Native to Asia, the hazel shrub was known in ancient Rome, where twigs were given as gifts in the hope of bringing happiness, whereas in Germany it was considered a symbol of fertility. For the Druids, religious leaders in ancient Celtic culture, the hazel was sacred. Other bygone civilisations also celebrated its miraculous properties. Throughout history its use is broad - Moses’ staff, magic wands, the caduceus (the symbol of Hermes and of medicine) and even divining rods are all said to have been made of hazel wood.
This tree with its flavoursome fruit found its ideal habitat in the Mediterranean basin. From there it spread to Turkey, Spain, France and, of course, to Italy. Italy cultivates two varieties of hazelnut: elongated and round, of which the Tonda Gentile Trilobata variety is considered the most prized.
The best round hazelnuts come from the Langhe, in the provinces of Cuneo and Asti. Cultivated
according to precise regulations, they have a spherical shape and a tender, fragrant flesh. In 1993,
the Tonda Gentile delle Langhe was granted IGP (Protected Geographical Identification)
certification, through the broader definition of the Piedmont Hazelnut.
The history of hazelnuts in Piedmont is relatively recent: before the Second World War, the Langhe was largely dedicated to the production of fodder, wine, cereals and fruit. Hazelnut groves being reserved only for the most inaccessible land. At this time, hazelnut oil was used locally rather than olive oil because it was cheaper and more readily available.
In 1942 the explosion of hazelnut cultivation in the area was largely due to Pietro Ferrero who opened a pastry shop in Alba. He chose to use hazelnuts as the key ingredient in his products because of their abundance and, at the time, low cost. The exponential growth of the Ferrero confectionery company, now a worldwide giant, has undoubtedly contributed to the development of hazelnut groves in the Bassa and Alta Langa.
In the years following, the market for the PGI* Piedmont Hazelnut has expanded thanks to artisans in
the confectionery sector, to pastry chefs and to ice cream producers. Switzerland, a leading
chocolate producer, is also now a major user. The Piedmont Hazelnut remained a niche product until
the 2000s, when the vicissitudes of the wine and livestock sectors pushed small Piedmontese
entrepreneurs, and also those outside the ‘area of origin’, to abandon their vineyards
and stables and to plant hazelnut groves. Not all of the Tonda Gentile growers in the Langhe were
able to join the PGI register when it was started, but the quality of their product - the same
cultivar - can still be found today under the name Tonda Gentile Trilobata.
* (Protected Geographic Origin, in Italian IGP)
The enlargement of the hazelnut production area to include the whole region had a negative impact as
inferior products were included under the umbrella of the PGI Piedmont Hazelnut. These products do
not represent the same high quality due to different climatic conditions, soil composition and
susceptibility to disease
Recently, in a Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry communique dated 19 September 2019, the European Union definitively approved an amendment to the PGI Piedmont Hazelnut specification, with the introduction of the name "Langhe" exclusively for hazelnuts grown in this specific area. As a result it is now possible to differentiate by using the name "IGP Piedmont Hazelnut of the Langhe" only for hazelnuts, and products containing them that come exclusively from the Bassa and Alta Langa. This is an acknowledgement of the superior quality of the original product.
The round nuts are protected by a hard shell. The serated leaf that wraps around the shell is called a bract and the hard, compact fruit is wrapped in a brownish skin that adheres to the seed. The ripe hazelnuts are harvested in late summer, stored in temperature controlled silos and come to the market in autumn. To fully appreciate their taste, hazelnuts should be consumed within a year of production and stored in a cool, dry place. Hazelnuts can be found on the market whole, with or without the shell, roasted, in pieces and as a paste: the latter is increasingly used by ice-cream makers, especially the Piedmont Hazelnut.
Hazelnuts are excellent in confectionery and in savoury dishes, both natural and roasted. They are extremely versatile - perfect for coatings, sauces (for pasta dishes or otherwise), fillings for meat, fish and vegetables, in salads and much more. Belonging to the family of oily nuts, hazelnuts are rich in unsaturated fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals and thus are a source of energy with remineralising properties.
The hazelnut shrub is planted between the end of October and the beginning of November. Having carefully assessed the soil suitability the seedling is planted when dormant, that is when it’s not sprouting and it has lost all its leaves. It is important that planting takes place before heavy frosts. Once the rooted suckers have been taken from the nursery, they should be planted within a couple of days so that the roots do not suffer. Usually, the plants are sown at least 5 metres apart in a north-south direction.
This provides more space for the movement of machinery during harvest, it ensures that the plants gets as much light as possible, it helps the hazelnuts ripen and it improves pollination. In order to optimise pollination, late flowering varieties are planted in 2-3% of the hazelnut grove.
The hazelnuts are usually harvested between mid-August and the end of September, when the Langa is warmer than in other summer months. The hazelnuts (in the shell) drop off the shrub when ripe. The low humidity and the arid, hot ground helps to dry the nuts. The year of 2011 was particularly hot and the crop ripened at the beginning of August. As a result the hazelnuts were very fragrant and full of flavour, but also much drier than usual and therefore more prone to breakage during roasting. In normal years, once they have fallen, they are harvested. However, if there is rain during the harvest, collection is delayed until the ground has dried. As almost all hazelnut groves are situated on an incline, water run-off during rainfall can lead to both quantitative and qualitative losses. The hazelnuts are collected by machine or by hand with rakes and transported to the farmhouse. Traditionally they are then laid out in concrete courtyards so that they can dry in the sun. Alternatively they are placed in modern dryers. When the hazelnuts are adequately dry they are stored in sacks, large bags or metal boxes. Regardless of container used, the product should always be raised off the ground to allow air to circulate avoiding any problems with mould.
The hazelnut is a fruit bearing tree or large shrub, recognisable by its grey-brown bark and oval, serrated leaves. It belongs to the Betulaceae family, which includes many different species, the most widespread is undoubtedly the common hazel (Corylus avellana L., 1753).
The fruit of this tree - the hazelnut is widely referred to as the 'fruit of happiness' due to its many benefits and culinary versatility. The sale of hazelnuts is quite widespread, particularly in the confectionery industry where they are marketed roasted, caramelised, chopped or in the shell.
The Tonda Gentile del Piemonte hazelnut is certainly among the most popular varieties in Italy.