Nuts, of all sorts, have been part of all our family gatherings. Christmas, Easter, or special event dinners at my Nonno and Nonna’s table brings up memories of talking, playing cards, and cracking nuts. Filbert nuts and walnuts are easily grown in our climate so they formed the bulk of the nuts we shared. For special dinners, a few Brazil nuts and almonds were usually thrown into the mix. Nut crackers and picks were essential tools in most Italian homes that made the job of cracking these nuts easier.
In many parts of the world, filberts are known as hazelnuts. That's because the feast day, or celebration, for France's St. Philbert is held on August 20. This happens to be the same time that hazelnuts are ready to be harvested. Because of that coincidence, in Europe, where hazelnuts are widely eaten, the nuts are known as filberts. Although the terms filbert and hazelnut are used interchangeably, filbert typically refers to commercially cultivated crops of hazelnuts.
In the Piemonte region of Italy, the filbert is held in reverence. In her March 13, 2015 article, “Italian Hazelnuts: The great history of a small nut”, Emilia Crippa describes the “round noble from Piedmont” in elegant terms. These special filberts are gown in protected geographical regions that provide a guarantee of excellence in a globalized world, which often rewards large-scale businesses over tradition and specialization.
The Tonda Gentile Trilobata hazelnut is considered by connoisseurs to be one of the very best. It's widely used in the area to produce a traditional cake called Torta di Nocciola, a famous chocolate confection of Turin known as Gianduja, and a grape preserve called cugnà to accompany bollito misto (a northern Italian stew) or cheese.
Filberts can be used in many different ways, such as the base of alcoholic liqueurs, in cakes, cookies, and chocolate production, and in soups, salads, and other savory dishes. Filberts can also be used to make a high-quality finishing oil, or as a flavoring for coffee and other beverages. They make superb gelato too. They are also excellent simply toasted and served before a meal with hors d'oeuvres or after with cheese.
In 2019, the world production of hazelnuts (in shells) was 1.1 million tonnes. The hazelnut production in Turkey accounts for 69% of the world total, followed by Italy, Azerbaijan, the United States, Chile, and China. Ferrero SpA, the maker of Nutella and Ferrero Rocher, uses 25% of the global supply of hazelnuts.
Growing filberts in many parts of Italy has become a fine art. In the area in Piedmont between Asti, Cuneo and Alessandria, know-how and beauty make up for quantity: trees are grown with elegant regularity, and feature a lithe trunk – especially in the bushy variant – that even newcomers cannot help but notice. Farming and picking techniques have been combined and fine-tuned in order to allow for higher yield while respecting the identity and tradition of the local territory: trees are planted exactly 5 meters apart in hazelnut orchards, leaving just enough room for a self-propelled picking machine.
In many towns annual filbert festivals are held. If you want to enter the universe dedicated to Nocciola Piemonte, visit Cortemilia, in the Langhe region, in August. The Sagra della nocciola, nearing 70 years of celebrations, turns the small town in the province of Cuneo into the capital of this delicious gift of nature.
1. “Italian Hazelnuts: The great history of a small nut”, by Emilia Crippa, March 13, 2015 https://www.italianways.com/italian-hazelnuts-the-great-history-of-a-small-nut/
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