient Database: Hazelnut. www.usda.gov.