King of Nuts? The glorious Hazelnut
Eating In

Going nuts in May

There is no dish that is not improved by hazelnuts

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Nuts in May” is a jolly little English paradox, such as are common in children’s singing games. Other examples associate roses with sneezing and mulberries with one’s morning toilette. There are no fresh nuts to gather in May in England. 

I have seen the reading “knots of may,” recommended on the grounds that in folk-magic, posies of may blossom formerly had power to stoke venery; but the theory seems contrived, and the standard text is convincingly ancient — available at least from the early seventeenth century. 

The “nuts” intended are more likely to be the red, speckled fruits that cluster like tiny apples when the hawthorn — or may-tree — is in leaf. Alternatively, “nuts and may” is a plausible version of the lyric, because the best season for eating the fresh haws coincides with the autumn nut harvest; the cold, frosty mornings to which the rhyme alludes are good for the berries. In May, by contrast, may- trees yield few gustatory rewards. You can chop the leaves into salads, or infuse them as a rather uninteresting tisane, or steep the flowers in liquor and syrup to make a cordial to fortify you, later in the year, for gathering the frost-rimed berries.

The only nuts to eat in May are therefore those left over from previous winters. But there’s never a bad time to crack a few nuts. 

Except for novelty value, acorns are Britain’s least rewarding species. English oaks yield unappealing varieties, and the endless soaking required to leech out the bitterness leaves them tasteless — serviceable for bulking out breadcrumbs or adding crunch to vegetables, but hardly worth the trouble. 

Walnuts, because of their slight acridity, are best adding tang and crunch in puddings or in sweet sauces or relishes to lubricate game. They go well with may berry syrup or, mingled with some preserved haws, in jelly made from it. 

Chestnuts, on the other hand, are sweet and chewy and herefore suit savoury dishes, which they enhance with a gentle contrast — chopped in stuffing for veal or poultry, or candied and added to the roasting pan of a capon or guinea fowl, or toasted and served with the cheese course. 

Hazelnuts are best eaten unadorned and unaccompanied by any other food

Puréed with sugar, they have an honoured place on the pudding plate, as part of a confection of whipped cream or ice cream or both. The result, monte bianco, can be too rich for many palates and, in normal portions, sickening to some, but is sublime at the close of a meal as a bite-sized bonne bouche, on a sliver of sponge or biscuit studded with chestnut fragments. 

Britain’s only other seriously edible nut is the most versatile. I can hardly think of a dish to which I’d be unwilling to add hazelnuts, experimentally, at least, in one form or another. If hazelnuts are to hand, it is folly to pair any more exotic substitute with chocolate — even such widely admired examples as almonds or pistachios or brazils or cashews. 

For crushing into ganache or cream or custard or ice cream, or flavouring biscuits or cakes, hazelnuts are insuperable, not only because their flavour is intense and universally complementary, but also because their consistency is perfectly poised between contrasting humours. 

Cashews and brazils are too oleaginous, almonds too milky, while pistachios, which make delicious nibbles at drinks time or flavourings in marshmallows or Turkish delight, are not quite crisp enough.

Hazelnuts, to their most besotted admirers, are best eaten unadorned and unaccompanied by any other food. But I like them as savoury ingredients. Roughly ground and sautéed in olive oil they are a transmutative coating for boiled or steamed cauliflower, broccoli, or Brussels sprouts. 

For the first, a pinch of ginger in the oil is enlivening; for the second, a sprinkling of cayenne enhances the interest. With sprouts, which have an acid edge, cinnamon or nutmeg is a perfect addition. Ground more finely, with just a touch of allspice, sautéed hazelnuts are a wonderful sauce for pasta in any shape or for gnocchi. 

Or in a slightly coarser grind, and blended with ricotta, they fill ravioli with a complementary crunch, such as you don’t get from the usual minced or puréed stuffings. 

Blended to the consistency of paste, with pulped tomatoes or with a mixture of passata and mascarpone, they make a sauce to suit almost any delicately fleshed white fish. Crushed and roasted, they garnish game birds in season more alluringly than breadcrumbs, especially with a clump of fresh may berries, which by then — at last — are ready for harvesting.

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