Cobnuts are a cultivated version of the wild hazelnut and generally hail from Kent. Wild hazelnuts have grown in the UK since medieval times but the cobnut was cultivated in the nineteenth century and was popular with the Victorians being used to make ice cream and, strangely enough, omelettes. There were once 7,000 acres of cobnut trees around the UK grown on farms known as ‘plats’ but their popularity declined during the twentieth century. Fortunately cobnuts are now back in fashion and are being championed as a true Great British food.
The flavour and smell of the cobnut when fresh is most commonly associated with that of the coconut, ‘green’ yet nutty. Raw cobnuts also have a somewhat fruity citrus note to them with some acidity which we are unable to smell but makes up part of the flavour.
When roasted, the flavour of the cobnut changes into earthiness with hints of caramel, popcorn and malt which makes them great for desserts; think of the Italian chocolate Gianduia for comparison.
The green aromas in the cobnuts make the link to ingredients such as cucumber, pumpkin, ginger, chicken and peas. Peas and cobnuts are great paired together in a salad.
The caramel-like aromas of roasted cobnuts bring out the best in baked fish and meat, but also in soy sauce, coffee, bread or even in pan-fried seafood such as shrimps and langoustines.
Cobnuts get their name from the word ‘cob’ that in the 16th century meant to throw lightly – children used to play a game called coblenut in which they would try and knock over rows of nuts.
In the 19th century, a man was sentenced to 6 weeks hard labour for stealing 33 pounds of cobnuts from a farm near Mereworth.
Before refrigeration was widely available, people would bury cobnuts in the ground in pots and tins in order to preserve them for the winter months.
How should I store cobunts?
In mid to late August cobnuts are picked in their green state. (At this stage they have a flavour more like a pea than a nut.) Once picked they are best treated as fresh produce and kept in a fridge using a well ventilated container. Alternatively they can be stored in cool dry place in a perforated container or basket. They should be turned or shaken each day to prevent them from sweating and becoming mouldy.
Over about the next month the husks of the nuts on the trees will gradually change colour from green to brown. By this time the nut will be developing a real nutty flavour that will intensify as the nut dries and becomes mature. At this stage the husk can easily be removed from the shell and the nuts stored in a cool, dry, place with good ventilation. Turn or shake them every couple of weeks.
Cobnuts have a long shelf life and if stored carefully will easily last until you are ready to pick the next year’s crop.
Roasting enhances the flavour of cobnuts. Only a few ounces, coarsely ground, lend a nutty tang to dishes savoury or sweet.
To roast cobnuts, shell them and place them in an oven at 150°C/Gas Mark 2 for up to an hour, depending on their size and freshness, until they are hard and browned. About 100g (4 oz) nuts in their shells will produce 40g (1½ oz) of roasted kernels, but be generous:- they are so delicious some may never reach the dish.
A delicious hors d’oeuvre or snack which is very easy to make.
200g (8 oz) shelled cobnuts
25-50g (1-2 oz) butter
Put the nuts and butter, together with a little salt, into a shallow, uncovered dish Web Site. Microwave on high for 3 minutes, stir, cook for another 3 minutes, and stir again. If the nuts are not yet crisp, cook for another 3 minutes, checking that they do not burn.
Watercress & Cobnut Soup (serves 4-6)
100g (4 oz) cobnuts whizzed finely in a food processor
2 large bundles watercress
2 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
1 litre (1½) pints chicken stock
25g (1oz) butter
25g (1 oz) plain flour
100ml single cream
milk to thin, if required
Pick over the watercress and discard the stalks. Boil all the ingredients except the butter, the flour and a small amount of watercress (for garnish) for about 15 minutes, then liquidize. Fry the flour in the butter for a few minutes, stirring all the time, then gradually add the liquidized mixture while stirring. Bring to the boil, and thin with milk if required. Garnish with a little chopped watercress and a swirl of cream
Apple, Avocado & Cobnut Salad (serves 4)
4 eating apples, unpeeled
1 ripe avocado
juice of 2 lemons
50g (2 oz) freshly shelled cobnuts
Core the apples and slice into wedges. skin the avocado and slice. Put the apple and avocado into a bowl and cover with lemon juice. Just before serving, drain, chop the watercress and nuts, and add to the salad. Toss with good French dressing and season to taste.
And at the very least they look fabulous and make a beautiful, autumnal addition to a cheeseboard!