Hazelnut hunting in Piemonte
Nestled in the steep hills of the breath-taking UNESCO world heritage site of the Langhe hills in Piemonte are the family run hazelnut farms of Cascina Valcrosa and Cascina Barroero.
As we stroll through the leafy groves the stories our guides tell us are a mixture of the history of their farms, tales from its every day workings and an education on the world famous nocciola del Piemonte IGP (hazelnuts from Piemonte IGP).
Nocciola del Piemonte IGP are famous for their plump almost round shape and their silky smooth rich creamy taste.
These very special hazelnuts are protected under a classification called an Indicazione Geografica Protetta, or IGP. This is a geographical classification and it means that only hazelnuts (nocciola) grown between Cuneo, Asti, and Alessandria in Italy’s north western region of Piedmont can have the classification “of Piemonte IGP”.
To maintain their IGP status the trees growing these very special type of hazelnuts have to be planted at least 4-5 meters apart with no other crop growing between.
The trees cannot be irrigated. They only water they can receive is from rain fall.
To retain their classification the hazelnuts must be sold within one year of being harvested.
Hazelnut trees prefer a sandy soil.
The trees produce the most hazelnuts when they are between 15-20 years old, with each tree producing between 5-9kg of hazelnuts.
Hazelnut trees are pollinated by the wind. Male flowers grow between September and January and bloom in January. Female flowers both grow and bloom in January.
Hazlenuts (nocciola) begin to grow in May when there is more than 10 ½ hours of sunlight per day. For the first few months of their lives the hazelnuts are green. It is only in July and August the wooden outer shell develops with the hazelnut inside.
At the end of August and the beginning of September the hazelnuts fall to the ground where they lie ready to be harvested.
I had thought that each tree gets to live out its life until it is no longer of service, but I learnt that this is not the case. On Cascina Barroero when the trees reach the age of 40 years old, they are cut down and their roots removed. On Cascina Valcrosa they are more conservative and keep their trees in service until they are 50.
The earth is left to rest for 3-4 years. The soil is fertilised, ploughed and alfalfa grass grown. alfalfa grass is grown for a number of reasons. It stops the top soil from slipping away when it rains, acts as a blanket preventing the ground from freezing in winter and because it is a nitrogen fixing plant it acts as natural fertiliser. On Cascina Barroero the grass is also used to feed the animals in the dry season.
New trees are grown, not as I had thought directly from a nocciola, but from a cutting taken from the bottom of a tree. Fabrizio our guide on Cascina Valcrosa explained to us that if a new tree grows directly from a Nocciola del Piemonte IGP the hazelnuts this tree produces will be a wild variety that are long and narrow in shape.
On Cascina Valcrosa it takes between 20-31 days to gather up all of the hazelnuts as they perform two separate harvests. One early and one late. On Barroero the whole family pitches in and they do one harvest which takes them two-weeks.
To make it easier to harvest the hazelnuts, the ground between the trees needs clear. On Barroero they keep 13 sheep as organic lawn mowers.
Camilla (our host on Barroero) told us how her family had to search high and low for the perfect breed. The first sheep they bought locally were far too energetic, jumping up and eating the hazelnuts off the trees. On the third try they found their perfect herd of plump, docile, lazy lambs from the island of Texel in the Netherlands.
Sorting, Drying, Shelling & Roasting
The tools used to pick up the hazelnuts also collect loose leaves and stones. A machine is used to sort the hazelnuts from the detritus. It is calibrated so that air pushes out lighter objects such as leaves and empty shells and heavier items such as stones are pushed to the bottom.
Where possible the hazelnuts are left to dry in shell in the sun. If this is not an option, they are machine dried on settings that replicate a warm sunny Piemonte day. Hazelnuts dried in shell can remain fresh for up to two years.
The dried hazelnuts are then put into a machine to break the shell. As it breaks each shell the machine simultaneously separates the hazelnuts by size.
The sorted nuts are then run in their group sizes through a second machine to remove the shell. The shells are collected and used for fuel. After shelling the nuts must be bagged and stored between 6-7 degrees to keep them fresh.
Fabrizio regaled us with tales of how his father, the original proprietor of Cascina Valcrosa, used his own very special techniques to determine if the hazelnuts were dry.
First his dad would take a generous handful of hazelnuts and squeeze them together. If the hazelnuts flew everywhere, they were almost certainly ready. To be certain he would then hold the nocciola up to his ear and give them a good old shake. If the hazelnuts rattled around in their shells, they were good to go.
Roasting & Taste
On Barroero we delved into the taste profile of the nuts. In Camilla’s experience bigger hazelnuts because they have grown over a longer period of time produce more oil and fat and tend to taste milkier. Smaller hazelnuts she finds are higher in fibre and protein per gram and taste a little bit woodier.
On both farms the roasting times and temperatures of the hazelnuts depend on the size of the nuts. The smaller hazelnuts on Valcrosa are chopped up and used to make hazelnut cream or gianduja. On Barroero the smaller hazelnuts are used for baking biscuits and cakes.