Coffee, liqueurs and... cobnuts?

Decca Aitkenhead discovers an unlikely addition to the menu
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AN AGRARIAN revival in deepest Kent is poised to capture the fashion-conscious foodie's eye this season. After buffalo, ostrich steak and and other gastronomic exotica, the last word in contemporary culinary cool is ... the Kentish cobnut.

Cobnuts, a superior variety of the humble hazel, were in danger of extinction 10 years ago. The Victorian delicacy with origins in Tudor times fell out of favour this century and by the early 1990s was all but forgotten. However a cluster of dedicated nutters have grouped together to create the Kentish Cobnut Association and are fast transporting the historic nut from obscurity to after-dinner chic.

"People are certainly getting a taste for our nuts," smiles Brian Rudd, strolling among his 200 trees in the picturesque village of Ightam, Kent. The autumn harvest is well under way, yielding milky-white kernels of crisp and sweet-tasting nuts. As the crop draws to an end in October the flavour will grow richer, and the late nuts will stay fresh until Christmas.

"I've got a doctor who writes every year for nuts and we get orders from all over the UK. My son has set up a mail-order firm which has seen him through university.''

The association also sells wholesale to Covent Garden market, upmarket grocers and selected supermarkets. Waitrose began selling them three years ago.

Commercial cobnut farming was established in the Kentish Weald back in the 18th century, on plantations known as "plats''. Wild nuts also provided an income to peasants, who, noted a local writer in 1806, "might otherwise have very little to do, and of course be a burden to the public". But the high costs of cultivation, coupled with competition from the Continent, saw cobnut acreage in Kent dwindle this century from 7,000 acres to just 250.

"It seemed a shame just to let it die out. Many of these trees are well over 100 years old and the nuts are delicious," says Dr Meg Game, a conservationist and association member. "But most of the plats belonged to people like me who found themselves with all these trees, and didn't know what to do."

The association won a Countryside Commission grant, established a joint marketing strategy and returned the cobnuts to profitability. They are now capturing the imagination of great culinary minds.

"You must take crushed, roasted cobnuts and add to a souffle base, then add a bit of amaretto, add the egg white and mix it all up and pour it into a souffle dish and bake. Serve with an anglaise sauce," enthuses celebrity chef Steven Saunders at his restaurant, the Pink Geranium, in Hertfordshire. Cobnuts can flavour pastry, meringue, pasta, fruit crumbles, even omelettes, and are an after-dinner accompaniment to red wine and cheese.

The association's quarterly newsletter features recipe ideas, as well as advice on the relentless task of annual pruning, plus replanting and storage. "You need to keep them cool, ideally in the fridge," advises Mr Rudd, "but I've got one customer who puts them in a tin and buries them in the ground." Which brings Mr Rudd, irresistibly, but gravely, to the subject of squirrels.

"Well. You just have to accept the fact that squirrels are going to get a certain percentage of your nuts." With splendid magnanimity, he pauses. And then glints. "But I'll get out there with my 12-bore in the winter and spend hours just popping them off. Yep, just popping them off."

For further information on the Kentish Cobnut Association, send SAE to Mrs Coleman, Clakkers House, Crouch, Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 8PY.