Year of Grace, Day 186. Filbert or cobnut?

This morning I awoke to a red squirrel busily foraging within the canopy of the contorted hazel tree (Corylus contorta). A few seconds later, it was joined by a magpie, no doubt attracted by  the flurry of activity. It ended up driving the squirrel away (oh that magpie, such a bully!).  Soon after a curious blue tit, keeping well out of the magpie’s way, flew in as well. Well! Isn’t that just the best indication that the hazelnuts are ripe?

So, I set out to see if I could share in the hazelnut’s bounty this year. We’ve never managed to harvest any – the squirrels and birds have always stripped the trees clean. Now how on earth do they know the nuts are ready? That is indeed a wonder! The squirrels have their homes up in my neighbour Frau Grau’s huge poplar. And the only predictable times they come into my garden are when the yew berries are ripe (they like feasting on the red aril, which is edible, but leave the toxic seed alone, which btw is also a source of the cancer-fighting taxol); they also come when the yew shoots emerge, and later in the year, which is now, when the hazelnuts are ready. After three years, I’ve become quite familiar with the pattern of their foraging.

Unlike me, the red squirrels don’t take a daily walk around the garden to check on the state of the things. Are the hazelnuts emitting some sort of phytochemical signalling that they’re ready and broadcasting, “Come and get it, if you like hazelnuts….” They’ve got to be, and that signal doesn’t get watered down (pardon the pun) by rain, since the steady drizzle the other morning hadn’t stopped the message from reaching straight across the garden, over the fence and beyond, and up the squirrels’ lair. It confirms what I thought the frolicking in the grass under the hazel hedge was all about the other day.

So here is today’s harvest — picked off the grass. There were a lot of shelled and eaten nuts — obviously by Mr. or Ms. Red Squirrel — scattered about there. It is only when the nuts have fallen by themselves or can be shaken from the tree that they are meant to be harvested. (I know, as I tried to steal a march on the squirrels last year by picking them off the tree.)

I can’t tell whether these ought to be called filberts or cobnuts or hazelnuts – there is a distinction apparently, as this article makes clear. English cultivated hazelnuts are known as cobnuts or Kentish cobs, Kent being where wild hazelnuts from continental Europe were introduced and subsequently thrived. Curiously, Kentish cobnuts or cobs were initially called Mr. Lambert’s filberts, named after their domesticator. One origin of “filbert” is the German Vollbart or “full beard,” a fanciful illusion to the frilly overcoat of the nuts; the other is St. Philibert, whose day is celebrated on the 20th of August, which is when filberts are usually ready. Well… there are a number of weeks till then, but I trust the squirrels’ judgment on this one.Whether filberts or cobnuts, they are both hazelnuts (Corylus avellana, Haselnusse). Kentish cobnuts, eaten fresh, are an English late summer to early autumn delicacy. As someone born and raised in the tropics whose prior experience of hazelnuts was limited to the dried variety and inside chocolate bars, I was immensely thrilled to see them fresh for the very first time when we lived in England. I adore seeing them in their pale green, charmingly frilled jackets. Eaten fresh, they are creamy with a subtle tart aftertaste.The red berries are cornelian cherries, Cornus mas, or Cornelkirsche. There are improved varieties of these from Eastern Europe where they are made into preserves and liqueurs. These are still a bit astringent, but perhaps I can make them into jam. I’ve never managed to harvest any before. As with the hazelnuts, the birds have always scoffed the lot before us. This year seems to be our lucky year, as far as the hazelnuts and cornelians are concerned. Praise, praise!

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