Nuts about nuts

Categories: News and previews

Ahead of her upcoming demo, Slow Food UK board member and Borough Market regular Paula McIntyre explores her love of nuts

At the recent Slow Food Terra Madre festival in Turin, I was presented with some Ark of Taste cobnuts from Kent. Their popularity declined in the 20th century but this quirky delicacy is now enjoying a resurgence as our interest in forgotten foods has reignited.

While most nuts have a sultry, dark feel redolent of cold winter nights, crackling fires and crisp falling leaves, cobnuts have a verdant, creamy quality. They are hazelnut sized, lime green in colour and oval in shape, with a frazzled top and look a bit like a character from the Muppet Show. For as long as I can remember, a very traditional vegetable shop in my home town of Coleraine in Ireland, where a pineapple is as hardcore as you’re going to get, has always had a box of Kentish cobnuts on display at this time of year. It’s like a tick on the calendar and one that brightens up a typical dull day here.

We had a family ritual of picking hazelnuts from a nearby wood when I was growing up and that feeling of nostalgia rekindles when I see a cobnut. You can roast them to take away some of the freshness but I think a virtue should be made of this unique quality. They work well whizzed like a pesto with fresh parsley, lemon and garlic or cooked with brown butter to go with white fish or grilled game.

Tangy and luscious
While cobnuts are quintessentially English, walnuts on the other hand are grown around the globe. These woody-shelled orbs reveal wrinkly beige-covered white flesh. They’re as much prized for their nutritional value as for their tangy, luscious taste. They’re the perfect foil for rich cheeses, unctuous stews and lush salads. In desserts they have a special affinity with coffee—walnut and coffee cake is wonderfully tasty and comforting. They play a pivotal role in the Levantine dip muhamarra, mixed with roast peppers, chilli, cumin and pomegranate, their richness cutting through the zing and spice.

In medieval times, walnut oil was as prized as gold. Now it’s a treasured ingredient to use sparingly in dressings or as a finishing swish to roast lamb or a beautiful piece of flat fish fried in butter.

Stand-out experience
Every year I visit the Frosinone region of Italy and in early December the village of Terelle, near where I stay, hosts a chestnut festival where the nuts are roasted in the traditional style over flaming wood. They serve dishes using chestnuts, chestnut flour cakes and chestnut flower honey. I had gnocchi made with chestnut flour and served with wild boar ragu and it remains a stand-out eating experience for me.

My best experience though was when, one Christmas Eve, my friend’s dad, Nino Morelli, roasted chestnuts in his specially adapted frying pan with holes drilled in. He lined it with the shiny, dark nuts and cooked over an open flame. Once they started to blister and pop he wrapped them in newspaper. We peeled the skins and enjoyed the warm, smoky flesh with a glass of sweet, cool vin santo—perfect for an autumnal evening!

Join Paula for tips, tastings and recipes on Friday 7th October in the Market Hall, 12:30-2pm