The season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us. We’ve already had a few misty sunrises, and yesterday morning was no exception after 58 mm of rain in less than 48 hours. As the sun rose, skeins of vapour wafted from the ground and floated around the field behind our house before the warmth evaporated them.
Autumn is my favourite season, although it can get a bit messy later on when the leaves and walnut casings fall. The sun is still warm but not blisteringly hot, and autumn’s bounty of fruits and nuts begins to appear.
Last year, we had a glut of plums. This year, we have a glut of hazelnuts (noisettes in French). We don’t see many of them ourselves, since the nuthatches and woodpeckers have been snaffling the unripe ones for several weeks.
Common hedgerow trees
Like walnut trees, the hazel (noisettier) is a common sight here in the hedgerows and woodland. We are fortunate to have a large one that acts as a natural umbrella over our stone table. The tree grows out of the raised terrace that the people who renovated the house created from the old cow byre. When that building was demolished, it generated a huge amount of rubble. It was easier, and no doubt cheaper, to create a raised area than to transport the stones away.
We are not sure if the tree or the table came first. The hazel was already large when we moved here. In 24 years, it has become even larger. Like most trees, they don’t appreciate drought, although they will tolerate it. This spring and summer, we had no lack of rain, and the hazel benefited accordingly. The leaves have been lusher than I have ever seen, and a gap which let in the sun inconveniently at lunchtime closed up neatly.
Older bits of the tree do die off from time to time, which provides useful firewood. We have no idea how to coppice the tree, simply cutting off superfluous suckers from time to time, but it seems to suffer our inexperience quite happily.
The tree weathered the week of unusually hard frosts in April and has produced a bumper crop of nuts. At one point, they weighed down the branches so much that we were afraid we would have to cut some back to prevent them from breaking completely.
In the event, the birds did the job for us by taking the nuts. In the process, they dropped a lot of unripe ones on the ground, still enclosed in their prickly casing.
Their modus operandi is either to peck at the nuts on the tree, or to remove them and carry them, casings and all, to a well-used atelier. This is usually a hole in a tree, in which they lodge the nut and then hack at the shell, discarding the fragments on the ground. See two such workshops below. We hear the birds in the early morning, bickering and tap-tapping away at their breakfast.
The tree is an ecosystem. The catkins are much beloved of honey bees in late February.
Regiments of ants march up and down the trunks and drop onto the table. Caterpillars undulate along the twigs and also drop into our food. Birds hop around among the leaves and pick off insects to feed their chicks. The base of the tree forms an impenetrable refuge for mice and even a gigantic toad, which I snapped last year.
Hazel trees apparently originated in Asia but spread quickly to the Mediterranean and further North. Humans have been consuming the nuts for as long as 10,000 years, when hunter-gatherers supplemented their diet with them.
Hazelnuts are a super food. They are rich in fibre, antioxidants and minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus and zinc. Eating a few raw every day is believed to confer considerable health benefits.
They can be used chopped in salads or ground in desserts, biscuits and cakes. I have made a crumble topping incorporating our own hazelnuts, ground, although I had to compete with the woodpeckers to get any.
They are an important confectionary ingredient. In fact, we are rather partial to Casino’s own brand dark chocolate with whole hazelnuts.
Hazelnuts can also be pressed for oil, which has quite a distinctive flavour. It’s best used in salad dressings. I have found it burns too easily if used for frying.
Walnuts were more commonly pressed in our area, and a few oil mills still operate. However, I’m not aware of any dedicated hazelnut pressing mills, or perhaps they use the same equipment. If anyone has any information on the production of hazelnut oil in our area (NE Tarn-et-Garonne, W Aveyron, S Lot), please do leave a comment below.
Finally, you can order un café noisette in French bars. This is an espresso with a small amount of cold milk added. The brown colour gives it the name; no hazelnuts are involved.
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