A plain cook: cobnuts

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In her regular series, award-winning blogger and best-selling author Laura Hutton explores simple ingredients that can make the daily necessities a delicious pleasure. This month: cobnuts

Words: Laura Hutton

After a summer of globetrotting and foreign food, September is a welcome month. School is back (hooray!) and it is great to be home. I say that—almost—completely wholeheartedly. There was a point a few weeks back when we were discussing the pros and cons of actually living in a hotel, preferably one on an island somewhere warm. It was hard to find the cons, finances aside.

But come back we did, and it was a good decision. There is comfort in the familiar, in daily routines, in sleeping in my own bed. And I really missed the dog.

So now it’s back to the dog-walking routine too, and in order to not be completely boring I vary the route for the weekend. There is one route for Saturdays and on Sundays we take in the local farmers’ market. Dog is particularly fond of the sausage seller and I made a new friend, the Nut Farms stallholder—purveyor of cobnuts. This particular merchant also trades at Borough Market on Fridays so you too can get some, but the dog will have to stay home.

Lured in for a taste
Last weekend, with a tourist spirit still intact, instead of thinking solely about what I might need for the next few days I reminded myself to look beyond the necessary. It is important to keep trying new things, even at home. Besides, it is difficult to ignore a pretty display of golden oils, like the one at the Nut Farms stand. I was lured in for a taste and emerged a few bottles and bags-full-of-nuts heavier. It was a combination of good products, excellent selling technique and me being a sucker, basically.

But underlying the nut-buying frenzy was genuine curiousity. I had never tasted a cobnut before and if you haven’t either, seek some out. Even if you have, they are one of the rare truly seasonal ingredients around and this alone needs to be celebrated.

Once out of their frilly husks, cobnuts look like hazelnuts, and even the taste is similar. To make matters more confusing, cobnuts are the cultivated variety of wild hazels, but there are also filberts—another name for cultivated hazels.

Whatever you call them, these nuts are not a new thing. Cultivation can be traced back to the 16th century, and orchards flourished in England, especially in Kent, until the First World War. But by 1990, there were only an estimated 250 acres of orchards remaining, compared to 7,000 in 1913. The decline, like most agricultural decline, is attributed to the high cost of labour; as cheap imports became more readily available, home-grown orchards were left derelict.

A fleeting delight
Fresh cobnuts are a fleeting delight, so enjoy them while you can. They keep best in a colander in the fridge and as long as the casings are light green and fresh looking, the nuts will be fine. You can dry any you do not manage to eat by keeping them in a well aerated, dry space (hang a mesh bag somewhere dark and cool, for example). They are also excellent roasted.

In cooking, use them as you would hazelnuts or even almonds. The oil is a real treat, golden and nutty and best drizzled over a salad or roasted veg; you only need a little as the taste is so strong. Buy in small quantities and keep in a cool, dark place, or refrigerate after opening as it will go off quickly.

The fresh nuts can, and should, be devoured as is. But seeing as how the point of going to the market is as much about exercising the dog as it is about getting food, I still needed to put a meal on the table that evening. With only a bag full of oil and nuts, essentially, I concocted a pesto out of roasted cobnuts and nasturtium leaves from the garden which went down a treat.

Read Laura’s recipe for cobnut & nasturtium leaf pesto