I chose my present home in part because the back garden had the most wonderful screen of trees offering privacy and a sense of living in woodland. Originally a hedge, the trees had been left to grow until some were taller than the house. I was delighted to find that the mix included not only beech, hornbeam and cherry, but hazel. It was evident from the number of young hazel about the garden I had visiting squirrels too. To make space for my herbs, in a single flowerbed, I needed to remove 36 young hazel saplings, from a few inches to several feet tall. In the medieval period one name for a tree nursery was an impyard and so I decided to call the house Hazel Impyard as I began finding homes for the young trees. Many were taken to West Sussex to museum grounds to fill out hedges and others to a friend on a Devon farm.
Since my first summer here I have made the most of the advantages of the generous supplies of hazelnuts right outside my door. In early September, I patrol the bottom of the garden morning and evening, gathering nuts, competing with Sam the squirrel for the fattest ones. I am on good terms with Sam, only interrupting his antics when I see him burying nuts in the lawn. It is fortunate that I am able to walk along a path on the other side of my fence to collect even more. In 2019, the trees produced a bumper crop and I harvested over 20lbs, (9kg) of nuts from just three trees.
I intended to use many of the nuts for making hazelnut milk. I have been dairy-free for many years and particularly enjoy porridge and rice puddings made with this base rather than other alternatives. When lockdown came in spring 2020, I was very glad of my store of hazelnuts for another reason. Unexpectedly there was suddenly no wholemeal flour to be had in the supermarket. I went to my tub of hazelnuts and began grinding them to mix with the flour I had left.
Hazelnut Flour & More
Grinding hazelnuts is a skill; grind them too much and you have hazelnut butter, they need to be just right. The flour produced mixes well with other gluten free flours such as brown rice and coconut as well as wholemeal wheat flour for making cakes. It can be used alone for thickening beef tomato fillings and savoury loaves, such as my favourite with pre-cooked lentils, chopped, fried vegetables, egg and cheese. The nuts need not be ground all the time of course. Chopped hazelnuts are great added to crumble toppings, muesli, biscuits and homemade chocolates.
It was not until I decided to raise funds for charity in the April however, that I was spurred into becoming really inventive with recipes. Sitting alone on my lawn in the sunshine I staged my ‘crackathon’, cracking 26oz (737g) of hazelnuts. To be appreciated at their best, hazelnuts should be freshly cracked and even having given some away, made a cake for a friend and milk for myself, I had plenty more to enjoy. The broken shells I didn’t use for dyeing silk were spread as mulch in the garden, having seen the same done in Grenada with nutmeg shells.
I set out to make a tasty hazelnut spread first of all and during my experimenting for the perfect texture and flavour, realised the potential for a concentrate to make a hazelnut drink with a difference.
Hazel Chocolate Drink
Set 125g of hazelnuts on an oven tray and put into the oven on an upper shelf at 180oC (356oF). Roasting them for 10 minutes will allow you to rub away the skins easily, but you will increase the flavour by roasting for a further 3-5 minutes. When they are sufficiently cooled, rub away the skins and grind to a fairly fine powder; do not worry if it has started to go slightly oily.
Pour 125g of honey into a thick bottomed pan and stir in 15g of 100% chocolate. If the chocolate is flaked from the block with a sharp knife it will melt in smoothly and quickly. Melt this in over a gentle heat. Then add the freshly ground hazelnuts. Check for flavour. Add more chocolate or hazelnuts to taste.
Pour the mix while still warm into a wide necked screwtop jar. This will keep well, although I keep mine in the fridge once started.
To make the drink, place two heaped teaspoons of the mix into a mug, pour on boiling water, stirring well. The result is a nutritious drink which tastes as if it is a hot chocolate made with milk and added hazelnut syrup. Delicious.
Prepare the hazelnuts as before, roasting and removing the skins before grinding for slightly longer than for the drink. This time a more oily consistency is good. To each 25g either: add 2 teaspoons of honey and 5 drops of vanilla extract for a base; or you may add 1-1.5 teaspoons of elderberry or other fruit jelly. If you are using honey more variations in flavour can be made with chopped cranberries or other dried fruits. Once again melted chocolate can be added.
For the milk, I crack, lightly roast and grind 170g of nuts almost to a paste. Place the ground nuts in a large jug. Pour 600ml of boiling water into a pan, add a good pinch of salt and three rounded teaspoons of soft light brown sugar, stirring, and then bring to the boil. Pour the sweetened boiling water over the nuts and stir. Leave to stand, covering with a cloth until cool. Stir again and pour into the blender. Blend till smooth and then keep in the fridge. If, after it has stood for several hours you find a small amount of sediment, simply stir before using. You should not need to discard any.
The hazel harvest is not all about the nuts, however, it grows prolifically, especially if coppiced. I have used the young, whippy growth in basketry and it is particularly useful if you have the need for a short length of low hurdle fencing in the garden. Hazel in basketry is not new to me as I have used it for thirty years with other hedgerow harvests in my workshops.
For much of that time, as a herbalist, I have walked around mostly paying attention to the herbs growing around my feet. Every year for 21 years I have come up with new workshops at the Weald and Downland Museum and in 2012 I decided on an A-Z of medicinal trees. As I began paying more attention, looking up into the branches I realised how much I had missed. The detail amazed and delighted me and so began a much greater project of taking herbarium specimens and photographs at various times of the year, experimenting with recipes and studying the history of their medicinal and other uses. This has culminated in my new book, The Tree Dispensary, a personal account of coming to know and appreciate harvests from 29 of our native and familiar trees.
In spring, the catkins which have hung on the hazel trees, slowly maturing since I gathered nuts last year, are bright with pollen, hanging rather like leftover Christmas decorations from the branches. Male catkins are very familiar to everyone but my new interest brought me to really look carefully and find the comparatively few beautiful, tiny bright red female flowers, often a little higher on the branch and so small I had completely overlooked them before, even when I had a tree right outside my kitchen window.
There are many male catkins and even after they have fulfilled their purpose they are still good to harvest to give a lovely yellow dye for my silk embroidery threads. I thought I had really made the most of my hazel harvests, but not so ... This winter as the trees were given their triennial trim, the tree surgeon brought me evidence of yet another opportunity I had missed. A branch bearing the edible fungus, turkey tails (Trametes versicolor). Sadly, it was too late in the year to appreciate their colours at their best or to discover the taste, but I will be keeping a better watch for them in future.
Christina Stapley is a retired medical herbalist. She now teaches pharmacognosy, materia medica and the history of western herbal medicine. Christina is a member of the Herbal History Research Network, and for many years has tutored practical historical herb workshops. She is a Royal Horticultural Society lecturer and has written three books on growing and using herbs, including The Tree Dispensary: https://tinyurl.com/TheTreeDispensary