Thursday, 20 October 2011


It's been an excellent autumn for nuts around our way.

First off, a row of rather neglected-looking Turkish hazelnut trees. Someone must have planted them along the road (they are handsome trees, not very tall) and then forgotten all about them. In September the path was already ankle deep in the complex-looking carapaces the nuts form in.

English hazelnuts and Kentish cobs develop in pairs, held within a kind of green frill of sepal, which always reminds me of the prim paper frills proper hostesses used to put on the end of roast legs of lamb back in the day, or at least so the photos in my Mum's 1950s cookery book suggest. Turkish hazelnuts, instead, grow inside mad explosions of green tentacles the size of a fist, somewhere between a sea urchin and a conker. I suspect them of being based on Fibonacci series, like so much complexity in nature.

Anyway, instead of pairs of largish nuts, each fist of carapace contains about a dozen small but delicious nuts. You have to prize apart the carapaces, which start off green and sticky with sap but gradually dry and brown. I swept up kilos of the stuff and took them home to rip apart at my leisure, the carapaces making excellent firelighters for the woodburner. I couldn't quite believe that passers-by were leaving kilos of protein to lie about the streets.

There was, however, a problem. Our nutcracker is one of those hinged contraptions, and the nuts were too small to crack even in the smallest setting. What we need is one of those ring crackers, where there's a screw which tightens on the shell. Could we find one? No we could not. Everywhere it was the same 'we don't stock nutcrackers until the run-up to Christmas.' This from shops which already had mince pies on display (best before 24th October). Gosh, I hate shops! In the end B took some outside and bashed them with a hammer... delicious! They'll keep in the shell for a long time, so I may add some recipes later on.

Then it was beech mast. You need to be quick - if they sit on the wet ground too long they discolour and start to sprout. The best place would be beech trees which have a pavement under them, but not a pavement that is much frequented, otherwise they get crushed. I found just such a place and filled my pockets, as well as a little trek along a couple of hedgerows. They are smallish, triangular nuts, glossy brown (exactly the colour of dried beech leaves) and a little fiddly - you need to split the thin shell off to clean the golden-brown kernel, but they are delicious. Much tastier than pine nuts, IMO, and no more fiddly.

Beech pesto:

fresh basil leaves
beech mast
oil (a dab - the oiliness of the mast varies)

Crush the garlic, nuts and basil leaves with a pestle, or whizz in a food grinder. Add enough oil to cover.  If you make more than you need it will keep in the fridge in a jar under oil.

This is superb with arborio rice.

And then there are sweet chestnuts - some as big as conkers. Of which, more later...