The History of Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts on a history board

Many hazelnut fans today know this delicious nut for its close friendship with chocolate. However, hazelnut enjoyed a rich history long before it was ever paired with cocoa to become a sweet-tooth staple. 

Hazelnut trees have a rich history and cultural significance in many parts of the world. From ancient mythology and folklore to modern-day cuisine, hazelnuts have been an important part of human culture for thousands of years.

The Origins of Hazelnuts

The hazelnut tree is native to Europe and Asia. Its cultivation dates back to the Mesolithic, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact place.

The most significant Archeological finding 

In 1995, archeologists found evidence of hazelnut processing and cultivation in a pit on Colonsay island in Scotland. It dates back to 6000 BC, in the Mesolithic, and is the most significant hazelnut concentration from this period. Inside the pit, there were remains of hundreds of thousands of burnt shells from hazelnuts.

Upon analyzing the remains, researchers found that the hazelnuts in the pit were all harvested in the same year. This challenges the previous notion that hazelnut foraging was the primary method 8000 years ago. It reveals that large-scale harvesting was already in practice.

Hazelnut History and Symbology in Different Cultures

The historical use of hazelnuts in different cultures is a testament to the enduring significance of this remarkable nut.

The Mesolithic period

The European hazelnut (Corylus avellana), also known as the common hazelnut, was an important food source for the prehistoric people’s diet in the Mesolithic period. This period, also known as the Middle Stone Age, lasted from about 8,000 BC to 4,000 BC (in northwestern Europe).

As we already discussed before, a significant amount of evidence of hazelnuts in the North of Europe matches that period. In fact, hazelnut remains were found all over Ireland in archeological sites that date back to around 10,000 years.

Prehistoric China

China has been eating hazelnuts for thousands of years. It is noteworthy that the first written records of hazelnuts were found in a Chinese manuscript from 2838 BC.

Archeologists have discovered fossilized hazelnuts in 13 neolithic Chinese locations that date back thousands of years. Findings like these suggest that hazelnuts played an important role in the prehistoric Chinese diet.

Ancient Rome and Greece

These two civilizations played a substantial role in spreading hazelnuts throughout Europe.

References to hazelnuts are found in writings from ancient Greek philosophers and physicians like Theophrastus and Dioscorides. Both were quite fond of this nut and described the health benefits of hazelnuts in their works. 

Pliny, one of the greatest Roman historians, documented that filberts (hazelnuts) came from Damascus. According to him, it was normal for Romans to consume hazelnuts.

Celtic Mythology and folklore

As I have mentioned, the history of hazelnuts in Ireland goes way back to the Mesolithic period. However, it did not stop there. When the Celtic tribes appeared, hazelnuts even became part of their mythology. For the Celts, hazelnuts were believed to be a source of wisdom and knowledge.

According to legend, a sacred pool surrounded by nine hazel trees stood at the heart of the Celtic Otherworld. As the nuts fell into the pool, they were eaten by salmon, which then gained wisdom. Whoever ate the salmon or the nuts would get that knowledge. This led to the idea that hazelnuts symbolized divine inspiration and mystical insight.

To further support this theory, there’s also the fact that the Gaelic word for hazelnut is “cno”. And the Gaelic word for wisdom is “cnocach”.

Medieval Europe

A common tradition throughout Europe that has been passed down through time is to use milk made of hazelnuts for treating colds and coughs. As a matter of fact, recipes for hazelnut milk appear in several medieval books.

Hazelnuts also had their share of mystic meaning during the Middle Ages. In Ireland, Scotland, and England, hazels were associated with pagan rituals, beliefs, and sites. Some legends exist around it, such as the “Hind Etin” in Scotland and “Melsh Dick” in England. These were spirits who guarded a secret hazel tree.

Finally, fertility and long-lasting marriages are among the most common associations that still survive in some regions of Europe.

Native American tribes

Thousands of miles away from Europe, before conquistadors arrived, native Americans were also using hazelnuts. However, it’s important to mention that indigenous Americans consumed different hazelnut species. That’s because the common hazelnut is not native to the American continent. To be more precise, the ones available to them were the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta) and the American hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Native Americans used hazelnuts for various purposes, including food, medicine, and fuel. Besides eating them raw, tribes such as the Cherokee, Dakota, and others would roast, grind, and boil the nuts with different purposes in mind. They often used them in stews, soups, bread, or combined them with other ingredients like corn. 

In addition to their culinary uses, hazelnuts were also used in traditional Native American medicine to treat various ailments, including colds, coughs, and gastrointestinal problems. The nuts were believed to have anti-inflammatory properties and were often used to relieve pain.

The Iroquois had original uses for hazelnuts

The Iroquois is one of the tribes that had the most varieties of uses for hazelnuts. Besides the one we mentioned, this tribe would also make a drink from hazelnuts. They were also mixing hazelnut oil with bear grease to repel mosquitos.

The Duwamish Tribe made crafts and weapons

Arrow shafts made from hazel tree wood

First of all, it is important (as well as fascinating) to state that the Duwamish lived in Tukwila (King County, Washington), which translates as “land of the hazelnut”. They had different uses for hazelnuts too. They made containers, such as baskets, and would take advantage of the wood of the hazel tree to make arrow shafts.

The Yurok tribe made flour

The Yurok tribe in California also took advantage of the nut. Although they gave it several uses, they preferred making flour from hazelnuts.

The Arrival of Domesticated Hazelnut Trees in the USA

While hazelnuts have deep roots in Europe and Asia, they are part of American culture today. Europeans brought domesticated hazel trees to the American colonies during the colonial period. These trees were prized for their edible nuts and were seen as a valuable addition to the colonial agricultural landscape.

A hazelnut orchard in the USA

By 1737, Robert Prince established America’s first commercial hazelnut nursery in Flushing, New York. Both Barcelona and American hazel tree varieties were sold there.

The nursery was a success and helped to introduce the cultivation of hazel trees throughout the colonies. It gained so much importance that President George Washington had troops defending this nursery and its trees during the Revolutionary War.

How the state of Oregon became the American hazelnut capital

The hazelnut has been the official state nut of Oregon since 1989. There’s a good reason for this! Oregon produces 99 percent of the hazelnuts grown in the United States. 

The first hazel tree ever planted in Oregon was placed in the ground by a man named Sam Strickland in 1858. Yet, it wasn’t until the 20th century that hazelnuts began to gain popularity as a commercial crop.

In 1903, George Dorris established Oregon’s first commercial hazelnut orchard in Springfield. His orchard consisted of 200 Barcelona trees planted on five acres, and the success of his orchard inspired other farmers in the area to follow suit. By the 1920s, hazelnut orchards had become a common sight in the Willamette Valley.

To say that things have boomed since then is an understatement. More than 45,000 acres of hazelnut orchards managed by more than 800 family farms cover Oregon today. Moreover, 3,000 acres of new trees are planted in the Beaver State annually. 

Oregon is such a superstar for hazelnut growth because the state has nutrient-rich volcanic soil combined with a moderate climate. It has mild, wet winters and dry summers, which are ideal growing conditions for hazelnuts.

Where Does the Name Hazelnut Originate From?

The name hazelnut is relatively modern. It only started being called like that by most people in the mid-20th century. It’s believed it is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “haesil”, which translates as “head-dress.” Very likely, this refers to the shape of the hazelnut’s husk.

There are more names connected to hazelnuts that are worth having a look at as well:

Filbert

The term “filbert,” sometimes used interchangeably with “hazelnut,” has a more complex origin. Some sources suggest it comes from the German “Vollbart,” meaning “full beard,” as the husk of the nut resembles a beard. A second theory is that it originated from the name “St. Philibert,” whose feast day is celebrated when the nuts are harvested.

Corylus

A Greek helmet with the same shape as a hazelnut hustk

Corylus is the Latin name for the hazel genus. Each of the hazelnut species uses it. For example, “Corylus avellana”, “Corylus americana”, etc.

Corylus comes from the Greek “korus”, which translates as “helmet”, referring to the shape of the husk.

Avellana

The common hazelnut (Corylus avellana), also known as European hazelnut, is the most cultivated and sold worldwide. Since the name also carries historical weight, I included it here. 

Avellana refers to the Avella area in the Campagna district of Italy. Hazelnuts were very popular and abundant in this area during the time of the ancient Greeks. It was believed that the best hazelnuts were produced there.

Interestingly, this is the name for hazelnuts in some romance languages:

  • Spanish: Avellana
  • Portuguese: Avelã

How Hazelnuts and Chocolate Met

Nowadays, hazelnuts are used to make a wide variety of chocolate-related treats. Some of those products became so popular that many people are introduced to hazelnuts because of them. 

The modern hazelnut popularity originates from two major events in recent centuries; the creation of Gianduja and Nutella.

The creation of Gianduja: Hazelnuts are combined with chocolate for the first time

Gianduja is a traditional Italian sweet originating in Turin in the early 19th century. It was made by blending hazelnut paste with chocolate to create bars or as a filling. To give you a better idea, it contained around 30% hazelnut paste.

It was created during a cocoa shortage caused by the continental system that Napoleon imposed. This blockade aimed to cut off British trade, and it ended up causing a shortage of cocoa in Italy. To make up for the lack of cocoa, the chocolatier Michele Prochet began adding hazelnuts to chocolate to stretch their supply, and thus, Gianduja was born. 

The first version was softer than what people were used to. Even if produced in the shape of bars, it was much smoother than typical chocolate. The sweet treat quickly became popular in the region.

The name Gianduja comes from a local carnival character in Turin who wore a tricorn hat and a mask and represented the city’s traditions and folklore. 

The story of Nutella: from wartime rationing to global phenomenon

Nutella is a world-renowned chocolate hazelnut spread that has become a household staple in many parts of the world. Nutella’s origins date back to the 1940s. Just like it happened with Gianduja, the Italian government was facing a cocoa shortage. This time, it was due to the rationing of supplies during World War II.

In 1946, pastry maker Pietro Ferrero, from Alba, created a recipe based on the original Gianduja. It was called Giandujot, the Piedmontese word for Gianduiotto, which is the diminutive of Gianduia. It was sold in loaves wrapped in foil and meant to be sliced and put on top of a slice of bread.

After Pietro’s death in 1949, the Ferrero family took care of the company. His son, Michele Ferrero, was responsible for creating “Supercrema Giandujot” in 1951, also known as “Supercrema”. The rebranding was a hit because the paste was now more creamy. That made it much more spreadable, which was one of the key selling points. 

A Nutella jar

After years of reaching new markets and improving the formula, Michaele decided to change the name to something that would remind English and German consumers of the hazelnut content in the cream. A few names were considered, and “Nutella” was ultimately chosen. It was a clever way of using the word “Nut” in the brand. In April 1964, Nutella was introduced to the market, becoming one of the most famous spreads in the world.

Final Thoughts 

While the early history of hazelnuts is still a little hazy, we know that humans have been nibbling these hard-shelled wonders for at least 10,000 years. 

One of the reasons why hazelnuts were so popular in ancient times is that, in some regions, these meaty nuts were more abundant than actual animal meat. Moreover, their hard shells were useful for creating baskets, jewelry, utensils, and other items. The tree provided wood for fire, coal, and even arrow shafts.

Nowadays, hazelnuts are used in a wide range of products, including chocolate, baked goods, skincare, and even coffee. In addition to being a tasty treat, hazelnuts are very healthy, making them a favorite of many health-conscious enthusiasts. 

The industry has become quite successful, and such a demand means that the hazelnut isn’t just a thing of the past; it also has a promising future.

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