Season of mists, mellow sun and hazelnuts

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.

Ecosystem

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.

Culinary uses

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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13 comments

  1. We have a few random hazel rooted in the railway embankment at the end of our garden but I’ve never seen flowers or fruit on them. The blackthorn alongside gives lots of sloes but the birds beat me to them this year!
    There is a very old moulin au noix in St Cere which I thought was only by appointment to groups or journees du patrimoine but looking on your behalf it appears to have opening hours for the public and mills noisettes too.

    https://www.moulindesaintcere.com/

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the info and the link to the moulin in St Céré. Interesting that they mill hazelnuts, too. I wonder if they have to have two different mills, since they are both quite strongly flavoured oils. However, looking at the site, it seems to be only one. I have found another one in the northern Aveyron, which appears to produce only hazelnut oil.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was surprised by the website. A friend visited some years ago as part of a group and it was owned by an elderly chap and I understood it to be used very occasionally. Clearly it has been brought back to life! I must try and visit. I drive past it in one of the side streets every time one of us visits the radiologist!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, I got the impression from the website that it had recently been brought back to life. I was interested to see that they sell other by-products, such as pate de noix or noisettes. Nice to see the old ways being continued.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Lovely post, Vanessa. I think we had lunch at that table when we came to visit. I love hazelnuts…and sometimes chop a few (or rather bash them in a bag with my rolling pin) and sprinkle them on a risotto! Hope you are both keeping well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Paola. Yes, you did have lunch at our stone table! Hazelnuts are good for topping risottos or pasta. They also go very well with chocolate! Both well, thanks, but fed up with this summer’s dismal weather.

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  3. ‘Mellow fruitfulness’ what a beautiful phrase and it describes fall beautifully! And I learned a new word…snaffling which I had to Google. Fun word! I only knew it as snaffle as in a snaffle bit for a horse. Glad I’m still learning new words in British English!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have to come clean. “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” is actually the first line of John Keats’ Ode to Autumn! I wish I’d thought of it. As a poet, I think you’d like his use of language.

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    • We love our hazel tree. Without it, we would have to have a Heath Robinson arrangement of parasols to shield our table and barbecue area from the sun! I hope you’ll still have some when you return – the birds don’t leave much.

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