The humble hazelnut has grown
across Europe since time immemorial – at least since the Mesolithic period
with one site dated to 7,000 BC (BCE) – making its way into northern regions
like Ireland at the end of the last Ice Age and making its name as one of
the oldest European foods. Hardy and nutritious, it seems ubiquitous. Here
in Italy it is an ice cream flavor, nocciola, and a liqueur, nocello
(Frangelico® is a popular brand), and the base ingredient of hazelnut
butter sold as Nutella®. (Noce, as opposed to nocciola, is the
walnut, also cultivated in Sicily.)
It is believed that the natural (indigenous) range of the hazelnut, genus
Corylus, spans a broad area from north-western Europe across the
northern Mediterranean and Balkans into Turkey, Persia and northern India.
Today, Turkey produces over seventy percent of the world's hazelnuts.
In Sicily the hardy hazelnut is cultivated in the Madonie
and Nebrodi mountains and around Etna,
where the principal cultivars are of the Tonda varieties. It is harvested
in late October, after the first chestnuts and olives,
often by hand.
The Romans loved hazelnuts. Oddly, they are not a very important ingredient
in Sicilian cuisine, nor are chestnuts. Not today,
anyway. The predominance of almonds, which flourish
in Sicily but don't grow in cooler climates, may explain this.
In some places hazelnuts, like chestnuts and acorns, are fed to livestock.
That is not the case in Sicily, at least not since the Middle Ages. Compared
to the almond, pine nut and walnut, hazelnuts are not generally considered
a "noble" nut.
Also known as the cobnut, the hazelnut is the edible kernel of
the cob of the hazel. This tasty seed has a thin, dark brown skin, which
Hazelnuts are high in healthy fats, protein, carbohydrates, various vitamins,
folate, minerals (calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, zinc
and potassium) and dietary fiber.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.