Wednesday 25 November 2009

Witches, Hazels and helmets ...

Those Romans again .. they brought the “Greek Helmets” to England – the husk which partly covers the fruits – the hazelnuts - became known by the Greek generic word for a helmet. The hazel may well have already been here when the Romans came to conquer, as it is known to be one of the first plants to reclaim the lands when the glaciers withdraw. Stone Age man would also have included these nuts in his seasonal diet.

The hazel is one of the few trees to have been credited with magical properties: it was one of Thor’s trees and so the Saxons chose hazel groves as holy places. Thor was the Scandinavian god of thunder, as well as the god of the household and of peasants, while his name is perpetuated in our Thursday and in a number of place names.

The Filbert variety from America

The association of hazel becoming known as witch hazel probably arose from the Anglo Saxon word “wic-en” meaning to bend, which referred to the hazels pliant wands, or in Middle English “wiche” for witch. Both species of hazel twigs were used as divining rods, the American, a completely different type, and the English variety on the two continents.

Interestingly witch hazel as an astringent is produced from this different shrub, called “Witch Hazel” by the North Americans, which grows naturally in Nova Scotia west to Ontario and south to Florida and Texas. The plant was widely used for medicinal purposes by American Indians. The witch hazel extract was obtained by steaming the twigs.

Linnaeus gave the “wild nut of Avella” the scientific name of “avellana” from the Italian town, snugly perched high in the foothills, inland from Naples. Virgil recorded that the territory was not fertile in corn, but rich in fruit-trees, while the neighbourhood abounded in filberts or hazelnuts of a very choice quality.

The Romans almost certainly called for and were sent the Avellananux sylvestris species of hazelnut to stock the lands supplying this seasonal delicacy to the garrisons. The Kentish cobnut is a cultivated hazelnut (much as a Cox is a type of apple), with its long green husk (the helmet) encasing a milky-white, crunchy, moist kernel. Roman bakers were famous for their varieties of breads, fruit tarts, sweet buns and cakes – sadly none of these recipes exist today. Much as sweets are today, nuts were thrown to the crowds at festival times.

Dacquoise sandwiched with chocolate souffle cake layers, coffee buttercream and whipped cream: Picture by Kate of A Merrier World - an English cook and blogger

Wherever new lands were conquered stocks were sent for, so plants crossed the continents and Filbert seeds were among the list of Old World plants requested to be sent to the colonies by the Massachusetts Company in 1629. The Filbert nut is edible, and is very similar to the Common Hazel nut (or cob nut – as they have become known after cultivation in the 1800 and early 1900s).

The garden county of England - Kent – became the centre for the cobnut orchards supplying Victorian and Edwardian grand houses with a nutty gem to finish off their fine meals with the port and cheese: the railway line in 1838 had greatly facilitated Kent’s ability to transport its produce straight to the heart of London’s markets.

An English CobNut - bursting with nutty bunches

The Greensand Ridge with its free-draining soil is ideal for the short, gnarly cobnut trees frown in plantations (locally known as “platts”) and on a sunny day, the platts resemble a Tuscan olive grove. The demand for cobnuts waned after the First World War, when labour became much more expensive, and there were enormous technological changes in indudstrial machinery available for working the land, as well as a requirement for more profitable horticultural production.

Now seventy years later cobnuts are once again being championed as a seasonal local fresh food. The cob platts went into decline, apples first, soft fruits following, before in the new millennium today’s farmers are looking to different crops from which to make a profit. Kent now has a wider range of marketable produce available to the London markets, but also importantly to the local farmers’ markets and local restaurants.

The Romans were wise – six of today’s cobnuts are said to contain the same amount of protein as 4 oz sirloin steak, while they are brimful of vitamin E, calcium and other life-enhancing substances. They’re ideal for vegetarians and can be eaten fresh in salads, chopped up lightly, mixed with a little olive oil and a dash of flaky salt and then spread over a salad, or freshly boiled vegetables. They can be pounded with bread, garlic and oil, lightly fried and once again make a topping for vegetables, or casserole.

The garden county of Kent in south east England

Chocolate is the word we might well associate with nuts today – as in praline, or Quality Street’s hazelnut with caramel (“the purple one” - as below), or fruit and nut bars, home-made hazelnut truffles sound good to me, as do chocolate filled hazelnut meringues, or how about a gold foil wrapper revealing a silky milk chocolate with hazelnut praline and small pieces of roasted hazelnuts.

Tradition and culture still remain with us – the lore of the 7th century French monk, St Philbert, whose saint’s day is August 20th, reminds us that for centuries this is the earliest that the cobnut can be picked. In September ripe cobnuts abound ready for the picking. They will keep fresh, and if placed in the fridge with a tiny pinch of salt will keep until Christmas and the New Year – a good fresh nutritious snack readily available to take away some of the Christmas richness.

Dear Mr Postman, amongst these continuing gales and heavy rains, we are having a quiet period .. my mother is sleeping much more – but seems in reasonable health.

Happy Thanksgiving to all Americans ..

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Liara Covert said...

The concept of "witch hazel" sometimes scares people away because of fear of the occult. In truth, this substance is used as "divining rods" to locate underground sources of water.

Also, extracts from the leaves, twigs, and bark were used to reduce inflammation, stop bleeding, and check secretions of the mucous membranes. Traditional versus unconventional views on this substance vary widely. Feel its energy and decide for yourself.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. thanks for that information .. the witch hazel is an amazing plant, and it is interesting to know these healing properties.

We had witch hazel spread over us to stop jelly fish stings - and the witch hazel stung more I think! .. my grandmother's delight at annointing us .. -I'm sure it did some good - jelly fish hurt!

Thanks for your knowledge ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Annabel Candy said...

Love the smell of witch hazel. What a pleasure to annoint yourself with it. Almost makes the pain worthwhile.

And I was thinking about the cob nut tree in my childhood garden in the UK the other day. Thought it was a hazel nut tree though. The nuts tasted different but I thought it was because they were fresh whereas shop bought hazels were kind of old and stale. It sounds as if they're a different variety of hazel nut though.

3 cheers to the Romans who trekked them over and to you for writing about it:)

The Media Destroys Kids said...

Hi Hilary! Happy Thanksgiving and for you wonderful informative posts, you sure do a lot of reaserch for this blog that is why it is so great! Congrats on twenty followers and so many comments and your posts, you are doing a wonderful job next week I will do a post about your blog to let all of my homeschooling followers what a great resource for info this blog is..

Thanks To Your Success!

From Joanne Utke

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

H i annabel
thank you I amin Manchester and will reply properly on Monday

Have a good weekend. Hilaryi

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi joanne. Thank you
I am up north on a course Back mom and will reply properly then

enjoy the weekend. Love hilary

Wilma Ham said...

Hi Hilary

I love these facts about things I take for granted and never think about. I use witch hazel in the morning after I washed my face. I never questioned what it was, now I know.
How fun.
We have macademia nut trees, the shells are so hard. Yet the rats can make a perfect hole and eat the nut inside, fascinating to see.

Love to you both as always, Wilma

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi wilma
thankyou The rats are an interesting aspect
I will be back on monday to answer properly
enjoy the weekend hilary

Megan "JoyGirl!" Bord said...

I had sort of forgotten that back when America was settled by the Europeans, plants were carried across the ocean and cultivated on a new continent.
I love hazelnuts, too... And of course, when chocolate is wrapped around them, all the better!
In my household growing up, we didn't eat many nuts as plain nuts. My best friend, though, had a bowl full of them, with a nutcracker to boot, and I always thought that was the neatest thing!
Thank you for bringing this information to the forefront of my mind, Hilary!

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi megan

Nutcrackers are great little tools and it's interesting you did not have nuts
but your friend did
back Monday bye til then

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

It is good to know more about these great nuts and all that they can do. What a great thing for our bodies and so many ways to use them. Have a great weekend.

Thank you for the Thanksgiving wishes.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Robin Easton said...

Dear Hilary, I cannot get over how smart you are. You are a fountain of endless information that is so unique. This just blew me away.

...and I LOVE witch hazel. Even the name is scintillating and invigorating to me, just like the WH I use on my face sometimes. I got some from the health food store that was, believe it or not, organic (very inexpensive)and it is DIVINE. The smell of it is just amazing. I've used it some mornings just because it's so bracing and wakes me right up.

You are in my thoughts Hillary.
I am sending love to you.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi robin
thankyou for those lovely comments
back tomorrow
love hilary

Paul Maurice Martin said...

Always liked hazel nuts, thanks for all this information --

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Paul .. many thanks for coming over and am pleased you like hazel nuts - they are lovely fresh. I appreciate your comment -
all the very best -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Annabel - I agree it does have a stimulating scent.

I'm sure like us your tree was a hazel tree - the cobs are a cultivated variety: and are a speciality in the highly suitable well drained soil in Kent.

Yes the freshness of the hazel is completely different - that milky white bite is so wonderful .. and the longer they are stored the drier they get.

The Romans did do us rather a lot of favours and spread fruits, plants and trees, as well as tastes around their Empire, I agree.

Thanks so much for visiting and commenting -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspriational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Joanne .. thank you so much and I'm so pleased that you find the blog so informative ... I just enjoy looking things up and presenting ideas that interest me, and perhaps aspects that we forget about - easy to not think about in the year 2009.

Gosh .. I am so grateful that you're going to blog about it - that will be amazing and I'll be so interested to see 'what happens'!

Good to see you here and be in contact again via the blog .. Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend - we wait for Christmas for our big celebratory get togethers.

You too - good for you for home schooling the kids .. and for your involvement in helping others ..

All the best and have a really good week!
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspriational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Wilma -

So pleased you like the facts and I'm able to highlight different ideas that stimulate your interest. Witch hazel has certain spread around the world in various ways .. I too certainly used to use it years ago.

Yes - we had macademias in South Africa - and they are mostly grown now in the southern hemisphere .. while also being found in California. So interesting that the rats can get the whole nut out - and I guess it must be so interesting to watch .. hope I can one day.

Thanks for your love to us both -
Have a really good week -

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspriational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Megan ..

I'm always amazed at how life as we know it today has developed and where our plants and animals came from, let alone evolved over the centuries.

Fresh hazel nuts are so delicious, but chocolate and hazels have to be my favourite too. This weekend I saw hazelnut salami on an Italian Christmas stand - and I'd meant to go and ask whether it had come from Avella - but it was tipping it down with rain .. so I didn't venture out!

I always remember searching for the one pair of nutcrackers we had in our house, or where one of us had left them after our feast of nut cracking! .. which would come out at this time of year and be in our bowl of nuts.

Glad it brought back happy memories from a few years ago of childhood! Enjoy the week ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspriational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Dear Robin ..

Many thanks .. I'm so grateful you're enjoying the posts .. I just bring a few facts together that I know or usually don't know - but find out! and put them together in a 'rolling story or letter'. I can tell you I'm staggered at what I find out .. and find it so interesting myself. Just so pleased you enjoy the bits and bobs I present here on the blog.

I hadn't realised how popular witch hazel still is .. to me I remember it from my childhood! Perhaps it's back more in the health shops - I'll have to look. So interesting to find organic witch hazel! The smell can be intoxicating .. and even though I don't have any - I can still remember it from years ago.

I am so grateful for your thoughts and love .. sending back to you - as long as you are up and running again and online with this wonderful internet .. til it crashes us out!

Have a better week, less frustrating of computer problems!

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspriational Stories

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. thanks for coming over - your post has only just come over for some reason. They are certainly valuable to our health, particularly the fresh ones as they are so delicious and nutritious.

Have a good week - build up to Christmas!
All the best - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories