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All Hail the Filbert!
While many of us in the Pacific Northwest call this glorious little nut a “filbert,” it was known across the world as a “hazelnut” as far back as five millennia ago.
The king of all nuts has a tasty history that dates to Stone Age sites (8000-2700 BC) in what is now Scotland, Sweden, Germany and Denmark. Hazelnuts became a symbol of wisdom and knowledge, as well as fecundity and fertility. They also became associated with ensuring long, happy marriages – ancient Romans used torches made of hazelnut tree branches, and the nuts often featured in wedding traditions throughout Northern Europe.
One of the earliest mentions of hazelnuts in ancient texts is in a manuscript found in China from the year 2838 BC, which mentioned them as one of the five sacred nourishments conferred upon human beings by God.
The Greek philosopher Theophrastus (372-287 BC) described the benefits of hazelnuts in his works, as did the first-century AD Greek physician Dioscorides, who recommended applying a mixture of hazelnut paste and suet on the head to “restore hair that fell away with alopecia.” (DIOSCORIDES ON PHARMACY AND MEDICINE, JOHN M. RIDDLE, P. 53).
Nowadays, we have better cures for baldness, but the health properties of hazelnuts remain. They are the No. 2 source of folate – a B vitamin that may lessen the chance of heart attack and rebuild damaged cells – in the nut category, behind only peanuts. Hazelnuts also are high in vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant, and argenine, an amino acid that helps widen blood vessels and may lead to lower blood pressure.
Nut processing in ancient times
Even in prehistoric days, hazelnut processing was a booming business. In 1995, archaeologists found evidence of a large-scale nut processing site radio-carbon dated to nearly 9,000 years ago on the Hebridean island of Colonsay, Scotland. Hundreds of thousands of burnt hazelnut shells were found in a shallow pit or midden (rubbish heap) at Staosnaig on the east coast of this small island. The scale and location of the activity is considered unusual by experts, suggesting that the island community traded processed hazelnuts with other island and mainland communities.
Hazelnuts by any other name
Hazelnut is the most common name given to these hearty nuts, but they also are known as filberts and cobnuts. In fact, until the mid-20th century, filbert was the more commonly used term.
The name filbert may have originated from “full beard,” referring to the husk (or “beard”) entirely covers some varieties of the nut – the German word for “full beard” is voilbart. It also may derive from St. Philibert, a French priest whose feast date (August 20) corresponds in England to the ripening of the earliest filberts.
Hazelnut, meanwhile, likely comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haesel, which means bonnet or headdress. This describes the shape of the shell surrounding the nut, and not its color.
As for cobnuts, this name comes from a British game kids used to play with the nuts in which the winning nut was called the cob.
The Oregon Filbert Commission decided in 1981 to conform to the common standard and began calling them hazelnuts once and for all.
Whatever you decide to call them, you won’t be disappointed.
Fun facts about hazelnuts
- There are between 14 and 18 species of hazel trees. The nuts of all hazels are edible.
- Hazels are unique in that they bloom and pollinate in the middle of winter. Wind carries the pollen from yellow catkins to a tiny red flower, where it stays dormant until the nut begins to form in June.
- Oregon named the hazelnut the Official State Nut in 1989.
- The Willamette Valley produces 99% of the US hazelnut crop, which represents 3.5% of the world’s hazelnut production, according to the Arbor Day Foundation.
- June 1 is National Hazelnut Cake Day in the US, while December 14 is Hazelnut Day in Italy.
- Nux abellana is Latin for hazelnut and, in fact, the nut’s name in many languages stems from this root, which originates from “dried fruit of Avella,” a village in the Italian province of Avellino.
- Nocciolaia (hazelnut trader) is one of the oldest trades associated with the culture of hazelnuts. Nocciolaia derives from the Italian word for hazelnut nocciola and refers to the women who used to sell strings of hazelnuts, an activity that occupied a large part of the population of the Sturla Valley in the Genoa province of Italy which the winning nut was called the cob.
- The Nut Gatherers, originally named Les Noisettes in French, is an 1882 painting by William Bouguereau that depicts two young girls possibly out gathering hazelnuts who have taken a rest. The painting currently hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan.
- The hazelnut is the symbol of the Revelations of Divine Love, a 14th-century book written by Julian of Norwich, the first-ever English book written by a woman.
- The Hazel-nut Child is a Northern European fairy tale in which a childless couple prayed to Heaven every day to send them a child,
How did the hazelnut came to Oregon?
The origins of Oregon’s hazelnut legacy started in the little town of Scottsburg in 1856, when English sailor Sam Strickland retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company and settled in a small Douglas County community where he planted the first known hazelnut tree in the Pacific Northwest, of the European stock Corylus avellana.
Little did Sam know that more than 160 years later, from that first tree he planted, would blossom an Oregon tradition of producing the world’s finest hazelnuts. The Willamette Valley’s perfect blend of temperate climate, rich volcanic soils, and waters flowing from the Cascade Mountains come together to create full-flavored hazelnuts sought throughout the world.
Nearly a half-century after Strickland planted his first tree, George Dorris of Springfield started the state’s first commercial orchard with 200 Barcelona trees planted on over 5 acres of land, selling his crop to the venerable Meier and Frank department store to be sold in 10-pound bags to eager and hungry customers. The Dorris Ranch Living History Farm still operates to this day, welcoming thousands of visitors each year to walk through its 13 different hazelnut orchards. From Dorris’ nursery stock sprung an estimated 50 percent of all hazelnut trees in production today throughout the Willamette Valley.