Year after year, after I had relocated to the Kentish border following a lengthy sojourn in California, I could not understand the strange clusters of frilly fruit which seemed to start bursting out of every local greengrocer’s each early autumn.
Every season I asked about them and each time was told, simply, they were Kentish cobnuts. Now, I know my nuts. They come in hard shells that can wreak havoc on an otherwise uneventful Christmas lunch – not surrounded by rugged green leaves, which can be peeled back to reveal the most unctuous, sweet, almost milky nugget nestling within.
Thoughts that they were only a local delicacy, unknown outside the M25, were dispelled by further research that revealed this modest but delicious nut, a member of the hazelnut family, is popular throughout the land and revered by top chefs, finding its way into Michelin-starred establishments such as L’Enclume, The Ritz, The Ivy, Le Caprice, The Goring Hotel, Launceston Place, Midsummer House, The Greenhouse, The Jugged Hare and Le Champignon Sauvage.
The Kentish cobnut, a type of cultivated hazelnut, was first bred in 1830 by a Mr Lambert of Goudhurst, with Victorians considering them a delicacy, eating them as an accompaniment to after-dinner port. Unlike most other nuts, cobnuts are sold fresh, not partially dried. They are usually in season from the end of August through to October, but stored nuts may be available until Christmas.
Regrettably, the Kentish cobnut had been in decline for some decades and only about 250 acres are still grown today, but this year’s crop is terrific news for chefs and diners alike.
“Thanks to the wonderful sunshine, this crop is the best we’ve seen in 10 years,” says Alexander W J Hunt, chairman of the Kentish Cobnut Association, who harvests some 27 tons annually from his Potash Farm estate near Sevenoaks. “We’ll be receiving orders on the hour from now right until Christmas Eve. They’re really crunchy, milky and succulent this year – wonderful with a G&T or a glass of Sancerre. And they’re loaded with vitamins E and B. All you need is a decent nutcracker, but when they’re fresh, you can just peel the outer skin back with your fingers.”
In an average year, the UK’s cobnut plantations will produce 75,000 tons of nuts, but this year the figure is expected to be more than 200,000, sending “nutters”, the official name for cobnut pickers, into overdrive.
At the beginning of the season, the husks are green and the kernels particularly juicy. Nuts harvested later on are ripe, have brown shells and husks, and the full flavour has developed. Cobnuts are sold fresh and keep well in the fridge salad drawer.
They should not be allowed to sweat. Husks should be removed if loose but it is not necessary to take off every one. The addition of a little salt helps preserve the nuts. Stored correctly, ripe nuts will keep until Christmas and beyond. Unshelled cobnuts may also be frozen, although they may lose their crispness.
Bruno Loubet, chef/owner of Bistro Bruno Loubet, in Clerkenwell’s Zetter Hotel, and Grain Store, in King’s Cross, doesn’t just like the fresh nut. “Kentish cobnut oil has a wonderfully delicate flavour,” he says. “As a Frenchman, I would usually use walnut oil, but sometimes that flavour is too strong and cobnut oil is much more delicate. I would never use it in cooking, but it’s a great addition to dressings. Mind you, it’s about £16 for 250ml, which could get you quite a decent bottle of wine. I like to mix it with vinegar, fresh minced cobnuts and chervil to mix with still-warm new potatoes.”
Daniel Clifford, of Cambridge’s two-Michelin-starred Midsummer House, says: “I am lucky to live in an area where cobnuts grow where I walk the dogs. We use them for cauliflower and cobnut purée, which is served with crayfish, with fresh cobnuts grated on the top.”
In Devon, Michael Caines, executive chef at Gidleigh Park Hotel, is another fan. “I use them like hazelnuts,” he says. “Roasted and chopped they’re a terrific addition to a beurre blanc sauce to accompany fish dishes. I pan fry John Dory and make a kind of pesto by toasting the nuts with rosemary, lemon and parsley in the same pan the fish has come out of. I also them use in pralines and in a cobnut ice cream with Frangelica. They’re great chopped and put through cabbage or scattered on a pasta dish for added texture.”
Fernando Stovell, co-owner of Stovell’s, in Chobham, Surrey, says: “I started experimenting with cobnuts by simply pairing them with slices of Pata Negra ham. Now I love to cook a whole lobe of foie gras sous vide with milk and pink salt for three to four hours at 34C degrees, before chilling it, then smoking it over cherry wood and serving it with pickled silver-skin onions, toasted cobnuts and a hay dressing. I also halve the nuts to serve with pan-fried halibut with watercress purée and make a stem-ginger cheesecake with cobnut cream, pineapple sorbet and wild sorrel.”
Mark Sergeant, chef/director at Plum + Spilt Milk, in the Great Northern Hotel at King’s Cross, who will be serving pumpkin soup with Kentish cobnut pesto , says: “Being from Kent, I love cobnuts and have grown up with them. As with everything so seasonal, it’s a time to look forward to, like asparagus season. They are pretty much like hazelnuts so can be used in most recipes containing them, but my
favourite is to make a Kentish apple crumble and put lots of roasted cobnuts in the crumble for a real local, seasonal treat. They’re also great made into a pesto and mixed with mussels.”
Tim Allen, of London’s Michelin-starred Launceston Place, favours hot smoked grouse salad, cobnut purée, white peaches, lardo di collanata and crumbled frozen foie gras. “I like the light, nutty flavour and creamy texture which goes really well with young grouse,” he says.
Mark Pointon, chef/patron of Cambridge’s one-starred Alimentum, says: “I like them because in my village they’re free to pick! I love shaving them raw over roast grouse with elderberries, which come in at the same time of year. As a dessert, we serve blackberry and apple with cobnut granola. We roast the nuts and mix them with freeze-dried apple, apple caramel made from reduced apple juice and cinnamon.”
“As soon as cobnuts come in, they take over from hazelnuts in my kitchen,” says Alyn Williams, chef/patron of Mayfair’s Alyn Williams at the Westbury. “It’s a time of year I really look forward to, like the arrival of peas and asparagus. I pair shaved cobnuts with grouse and a rowanberry curd, with the creamy nut providing a perfect foil for the rich bird. As cobnuts start to disappear, persimmons arrive, so I make a biscuit-less cheesecake with sweet, unpasteurised cow’s curd, raw persimmon which has almost jellified and chopped cobnuts.”