I'VE never wondered why practically anything that is delicious toasted is called "nutty." The natural sugars and fats in nuts when heated provide the definitive taste of caramelization, against which seemingly everything else cooked with dry heat--even meat--is compared. Vegetarians, of course, often use nuts as meat surrogates, for their high protein content. But their high fat content has made them seem a poor choice for the weight-conscious.
I recently heard welcome news at a conference on nuts and legumes conducted by Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, where a series of respected nutritionists and weight researchers heartily endorsed nuts as an everyday part of the diet. The fats in nuts are mostly monounsaturated, the kind now in favor for their cholesterol-curbing properties. And in several trials people who ate even as much as half a cup of nuts every day in place of other fats not only improved their blood-cholesterol levels but reported that they felt sated and thus less tempted to overeat. Also, the subjects did not gain weight.
I didn't press the assembled experts to bless what is probably confectionary's finest marriage: hazelnuts and chocolate. I'd already heard other good news about hazelnuts, which to my mind have, along with pecans, the most distinctive and elegant flavor. Among all nuts hazelnuts are especially high in monounsaturated fats and vitamin E, currently much in favor for its properties as an antioxidant. I didn't push my luck by bringing up ice cream, either, whose finest forms include hazelnuts. ("Hazelnut" seems to have taken over from "filbert" as the general name. The difference was always only etymological; "filbert" probably derives from the French Saint-Philibert, whose feast day falls in late August, a few weeks before the nut's harvest; "hazelnut" is an Anglo-Saxon word.)
In the past year I have conducted a worldwide hazelnut hunt, prompted by my desire to duplicate a kind of biscotti unlike all others I've tasted in Italy. The best hazelnuts, I had heard, grow in the Piedmont, the region in the northwest of Italy that has always been the country's chocolate-making capital and is the home of gianduia, the ingot-shaped chocolate-hazelnut candy. But I needed different nuts for these biscotti, which are called tozzetti for their squat (tozzo), thumblike shape, and which are softer than the usual biscotti, because they include olive oil (and lard, if the baker knows the farmer who killed the pig). The cookies are native to a more southerly region that produces hazelnuts--the part of Lazio around Viterbo, north of Rome, where a friend's mother makes them every year after her family harvests the nuts in their small orchard.
I found a grower in Lazio, Carlo Torre, who is eager to export to America and who agreed to send me samples. For comparison I obtained Piedmont hazelnuts from the one U.S. importer who sells them. At local shops I bought hazelnuts from Oregon and Turkey, the two kinds commonly available here. Then I got serious, calling botanists in several countries to learn more about why the nuts I tried tasted so different from one another. By this time I was gearing up for my annual flourless baking at Passover, for which I always buy quantities of nuts. I also buy chocolates for friends who celebrate Easter, and the best chocolates rely on hazelnuts to complete their flavor.
Like many matches that in retrospect seem destined, the combination of hazelnuts and chocolate was a result of accident--wartime shortages. At the start of the nineteenth century, naval blockades imposed by the English against Napoleon reduced the supply of cacao arriving from the Americas. The chocolatiers of the Piedmont, which was under French occupation, used roasted and ground hazelnuts to extend their short supplies of cocoa solids. In the 1860s the company Caffarel, which still exists, wrapped the candies in gold or silver paper and gave them the name of a popular local marionette character, Giandoja, known for his merry gluttony. Their slim flatiron shape is said to recall the puppet's cap, but it was probably adopted out of practicality--the paste is too viscous to be molded in any detail. Now every Italian chocolatier produces what have become known generically as gianduiotti. Few labels bear the character's mask anymore, as the originals did, but the shape and the foil wrapping remain.
Today the world celebrates the marriage by eating Nutella, a chocolate-hazelnut spread that has become something of a mania in Italy, where children use it as frequently as we use peanut butter, and that has caught on in the United States, too. The brothers Ferrero began making the spread immediately after the Second World War, probably in response to renewed shortages of cocoa solids: the kilogram loaves in which Nutella was originally sold cost a quarter as much as the same weight of chocolate. Ferrero also had great success with its gold-wrapped chopped-hazelnut-and-chocolate "rock" (Rocher), similar to the famous silver-wrapped "kisses" (Baci) from the rival company Perugina. (Nothing, to my mind, rivals the star-strewn charm of the Baci wrapper, which encloses little sentimental messages in the spirit of those on pastel-colored candy hearts.) Ferrero says that today worldwide sales of Nutella exceed those of all brands of peanut butter combined, which to me seems only natural. Mars, unsurprisingly, has begun selling its own hazelnut-chocolate spread, named for its Milky Way bar; the dense brown-and-white cream comes striated.
LAST Christmas I had a chance to visit the family orchard that supplies the nuts for those irresistible tozzetti my friend's mother makes. I was surprised at how small a hazelnut tree, a member of the birch family, is--like a modest lilac. The trunks are seldom thicker than a forearm (U.S. trees are much larger), and the wood is said to be excellent for shepherd's sticks, because it doesn't splinter. There were still nuts on the trees, each tightly clustered with two or three distinctly lobed leaves, which are technically husks. The clusters look like beaten-gold oak leaves and acorns in Greek jewelry; I expect Martha Stewart to be gilding them soon.
The ground beneath the trees had been carefully cleared, because hazelnuts are collected after they fall. (Large growers use machines that catch the nuts in canvas hammocks.) In late August and early September, a few weeks before the nuts are ripe, the ground is raked--or, in recent times, sprayed with herbicides. Because hazelnuts grow best on hills near water, the use of herbicides has resulted in polluted aquifers, especially in the area around Viterbo; pollution and the need to return to older methods of clearing the land are currently much discussed.
In my taste comparisons I understood why Piedmont hazelnuts have retained their reputation. The flavor of Viterbese hazelnuts is very fine, but that of Piedmont nuts is more intense. Also, the skins of Piedmont nuts come off more easily after heating (skin adheres more or less tightly by variety), something that is crucial for candymakers who want to use whole nuts.
Any home baker knows how tedious it is to skin hazelnuts--an essential task, because the skins are high in astringent tannins. The usual trick is to enclose the roasted nuts in a clean dish towel and rub them together vigorously, which will remove most but not all of the skin. Another technique is to boil the nuts with a bit of baking soda in the water, which evidently loosens the skins enough so that you can rinse them off, but then you have to wait for the waterlogged nuts to dry thoroughly, or else roast them longer and with special care. The pastry chef and teacher Jim Dodge, of the New England Culinary Institute, instead mists hazelnuts with water before roasting them to loosen the skins. Flo Braker, the author of several definitive books on baking, offers a skinning tip I like: freeze hazelnuts after they are roasted, she says, and the skins will flake off easily. "That way you don't keep eating them while you're rubbing off the last pieces of skin," she says. "I always used to have to roast a good third again as many as I needed, because I knew how many my husband and I would eat while they were still hot."