Nutty but nice

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The Independent Online
Good news for red squirrels and other nut lovers: the moist, succulent Kentish cob is making a comeback, as Malcolm Smith discovers.

Darell Thompson-Schwab is a self-confessed nut freak. Each year, around this time, he takes delivery of up to 35 bags - each weighing half-a-hundredweight - of rather special hazelnuts, delivered by lorry to his home near Carlisle from distant Tonbridge in Kent.

Mr Thompson-Schwab, his family and the red squirrels to which he feeds most of the nuts, are part of a culinary and ecological renaissance, because the Kentish cobnut - a superior, cultivated form of hazelnut grown since Tudor times in small plantations known as plats - is undergoing a revival in its fortunes. Victorians went nuts for a Kent cob. Harvested in autumn, they are renowned for retaining their freshness and were traditionally eaten before a meal, or afterwards with a glass of port.

But the Kent cob has long been in decline. Dr Meg Game, an ecologist and member of the Kentish Cobnuts Association, reckons that there were at least 7,000 acres of plats at the turn of the century. "Only around 250 acres survive, mainly in the Kentish Weald, but some in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Somerset. Most of them are less than seven acres in area," she says. Plats have been grubbed up to make way for more profitable fruit growing - strawberries, for instance.

Many of the remaining plats are a botanist's paradise. The old shade- bearing trees provide perfect conditions for bluebells, wood sorrel, orchids, even the rare goldilocks buttercup, depending on the underlying soil. One Kentish plat hosts the largest British population of toothwort, a rather dull-looking, cream-coloured plant which is parasitic on hazel roots.

But Meg Game is quick to disabuse anyone who assumes that the thousands of acres of cobs grown in Kent a century ago were as rich in ground colour. "Each plat was then thoroughly dug in winter and hoed once or twice during the summer to reduce weeds and to kill the larvae of the nut weevil. Smelly concoctions of manure, rags, shoddy [hop leftovers] or fish waste were spread under the trees."

Was this vile dressing applied as a fertiliser, or was it put there to discourage poor peasants from shinning up the trees? In his 1812 poster the Duke of Norfolk dubbed them "nutters"; these rural vandals, it seems, were intent on getting as many hazelnuts as they could, from the plantations as well as from wild hazels. In their haste, they often broke branches.

Nurturing cobnuts is a labour of love rather than a money-spinner. Tim Chambers, a fruit farmer at Otham near Maidstone, has six acres of century- old Kent cobs. All the trees are hand-pruned to keep them about 6ft high.

"We prune from December onwards; it takes around a month for one person cutting them, then another fortnight clearing up," says Mr Chambers. "We aim to harvest a tonne per acre and sell 60 or 70 per cent of them wholesale to Covent Garden and other markets." This autumn, growers are getting 90p or pounds l a pound.

But he also sells direct to a number of large supermarkets, some of which have them on their shelves alongside the hazels we have all become used to eating, imported from Turkey, France, Italy and the US. Both sorts retail at about pounds l.50 a pound.

So why should you go nuts for a Kent cob? According to John Cannon, chairman of the Cobnuts Association, it's all to do with being fresh-tasting, succulent, moist and flavoursome. "We're looking at the quality, natural food end of the market, with a product superior to the much drier, imported hazelnut," he says.

John Cannon also talks about improved libido, if not in his human consumers, then in the red squirrels fed with the nuts. Though Darell Thompson-Schwab can't confirm that his squirrels are more randy, in his tests with imported hazels and Kent cobs, 10 out of 10 red squirrels preferred the cobs.

Kent cobs have some official support, too. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries' countryside stewardship scheme pays pounds 8 a tree to bring derelict cobnuts back into shape, plus pounds 100 per acre for 10 years after planting. Kent County Council will pay 30 per cent of the costs of establishing a new plat if it is near existing ones. As a result of the renaissance in interest, helped perhaps by this financial support, several fruit growers are establishing cobnut plats.

Today's nutters, as they savour the fresh white kernels of Kentish cobs, are not only preserving a culinary delicacy; they are reviving a Tudor tradition - as well as conserving a rare landscape feature.

To contact the Kent Cobnut Assoc, write to the Secretary, Clakkers House, Crouch, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN15 8PY. Send an sae for lists of growers who do 'pick your own' schemes.