These are hazelnuts picked from trees in our garden. If you’ve ever wondered why eyes that aren’t quite brown yet aren’t quite green are called hazel; here’s your answer. They start green and slowly transform into brown as they ripen.
Song of Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
William Butler Yeats, 1899
Hazel trees most often grow alongside a mix of other hedgerow shrubs and trees but sometimes you can find them as standalone trees. They are found all over Ireland and Great Britain.
The nuts are best left until mid-September as they tend to be squishy and bland before then. According to Food For Free by Richard Mabey, they contain “50% more protein, seven times more fat and five times more carbohydrate than hen’s eggs.” This is weight-for-weight, however, and let me tell you – you need to pick a LOT of wild hazelnuts to get a decent feed.
If I’m baking, I buy nuts to roast or use pre-ground meal. Hazel meal can replace almond meal in most recipes where it gives a deeper flavour with less sweetness.
In Irish, hazel is coll which once had a connotation of chieftain. The Tuatha dé Danann prized the plough, the sun and the hazel tree above everything else. These three items also allegedly symbolise the three branches of Celtic society: peasantry, warriors and nobles, and the druids.
The hazel features in many Celtic myths and is associated with wisdom. The salmon of knowledge is supposed to have fed on hazelnuts falling from the nine hazel trees representing the arts, sciences and inspiration.
The salmon, having been caught by the druid Finnéigeas, was supposed to have been guarded as it cooked by a boy name Fionn mac Cumhall (Finn Mac Cool). But when it came to flipping the fish over to prevent it burning, Fionn burned his thumb. Sensibly, he popped his thumb in his mouth to relieve the pain – and promptly gained all knowledge.
Later, as the great warrior and leader of the Red Branch knights, Fionn would suck his thumb whenever he needed an answer to a dilemma.
The Irish god of love, Aengus Óg, is said to have carried a hazel wand – no doubt the inspiration for WB Yeats’ poem, the Song of Wandering Aengus.
Hazel sticks, especially if forked, are traditionally used as a divining tool to find water. Hazel is also supposed to be protection against both snakes and fairies, but there are also tales of hazel wands being used to make magic.