Kentish Cobnuts, Kent
The cobnut, cultivated varieties of the wild hazelnut, has been part of the Kent countryside for centuries. The nut in its wild form has been part of the human diet for millennia, an excellent source of protein, calcium, and fibre. But more than that, they have a special milky flavour very different from other nuts as they are best consumed fresh, rather than dried like walnuts.
Cobnuts were traditionally often grown along with apples, hops and cherries, but as land has risen in value for development, and because of the labour intensive nature of cultivation and picking, the crop has declined in acreage drastically. Before WWI there were said to be 7,000 acres under cultivation. By 1951 this had dropped to 700, and currently there are about 250 acres of ‘plats’ the local name for the orchards of little nut bushes.
All is not lost though. The Kentish Cobnuts Association was formed in 1990 to defend the crop, and preserve the special techniques used in growing it. Nutritionists have woken up to the value of nuts in our diet and promoted their consumption. And chefs have re-discovered the nearly lost flavour of the fresh nut. They are appearing again in our shops, a seasonal treat at their very best in late August and September when milkiest, but with a stronger flavour in October when they have had time to mature a little on the tree.
Many areas in Kent are associated with their production: Maidstone was once the place for them, Sevenoaks and Tonbridge have plenty of plats left, and Igtham, Shipbourne and Plaxtol are renowned for the quality of their cobnuts, said to derive from the local ragstone, a type of limestone, on which the nut trees thrive.