Where Do Hazelnuts Originate From? A Brief History

Hazelnuts are a beloved nut that can be found in many different types of food products. But have you ever wondered where they come from?

The history of hazelnuts is fascinating, with origins dating back thousands of years. From Asia Minor to Europe, hazelnuts have been enjoyed for their sweet and crunchy taste, as well as their medicinal properties.

In this article, we will explore the rich history of hazelnuts and where they originate from. So sit back, relax, and let’s dive into the world of hazelnuts.

Where Do Hazelnuts Originate From

Hazelnuts have a long and interesting history that dates back to ancient times. The hazelnut is originally from Asia Minor, and Chinese manuscripts have been found that talk about this fruit five thousand years back. The Greeks and the Romans spread it all over Europe, where it has been used throughout the centuries until the present time.

Many of the cultivated varieties at the moment were obtained in the XIXth century, when there was a great interest for hybrids and the selection of species. The estimated world production is around 650-700,000t in the last years and the main producing countries are Turkey, Italy, Spain and the United States.

In 2020, world production of hazelnuts (in shells) was 1.1 million tonnes. The hazelnut production in Turkey accounts for 62% of the world total, followed by Italy, the United States, Azerbaijan, Chile, and Georgia.

The Early History Of Hazelnuts

The early history of hazelnuts dates back to the Mesolithic period, some 8,000 years ago. Evidence of large-scale nut processing was found in a midden pit on the island of Colonsay in Scotland. The evidence consists of a large, shallow pit full of the remains of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells. Hazelnuts have been found on other Mesolithic sites, but rarely in such quantities or concentrated in one pit.

The nuts were harvested in a single year, and pollen analysis suggests that all of the hazel trees were cut down at the same time. The scale of the activity and the lack of large game on the island suggest that Colonsay may have contained a community with a largely vegetarian diet for the time they spent on the island.

The secret to the historical success of the European hazel, Corylus avellana, was that it was one of the first temperate shrubs to colonize the land after the retreat of the ice sheets. Hazel wood was used for firewood and charcoal-making. It may also have been used for the “construction of dwellings, trackways, drying racks, fish weirs, fencing, palisades, etc.” The leaves also seem to have been an optional fodder for domesticated animals.

In Ireland, hazels established themselves about 10,000 years ago. Judging from pollen samples, they probably reached their peak spread about 8,000 years ago. After that, the arrival of broadleaf forest (oak and elm) would have overshadowed the low-growing hazels, forcing them to more peripheral habitat.

Mesolithic peoples had competition for hazelnuts from wild boar (and later domesticated pigs) and numerous other mammal and bird species. Despite this competition, hazelnuts played a significant role in the diets of prehistoric peoples. Hazelnuts were not only a source of food, but also a source of wood for fuel and construction materials.

Hazelnuts In Asia Minor

The hazelnut has its origins in Asia Minor, which is now modern-day Turkey. The region has long been known for its cultivation of hazelnuts. Chinese manuscripts have been found that date back 5,000 years and talk about this fruit. In ancient times, the hazelnut was regularly ascribed medicinal properties and was a symbol of peace and health.

The hazelnut grows wild throughout Europe to this day, but its origins can be traced back to Asia Minor. The region’s climate is mild during winter with cool summers near moist soils and large bodies of water like the Black Sea boundaries around Turkey and near the Mediterranean Sea surrounding Sicily and Italy.

Today, Turkey is the largest producer of hazelnuts, accounting for 62% of the world’s total production. The country’s long history with the nut has made it a significant player in the global hazelnut market.

Hazelnuts In Europe

Hazelnuts have been a significant food source in Europe for thousands of years, dating back to the Mesolithic era. After the last ice age, hazelnuts became the main forest tree and were eventually succeeded by the beech forest. They grow as a bush or small tree in moderate temperature zones in the entire northern hemisphere. Hazelnuts were once considered nuts for peasants, while almonds were reserved for the wealthy in the Middle Ages. However, hazelnuts are now as coveted as almonds.

In Europe, most hazelnuts are imported from Turkey and Italy, although the plant grows in sub-alpine areas of Germany and is a popular bush in gardens. Hazelnuts are also traditional symbols of life and fertility, immortality, Spring, and fortunate beginnings. Hazel branches are commonly found in both heathen and Christian burial sites. The forester’s and judges’ white staff was made from hazel wood. Hazel was thought to protect against snakes and witches and was used to douse for water as well as buried treasure.

Interestingly, evidence of large-scale Mesolithic nut processing was discovered on the island of Colonsay in Scotland. The evidence consists of a large, shallow pit full of the remains of hundreds of thousands of burned hazelnut shells. Hazelnuts have been found on other Mesolithic sites but rarely in such quantities or concentrated in one pit. The nuts were radiocarbon dated to 7720±110 BP, which calibrates to circa 6000 BC. This discovery gives an insight into communal activity and planning in that period.

Today, hazelnuts are used in many modern, industrialized foods such as Nutella, Ferrero Küsschen, Mozart Kugeln, Duplo, Knoppers, and Toffifay candies. Hazelnuts are also used as an important part of cookies and cake fillings such as Nut nougat (also known as Gianduja) and Krokant. Hazelnuts have a rich history in Europe and continue to be an important part of the continent’s culinary traditions.

Hazelnuts In Modern Times

In modern times, hazelnuts continue to be an important crop for many countries around the world. Among the top ten nuts, measured by worldwide consumption, hazelnuts are in sixth place. They follow the peanut, almond, walnut, cashew, and pistachio. Turkey is the world’s largest producer of hazelnuts, with Italy, Spain, the United States, and Greece being the other players in the world market.

One of the most well-known uses of hazelnuts in modern times is in the production of Nutella and other chocolate-hazelnut combinations. Ferrero SpA, the Italian company that makes Nutella, uses something like a quarter of the world’s crop of hazelnuts.

While hazelnuts are still an important crop for many countries, there have been some changes in recent years. Traditionally, Spain was a hazelnut export country; however, in the last few years, imports have come mainly from Turkey due to irregular harvests. Export has diminished lately due to Turkish competition.

Despite these changes in the market, hazelnuts remain a popular and versatile nut that is used in a variety of products around the world. From baked goods to spreads to savory dishes, hazelnuts continue to be an important ingredient for many people and cultures.

Health Benefits Of Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are not only delicious but also packed with nutrients that offer a wide range of health benefits. Here are some of the many ways you might benefit from adding hazelnuts into a healthy diet:

1. Promote Heart Health: Hazelnuts are rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which help reduce LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and increase HDL cholesterol (the “good” kind). Studies have shown that diets high in hazelnuts and other tree nuts resulted in lowered LDL cholesterol, reduced inflammation and improved blood lipids. Hazelnuts also contain magnesium, which helps regulate the balance of calcium and potassium and is crucial to blood pressure.

2. Reduce Cancer Risk: Hazelnuts contain vitamin E, which helps protect cells against the types of cellular damage that can lead to cancer. They also contain proanthocyanidins, chemical compounds thought to help reduce the risk of cancer.

3. Improve Digestion: Hazelnuts are a good source of fiber, which can help regulate digestion and prevent constipation. They also contain healthy fats that allow you to stay fuller longer and can help stave off cravings.

4. Aid in Weight Loss: In 2018, a study was conducted that concluded that those who ate more nuts saw a reduction in weight gain. As a bonus, they were also at a lower risk of obesity.

5. Boost Skin and Hair Health: Hazelnuts present in chocolates, coffee, and spreads are beneficial to the skin, hair, and overall health.

6. Regulate Blood Sugar Levels: Hazelnuts have a low glycemic index, meaning they won’t cause a rapid spike in blood sugar levels. They also contain magnesium, which is important for insulin sensitivity.

Culinary Uses Of Hazelnuts

Hazelnuts are a versatile and delicious ingredient used in many culinary creations. They are commonly used in baking and desserts, such as cakes, cookies, and pies. Hazelnuts are also a popular ingredient in confectionery, where they are used to make praline and combined with chocolate for products like chocolate truffles and bars. The famous hazelnut cocoa spread Nutella is also a beloved product that uses hazelnuts as its main ingredient.

Hazelnut oil is another culinary use of the nut. It is strongly flavored and used as a cooking oil, particularly in Mediterranean cuisine. Hazelnuts can also be roasted and used as a savory garnish for salads or added to trail mixes for a healthy snack.

In addition to their culinary uses, hazelnuts have a rich cultural history. They have been used as symbols of fertility, immortality, and fortunate beginnings in various cultures throughout history. Hazel branches were commonly found in both heathen and Christian burial sites, and the white staffs of foresters and judges were made from hazel wood.

Overall, hazelnuts are a delicious and versatile ingredient that has been enjoyed by many cultures throughout history. From sweet treats to savory dishes, hazelnuts add a unique flavor and texture to many culinary creations.

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