In this experiment I was not so much concerned with yield, as with storage. Having grown hazels for nearly twenty years, I do not need to be convinced of their productivity and to some extent estimates of ancient yield are pointless: everything would depend on the number, cultivation, location, selection and pruning of bushes; but having said that, I can see no reason whatever why they could not have been a major staple – maybe even comparable with cereals, especially in the early Neolithic, when woodland cover was still extensive. To give an example of possible yield, a fully grown cob nut (i.e. Corylus maxima), some two metres away from the young hybrid bush we used for this experiment, yielded a crop of some 2,860 gm. when harvested in early September 2009. By this time, however, grey squirrels had started to move in, and it didn’t prove possible to reach the very highest branches. So the bush’s actual yield would probably have been rather higher – perhaps up to 3,500 gm.
The nuts that formed the basis of this experiment were harvested on September 21st, 2006. The husks (the leafy protection that encased the nut shells) were then removed and the nuts were counted (458) and weighed (1580 gm.). The following day and thereafter at roughly monthly intervals until September 2007, when the supply gave out, samples of 100 gm. were weighed-out and counted (with shells still on). The final sample weighed 80 gm. Empty and rotten nuts were recorded and rejected. The kernels were then weighed. Finally the nuts were assessed for palatability taste and texture, the latter using a scale of 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent). It should be noted that the term ‘poor’ in this instance means weak or slight, rather than actively unpleasant. In an attempt to replicate prehistoric storage conditions, the nuts were kept in a net sack in an unheated barn. They were not separated into 100 gm. batches until the day they were to be weighed and tasted.
The results showed a small, but steady decline in kernel weight over the experimental period. Rather to our surprise, however, there was only a very small increase in the number of rotten and empty nuts in the latter part of the period. Taste and palatability improved after two or three months storage and was still good after a full year in the barn. Indeed the first new nuts of 2007 were found to be slightly inferior in taste and palatability to those of the previous season. Subjectively, we gained the impression that by September the taste of the old season nuts was just starting to deteriorate with greater rapidity. The results do demonstrate clearly, however, that provided they are kept airy and dry, hazel nuts can be stored for at least a year, without any pre-treatment, such as heating. During this time too they retained their taste and, to judge by the consistency of their weight, their oil content as well. Given this, we can see no practical reason why prehistoric nuts were charred, unless, of course cracked shells, rotten and old-season nuts were used as fuel. Alternatively, of course, they could have been heated in the fire and then cracked open and eaten, possibly with a pinch of salt or dipped into sea water – a process that can improve the taste especially in the early part of the season.
I’m writing this three days after Christmas. During the Festive Season tradition has, as always, been very evident, most of it, I’m afraid’ is merely Victorian, but some, like Carols, rather older. Indeed, the idea of mid-winter rebirth and renewal is a key part of Neolithic monument-building, at places like Stonehenge. But as I munch on one of our Festive hazel nuts that escaped the squirrels, I wonder whether my actions might not have their roots very much earlier, back in the Mesolithic of almost 9000 BC, at places like Star Carr? By this stage of the winter, as our Table shows, the stored nuts were starting to reach their peak of taste and texture. Mesolithic families had far more sense than to stuff themselves with dry, tasteless turkey meat, but I wonder whether roasted nuts wouldn’t have gone rather well with a haunch of venison or some pine-smoked salmon? As I said, some Christmas traditions may well have roots that extend back a very, very, long time indeed. Have a Happy New Year!