Damn it. I’ve never been in Kent on St Philibert’s Day to join in the green nutting and maybe never will. August 20, traditional start of the cobnut picking season, has come and gone again. ‘’Garden of England’ or ‘One Big Lorry Park’, whatever, in late summer the county produces one of my favourite foodstuffs, the creamiest of fresh nuts, And hops, to which I am also no stranger, but the ale enhancers are another vivid green seasonal story.
Actually, seventh century serial abbey founder Saint Philibert of Jumièges is a bit of a red herring here. It just so happens his feast day coincides with the optimum cobnut ripening moment. He’s not quite in the same league as St Swithins, the patron saint of 40 day weather apps. Still Philibert’s name lives on in the word filbert, like cob nut a confusing variant of hazelnut.
Manchester food historian Dr Neil Buttery makes a good fist of explaining the similarities and differences of the trio in his British Food History blog. He also provides a delicious recipe for Kentish Cobnut Cake, featuring preserved stem ginger and honey.
Neil is always scrupulous about source material and this time references an entry in the magisterial The Taste of Britain by Catherine Brown and Laura Mason (the Leeds-based writer and researcher, who sadly died this year). I couldn’t resist dipping in again. Region by region, this details 400 foodstuffs that might be defined as ‘longstanding’ (in commercial exploitation for more than three generations), linked to ‘terroir’ and distinctive. The Kentish Cobnut sits proudly between the Grenadier Apple and the Leveller Gooseberry. With the totally distinctive Medlar fruit just over the page.
I learn that the hazelnut (Coryllus avellana), dating back to Neolithic times, is indigenous to the whole of the UK and has been cultivated since at least the 16th century. Cobnuts grew wild. Kids picked them to use as an earlier form of conkers.
Diarist John Evelyn, in his tree treatise Sylva, declared “They crop more plentifully if the ground be somewhat moist, dankish and mossie, as in the fresher bottoms, and the sides of hills, hoults, and in the hedgerows.“
The word cob originates from the Middle English cobbe, referring to a ’round object’, and filbert derives from the German Vollbart which refers to a ‘full beard’ that the husk of a hazelnut resembles. It covers the entire nut, while the cobnut is more exposed.
In Kent they were always grown in mixed husbandry with hops, apples and cherries in orchards called plats. The nut known as the Kentish Filbert was white skinned. In the19th century it was supplanted by an improved variety called Lambert’s Filbert, soon to be renamed the Kentish Cobnut. I told you it was confusing. By early 1900s there were 7,000 acres, mostly in Kent, given over to hazelnuts – before dwindling to the current handful. New orchards are now being planted, testimony to the nutritional value of nuts in our quest for wellbeing. Cobnuts are rich in Vitamin E and calcium.
All this back story is the perfect preparation for the bowl of Kentish Cobnuts I’m unsheathing and shelling in the garden (it can get messy, especially when you soak the nuts in water to ease the process). I just feel lucky to have them. Thanks to Valley Veg (above), which pops up in Mytholmroyd along the valley every Saturday morning with more, much more, than the usual fruit and veg suspects.
You can, of course, order online from producers, addresses of which can be found on the Kentish Cobnuts Association website. The season is short (ending mid-October). Cobnuts are marketed fresh, not dried like most other nuts such as walnuts and almonds. At the beginning of the season the husks are green and the kernels moist and milky. Nuts harvested later on have brown shells and husks plus a fuller flavour and you might be able to keep them in the fridge until that nuttiest of times, Christmas.
I’m nibbling my lightly roasted ‘nouveau’ nuts, freshly salted, with a glass of my favourite Palo Cortado sherry.
Besides baking the cake I plan to sprinkle crushed nuts onto a dish of baked salsify and Ogleshield cheese and onto an old favourite soup from The Ethicurean cookbook (Ebury Press, £25) that uses up our remaining courgettes. The restaurant operates from an original glasshouse built in 1901 as part of an estate in the Mendip Hills. The walled kitchen garden supplies the restaurant with grapes, greengages, apricots, beans, cabbages, herbs and much more.
ROASTED COURGETTE AND COBNUT SOUP WITH LABNEH AND GINGER TURMERIC AND MINT DRESSING
1kg small firm courgettes, sliced into 2cm pieces; rapeseed oil; 500g onions finely sliced; 250g carrots finely sliced; 250g celery finely sliced; 1tsp salt plus more for final seasoning; 40g fresh cobnuts, chopped, then lightly toasted.
For the labneh: 500g Greek yoghurt; ½tsp salt; 1tbsp chopped marjoram; 1tbsp chopped oregano.
For the dressing: 85ml rapeseed oil; 50ml cider vinegar; 1tsp English mustard; ½tsp ground ginger; ¼tsp ground turmeric; 1tsp chopped mint.
Make the labneh a day in advance. Line a sieve with muslin and put the yoghurt in it, stirring in salt. Wrap into a bundle over a deep bowl to drain overnight. Next day discard the liquid. To make the dressing blend all the ingredients together.
Heat the oven to 200C/Gas Mark 6. Toss the courgettes with a little rapeseed oil, then spread on a roasting tin. Roast in oven for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat a film of rapeseed oil in a large saucepan and add onions carrots and celery; sweat for 10-15 minutes until tender. Stir so the veg doesn’t colour. Add roasted courgettes and sweat for 5 minutes longer. Add water to barely cover and bring to a simmer. Add salt and after five minutes blitz in a blender (in batches if necessary). If too thick for you, pas through a fine sieve to create a more velvety mouthfeel. Now season to taste, reheat gently and serve in bowls topped with a tablespoon of labneh, a scattering of chopped cobnuts and a drizzle of mustard dressing.