Living in this part of the Willamette Valley, one gets accustomed to being surrounded by nuts. Now, I am not simply referring to all the colorful characters who reside in Eugene, but to the acres of hazelnut orchards covering the landscape in their patchwork of long, straight rows. I had the good fortune a couple of years ago to connect with a local farmer who invited me to come out and glean the nuts left over after harvest. This was a welcome invitation, as she manages her farm with sustainable practices, and the county park where I had been gleaning nuts in the past did some pretty heavy spraying. I had a busy November, and devoted a lot of excursion time to mushroom hunting, but finally managed to coordinate with the farmer for the Friday after Thanksgiving. So, while many folks in America were out there shopping and chasing down Black Friday deals, I took great satisfaction in gleaning nuts out in the Autumn rain.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the name "hazelnut" applies to the nuts of any of the species of the genus Corylus. Oregon is the primary area where this crop is cultivate in the United States, and our locale is home to a variety of cultivars. Here is an interesting historical context from Wikipedia:
"In 1995, evidence of large-scale Mesolithic nut processing, some 9,000 years old, was found in a midden pit on the island of Colonsay in Scotland. The evidence consists of a large, shallow pit full of the remains of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells. Hazelnuts have been found on other Mesolithic sites, but rarely in such quantities or concentrated in one pit. The nuts were radiocarbon dated to 7720+/-110BP, which calibrates to circa 7000 BC. Similar sites in Britain are known only at Farnham in Surrey and Cass ny Hawin on the Isle of Man. This discovery gives an insight into communal activity and planning in the period. The nuts were harvested in a single year, and pollen analysis suggests the hazel trees were all cut down at the same time. The scale of the activity, unparalleled elsewhere in Scotland, and the lack of large game on the island, suggest the possibility that Colonsay contained a community with a largely vegetarian diet for the time they spent on the island. The pit was originally on a beach close to the shore, and was associated with two smaller, stone-lined pits, whose function remains obscure, a hearth, and a second cluster of pits.
Because hazelnuts do not generally need to be toasted, indeed Kentish Cobnuts are still traditionally sold fresh, it has been speculated this was done to make them more digestible for children. Toasting the nuts also was thought to increase how long they would keep, and they have historically been a useful food for mariners because they keep well.
Hazel has been grown historically in coppices for use in wattle and daub buildings, and in hedges. The Romans cultivated hazelnuts including in Britain, although there is no evidence that they spread specific cultivars. Cultivated varieties have been grown since at least the 16th century, with a great increase in varieties during the 1800s; in particular, the first really widespread cultivar, the Kentish Cobnut, was introduced in 1830.
The traditional method to increase nut production is called 'brutting', which involves prompting more of the trees' energy to go into flower bud production, by snapping but not breaking off the tips of the new year's shoots six or seven leaf groups from the join with the trunk or branch, at the end of the growing season. The traditional term for an area of cultivated hazelnuts is a plat."
Since harvest is mostly done by a ground raking harvester after nuts have fallen from the tree, gleaning simply involves gathering up the stray nuts from the leaves around the trunks. They can sit on the ground for a bit of time too before sprouting or being carried off by squirrels, so there is a forgiving time window for us post-harvesters.
My friends and I didn't set out until later in the day, but we still managed to gather a good haul before dark. I was pleased by how fat and round the nuts had grown this year. There were quite a few left in their clumps of husks littered about in the leaves. We ended up with three good buckets full, which we plan to roast in my friend's antique cast iron roaster. The shelling is minimal work with a good nutcracker, and they are a great local protein staple to keep around. I enjoy eating them in baked goods, mixed in oatmeal, on salads, as a pizza topping, in trailmix, and just by themselves.
It was nice to spend the late afternoon out in the hazelnut orchard with the rain drizzling down on the golden orange leaves against the backdrop of Mt. Pisgah. I will happily be surrounded by nuts any day.
I'll leave you with one last tidbit of folklore about the hazelnut, that I found of interest while looking into the history on Wikipedia. If this holds true, I will be imbued with vast wisdom by the time my nuts run out next Summer: