Sweet as a nut

Categories: Features

In the week that scandal blew up around the Nutella supply chain, Clare Finney visited a hazelnut farm that offers both exceptional produce and a strong moral compass

Images: Orlando Gili

On Thursday last week, the BBC broke the news that Ferrero, the maker of Nutella, could well be sourcing their hazelnuts from farms which hire poor, migrant child labourers. At the same time, myself and the Borough Market team were waving goodbye to the Bruna family and their mist-wreathed hazelnut farm in the Alta Langa region of Italy’s Piedmont. The timing could be described as ironic, were the news story not so distressing. “Nearly three-quarters of the world’s hazelnuts come from Turkey,” the journalist Tim Whewell informed us, “and the biggest buyer is Ferrero.” Though the company is aiming for 100 per cent traceability by 2020, it’s achieved only 39 per cent traceability so far, according to its forthcoming report. As such, the possibility of child labour cannot be ruled out, though the company are committed to doing so soon.

The story left a bitter taste in the mouth of Nutella lovers, who had probably assumed theirs was at least a morally innocent indulgence, if not a nutritional one. For consumers already besieged by bad news at breakfast time, this was a particularly cruel twist of the bread knife. It’s hard to believe something as innocuous as a nut could entail such suffering. Yet ethical hazelnuts are available—as we had spent the last two hours discovering at Brunas’ Cascina Valcrosa farm, which supplies the toasted hazelnuts, raw hazelnuts and hazelnut nibs sold at the Food and Forest stall in Borough Market.

It’s hard to regulate nut farming standards in Turkey. There are about 400,000 family-owned hazelnut orchards, as many pickers (most of whom are Kurdish migrants) and legions of middlemen, from contractors, to traders, to brokers. By way of contrast, the Bruna family sell direct to retailers, having relatively recently brought all of their processes ‘in house’. Their trees are planted five metres apart to allow for maximum sunlight and promote maximum yield, and their nuts—large, round and russet-brown, with a crisp fine shell—are only reaped once they’re ripe and have fallen to the ground. There is no exploitation, no child labour; just the Bruna brothers, their father and their few employees working tirelessly during the harvest period of August and September—though not so tirelessly they don’t take an hour for a homemade lunch which they eat all together every day.

Nut harvesting machine

Rainy days
The harvesting machine looks like something straight out of Willy Wonka’s factory, with rakes, vacuums, belts and forklifts. When it works, it works brilliantly: hazelnuts are collected gently, the leaf and twig debris are removed (“for compost”) and the nuts laid out in the sunshine to dry. This is the ideal. The difficulty, says Fabrizio, comes when it rains, leaving the ground too wet for the machine to work so they must rake and collect by hand—a long and arduous process. If there is no sun (and there wasn’t, last Thursday) they use a warm air dryer, drying being “important for good conservation” as well as, like the space between the trees and the harvesting off the forest floor, a stipulation of the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI).

This PGI is vital to the quality of the nuts, to the sustainability of the farms, and to the population of the region, many of whom are dependent on this industry. It protects them from competition from producers outside of Piedmont, who do not share the area’s unique topography, altitude (Alta Langa is 700 metres above sea level) or microclimate. It also ensures maximum traceability, as not only must the packaging also bear the indications ‘Piedmont hazelnut’ or ‘Hazelnut from Piedmont’, it must include the name, company and address of the packaging company.

The Cascina Valcrosa farm is small and simply managed. The Bruna family have lived here for generations, growing hazelnuts, grapes, grass and grain, and only recently—when Fabrizio and his brother Silvano took over—did they choose to transform their production, setting up a shelling plant and production laboratory and converting the farm almost entirely to hazelnuts, save for a little bit of honey and wine.

Fabrizio and Silvano

Playing the long game
This is no story of biodiversity reduction, however. Far from it: Cascina Valcrosa is surrounded by forest. Every January, when the Bruna’s hazelnut trees flower, they are pollinated via the wind not just by each other, but by the wild hazelnut trees in the forests around. The family are as rooted in the land as their vines and hazelnut trees, which they grow chemical-free, protected from pests by fences and from diseases by copper sulphate and judicious spacing. They play the long game here: “Hazelnut trees cannot be harvested until they are eight years old and will produce for another 30 or 40 years before production starts to decline.”

Even processing isn’t quick. After drying, the nuts are sorted into different size categories, shelled and then roasted in a contraption that Fabrizio reveals was built for coffee beans. After roasting, they are painstakingly sorted by hand: those with insects or stowaway pieces of skin or shell are removed by a patient, beady-eyed woman who—because the job demands her utmost attention—takes regular breaks.

Ferrero are trying to address the issues of child and exploitative labour with a Farming Values programme that offers training to all hazelnut stakeholders on how the sector can be made more ethical and sustainable—but there’s a long road to travel. In the meantime, let’s champion those retailers and small-scale producers whose hazelnuts are guaranteed to nurture families, communities and the landscape.