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The History of Hazelnuts: From Ancient Times to Culinary Delights

Hazelnut or hazel trees are deciduous trees that belong to the birch family (Betulaceae). They are wind-pollinated, meaning they rely on the wind to carry pollen from male catkins to female flowers. Hazelnut trees produce hazelnuts also knowns as filberts.  We harvest the hazelnuts in late summer here in the Monferrato in Piedmont. After harvesting, they are sun dried, stored and used in different savory and sweet recipes and an excellent snack.

Everything has a story, including the resilient hazelnut. Combining my curiosity, interest in mythology and my love of hazelnuts I have been exploring the fascinating hazelnut origin stories. The hazelnut became famous around the world thanks in part to the Nutella that is produced a few hills over in the Langhe. When Ferrero makes Nutella in Alba, the smell of roasted hazelnuts and chocolate wafting through the streets is a sensorial treat. What about hazelnuts before the time of Nutella (1964)?

Hazelnuts grown at the Monferrato Farm
Harvested Hazelnuts drying in the sun

In Celtic mythology, hazelnuts were associated with wisdom and poetic inspiration. The hazel tree was considered sacred and a source of wisdom and knowledge. In the story of the Salmon of Knowledge, one of the most famous tales in Irish mythology, the hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom imbued the salmon with great knowledge. Eating the salmon granted whoever consumed it with extraordinary wisdom.

In Norse mythology, the hazel tree was associated with the god Thor, the god of thunder and lightning. Thor's chariot was said to be drawn by goats, and these goats were believed to feed on the leaves and branches of the sacred hazel tree. The nuts were also associated with fertility and abundance.

 Although hazelnuts themselves may not feature prominently in Greek mythology, there are references to similar nuts in the story of Hercules and his 12 labors. In one of his labors, Hercules is tasked with retrieving the golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides. These apples were sometimes depicted as golden fruits, which some interpretations suggest could be hazelnuts.

In European folklore, hazelnuts are often associated with luck and protection. It was believed that carrying a hazelnut in your pocket could ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. This belief persisted into medieval Europe, where hazelnuts were sometimes used in rituals for divination and protection against witchcraft.

Hazelnut orchard at The Monferrato Farm
Hazelnut Orchard

 Hazelnuts have played various symbolic roles in mythology and folklore, representing wisdom, fertility, abundance, and protection across different cultures and time periods. They have also been a great source of nutrition for our ancestors.

Hazelnuts are a source of protein and healthy fats. Hazelnuts are rich in vitamin E. They also contain vitamin B6 and minerals like copper, manganese and magnesium. 

 Hazelnuts are delicious in sweet and savory dishes, are nutrient-dense and have a curious historical origin. Considered 'Gentlemen farming,' they are low maintenance compared to growing grapes or other agricultural endeavors that I have attempted. I have been a hazelnut farmer for nearly 15 years now and I have enjoyed learning and watching them grow. Now when I am in hazelnut orchards tending the trees, I think about their historical significance and I put a hazelnut in my pocket for good luck.

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