Hazelnuts, the New Gold of Piemonte
- Written by Diana Zahuranec
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Hazelnuts, as traditional to Piemonte as wine, are increasing in demand around the world. Here is why farmers need to uphold the world’s greatest hazelnut quality; and a recipe and wine pairing to let you enjoy the nocciola.
Hazelnuts in Piemonte
Hazelnuts have a special place in Piemontese cuisine. An important crop grown all throughout the region, the hazelnut – nocciola – is high quality particularly in Alta Langa (the southern, higher-elevation region of the Langhe). Here, the cultivar is known as Tonda Gentile, and the IGP was once called the same (IGP – the European Union mark of origins, Protected Geographical Indication, denoting specific growing criteria and high quality). Its certified growing territory has recently changed to encompass a greater area of Piemonte, and today, they are called Nocciola Piemonte IGT.
A grove of hazelnut trees is called a noccioleto – yes, there is even a separate word to describe these wooded areas. After five years, hazelnuts can already be harvested; and after ten, the trees are at least as tall as an adult, and can reach up to 19 ft (6 m) tall. The groves create shaded forests swept well clean of debris to facilitate harvest. Lying under the earth and in symbiotic growth with hazelnuts is another treasure, often called the “white gold” of the Langhe: tuber magnatum, or the white truffle.
Photo from Mark Dries, Creative Commons.
Plant Your Noccioleto Now
The Nocciola Piemonte IGT is the new “gold” of the Langhe in 2015. Due to a poor hazelnut crop in 2014 in the world’s top producing country, Turkey (accounting for about 70% of global production), prices for hazelnuts have as much as quintupled in 2015. Couple that with an increase in demand in hazelnuts worldwide, and the opportunity to plant hazelnut groves has caught the eye of many farmers.
The charming town of Bossolasco in the Alta Langa recently hosted a conference on the protection and development of the Nocciola Piemonte IGT, “La Nocciola della Langa: un prodotto da valorizzare e difendere.” Italy is the biggest producer of hazelnuts after Turkey and only shows signs of increasing production (and the world just keeps demanding more). There could be no better advice than to plant nocciolete far and wide.
However, these eager farmers should focus on upholding the high quality of the Tonda Gentile cultivar. As Gian Paolo Braceschi, food technologist from the Center of Tasting Studies, demonstrated, the Tonda Gentile was blindly voted to be of higher quality than other hazelnuts (including cultivars from Lazio, Italy and Turkey). Hazelnuts, it seems, are affected by terroir as much as wine: its quality is higher when cultivated in the hills, while the same cultivar loses some characteristics in the plains. The IGP territory has been enlarged, and it now includes areas where cultivating such high quality might be more difficult.
A Tasty Treat
In Piemonte, you are more likely to find a small bowl of hazelnuts at “happy hour,” or aperitivo, than peanuts. When toasted, they are crunchy, fragrant, and make for exceptional snacking. But hazelnuts for more than munching on in Piemonte: this round nut has found its way into exquisite dishes, particularly desserts – not least of which is Nutella.
The Nutella "Smear" Campaign
The decadent chocolate hazelnut spread might seem indulgent today, but it was born from necessity, as all great inventions are. During World War II, chocolate was rationed, and Pietro Ferrero from Alba, pastry chef and founder of Nutella, found a way to stretch the supply. He added hazelnut paste to make a creamy spread. This paste, known as gianduia, was already made popular once in history due to short chocolate supplies in the 1800s, when Napoleon caused a continental blockade that made chocolate prices soar. Kids in town became so taken with Ferrero’s delicious, new concoction – initially called Supercrema – that they could stop by caffés asking for a “smear” of it on their bread.
Photo from PG.NETO, Creative Commons. Modified.
Most traditional hazelnut recipes in Piemonte are desserts. These include brut e buon, or “ugly but good” cookies that live up to their name; ossa da mordere, another fun name – “bones to gnaw,” invented in the same town of Borgomanero as brut e buon; salame del Papa, the Pope’s salami, a chocolate hazelnut decadence popular during Easter; and finally, the torta della nocciola, hazelnut cake.
On the menu for appetizers, first, and second courses are less traditional, but no less popular, hazelnut dishes. When chopped very fine, toasted hazelnuts are complimentary in taste and texture for carne cruda, raw beef. They are delicious with prosciutto crudo (di Cuneo, if you’re trying to stay local). Peppers stuffed with a mixture of tonnato, or tuna sauce, and crunchy hazelnuts is the perfect side dish. And the arrosto di maiale alle nocciole – roasted pork loin in hazelnut sauce – is an impressive and savory second. And don’t forget the cheese: whole toasted hazelnuts with aged and fresh cheeses (we recommend goat cheese) is incredible.
A well-known hazelnut dessert is the torta della nocciola. Its subtle flavor and soft crumb make it perfect for a mid-afternoon snack, delicious with crema al zabaione after dinner, or – why not? – ideal for breakfast.
Recipe from Giallo Zafferano
250 gr. hazelnuts (preferably Nocciola Piemonte IGP)
150 gr. all-purpose flour
200 gr. white sugar
150 gr. butter
1 tablespoon baking powder (16 gr)
Pinch of salt
1. Preheat the oven to 180° C (350° F). Butter the a 9” or 10” (26 cm) baking pan. Pulse the hazelnuts in a food processor until you have hazelnut flour, leaving some pieces larger if you like the crunch.
2. Sift the flour together with the baking powder, sugar, and salt, and add to a bowl with the nuts.
3. Add the butter and eggs and mix gently.
4. Pour the mixture in the pan, and bake at 350° F for about 40 minutes. Let cool before serving.
Photo from blog.giallozafferano.it
This aromatic wine made in the Monferrato gets its lightly sparkling effervescence from interrupted fermentation – making it sweet, delicate, and low in alcohol (around 5%). It is fresh and fruity, with notes of peach, pineapple, acacia flowers, and honey. It is also the perfect pairing for many types of desserts.
Did you know...
that Moscato d’Asti was once called Asti Champagne? Much like how many people mistakenly call all Italian sparkling wine “Prosecco” today, people once called all kinds of bubbly “Champagne.”
→ More fun facts about bubbly: 13 Things to Know about Piemonte's Sparkling Wines
Photo from Leana~, Creative Commons
Comunità Montana Alta Langa, "La coltivazione del nocciolo in Alta Langa" pdf.
Conference “La Nocciola della Langa: un prodotto da valorizzare e difendere.” Bossolasco (CN), May 18, 2015.
Dallasfood.org, "Focus on Gianduia, Part 13: Michele Prochet and the 1865 Birth of Gianduia."