On the last walk of our holiday in France, I picked a handful of hazelnuts. The shells were barely firm enough to crack open and the kernel was tender and milky. I love them at that stage, before they harden up. In France, the beginning of the hazelnut season is reckoned to be around 20 August, St Philibert's Day.

That is mere coincidence, but one with linguistic ramifications: St Philibert had no special connection with hazelnuts although from his name comes our word filbert. I have always found the difference between plain hazelnuts, filberts and cobnuts hard to fathom, and I think it is true to say that there is a shade of overlap in common usage.

Our cultivatedhazelnuts come mainly from three different European natives: Corylus avellana, the common hazel, sometimes known as a cob, which grows wild in Britain; Corylus maxima, the true filbert; and Corylus colurna, the Turkish hazel. The word cob may also be used to denote newly picked nuts that are sold fresh, still with their pretty pale-green frills. The real spanner in the works is the Kentish cob, which is actually a filbert.

When it comes down to it, the crucial division is the one between the freshest early nuts, which still retain the juiciness of youth, and the later mature nuts, dried to last through the winter months and into the following summer. The young ones are probably best eaten straight from the shell, though I have added them successfully to tea bread and soda bread recipes. They must be eaten up quickly, as they have a tendency to moulder in the shell.

Mature, dry hazelnuts can be stored for longer, though not indefinitely. While they contain less oil than, say, walnuts or brazils, there is still enough there to turn rancid eventually, marring their flavour. Like all nuts, they should never be stored in metal tins, which taint, and are best preserved in the freezer.

For culinary purposes, most of us buy hazelnuts ready-shelled. Though you can now buy them with the skin rubbed off, I am convinced that they taste better for lingering in their papery dark inner covering. This may be mere stubborn fancy, as I have never carried out a proper comparative test.

Either way, there is no doubt that the full depth of flavour is only brought out when the hazelnuts are toasted or roasted or fried to a darker shade. If they do have their skins on, then this also happens to be the best way to remove it. I usually opt for the roasting method, as it seems to be the most even and the least trouble. Spread the nuts out on a baking tray and put them in a hot oven: 200C/ 400F/gas 6 is about right, but a little hotter or cooler makes no odds.

Check them every few minutes and give them a shake, until they are done to a turn. Be vigilant - their oil content means they change suddenly from rich brown to burnt. To dislodge the flaking skin, either cool the nuts until you can bear to rub them between the palms of your hands, or tip them into a metal sieve and roll them against the wires. Spread a sheet of newspaper out underneath to catch the flakes.

Cousbareia sauce

Every time I open Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food (Penguin) I find something new. This sauce, really more of a nut relish, is another gem. In Egypt it is served hot with deep-fried fish, especially red mullet, but it would go just as well with grilled fish. We ate it cooled to room temperature, with grilled John Dory: it was delicious.

Serves 6

Ingredients: 2 onions, thinly sliced

2tbs olive oil

8oz (225g) tomatoes, sliced

4oz (110g) hazelnuts, chopped

2oz (55g) pinenuts

3tbs finely chopped parsley

salt and black pepper

Preparation: Fry the onions slowly in the olive oil until tender and golden. Raise the heat slightly and add the hazelnuts and pinenuts. Fry until beginning to colour. Then add the tomatoes, saute for a few minutes to soften, and pour in enough water to just cover. Season with salt and pepper, then simmer for 10-15 minutes until fairly thick. Stir in the parsley, taste and adjust seasonings.

Hazelnut and green pea pilaff with roast garlic yoghurt

Hazelnuts and rice go well together, and nowhere more so than in a scented pilaff, with a hint of sweetness from dried apricots and peas.

Serves 4-6

Ingredients: 8oz (225g) basmati rice

a generous pinch of saffron

2oz (55g) butter

1tbs sunflower or vegetable oil

1 onion, chopped

3oz (85g) hazelnuts, roughly chopped

2oz (55g) dried apricots, chopped

4oz (110g) shelled peas, thawed if frozen

2 tomatoes, skinned, deseeded and chopped

1tsp each cumin and coriander seeds

1 pint (570ml) chicken or vegetable stock

salt and pepper

For the roast garlic yoghurt: 7 fat cloves garlic, unskinned

1/4 pint (150ml) Greek yoghurt

salt and pepper

Preparation: Rinse the rice thoroughly in several changes of water, then leave to drain in a sieve. Mix the saffron with 2tbs of hot water and leave to steep.

Heat the butter with the oil in a large pan. Fry the onion until tender, then add the hazelnuts, cumin and coriander seeds. Fry for about 1 minute, before adding the rice. Fry for a further 5 minutes, stirring. Now add the apricots, peas if fresh, tomatoes, stock, salt and pepper. Mix evenly, bring up to a simmer, then reduce heat to low, cover tightly and leave for 10-15 minutes, without disturbing until rice is almost cooked and the liquid has been absorbed. Stir in the saffron and its water and the thawed frozen peas if using, cook for 2 minutes longer, then draw off the heat and let it stand, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Stir to fluff up just before serving.

For the yoghurt, dry-fry the cloves of garlic in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat, until blackened and soft to the touch. Cool slightly, then skin and scrape out the insides. Chop and mash to a paste and beat into the yoghurt along with salt and pepper. Serve with the pilaff.

Le progres au chocolat

Layers of hazelnut meringue sandwiched together with pure chocolate cream: quite sinful. Hazelnuts and chocolate are soulmates, and this is one of the best ways of marrying them.

Serves 8-10

Ingredients: For the hazelnut

meringue: 8oz (225g) hazelnuts, toasted and skinned

12oz (340g) castor sugar

1oz (30g) cornflour

6 egg whites

pinch salt

1/4 tsp cream of tartar

1tsp vanilla extract

For the chocolate cream: 8oz (220g) plain chocolate

small knob of butter

1/2 pint (290ml) double cream

Preparation: Cut out three sheets of non-stick baking parchment to line three baking trays. Draw 8in (20cm) circles on each one, using a plate as a template. Lay the paper, pencil marks downwards, on the baking sheets.

Let the hazelnuts cool completely after skinning, then grind to a fine powder in brief bursts to prevent them becoming pasty. Mix with 6oz (230g) of the castor sugar and all of the cornflour. Whisk the egg whites until foamy. Add the salt and cream of tartar and continue whisking until they form soft peaks. A spoonful at a time, beat in the remaining 4oz (110g) castor sugar until you have stiff peaks. Whisk in the vanilla extract. Fold in the nut mixture a little at a time with the lightest touch possible, working fast to deflate the mixture as little as possible.

Using a spatula, spread a third of the mixture over each circle, forming a disc about 1/2 in (1 1/2 cm) thick. Bake very slowly, at 110C/225F/gas 1/2 for 1-1 1/2 hours until firm and dry to the touch. Very carefully lift on to cake racks to cool (if you discover that the centre of the underneath is still slightly sticky, do not worry - it is not meant to be, but it will taste all the nicer, even so).

To make the chocolate cream, break the chocolate into squares, and melt in a bowl set over a pan of gently simmering water. As soon as it has melted, draw off the heat and beat in the butter. Cool until tepid. Whisk the cream and fold in the chocolate.

Carefully sandwich the three hazelnut meringue discs together with the chocolate cream and keep cool. Dust lightly with cocoa just before serving.

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