When someone asks you if you'd like to pick hazelnuts, you should say yes, but be prepared for a couple of things - one, having far more hazelnuts than you'll know what to do with; and two, sore fingers.
But one bite of a fresh hazelnut you've picked and shelled yourself and you'll realise it's all been worth it, especially when the hazelnut in question happens to come from the farm of Kate and Peter Marshall in Reidsdale, near Braidwood. They have a knack for creating wonderful produce, as gourmands who are familiar with their black truffles will know - theirs is the home of Terra Preta truffle farm.
Peter Marshall is passionate about trees. His collection of hazelnut trees - more than 20 varieties - is also vital to the truffles. Their roots, you see, are one of the preferred spots for black Perigord truffles to grow. The neat rows of hazelnut trees create a natural environment for the intoxicating fungi, but the hazelnuts, well, they just happen to be collateral.
If it weren't for us picking them, they'd simply make a good snack for the cockatoos or fall to the ground. So we're here for a good cause, seeking out the golden-brown nuts hidden in pairs or triplets of green frilly, leafy pods.
Peter shows us how to tell if the hazelnuts are ready or not to be picked, with a little nudge of the nut out of its snug green bed. Some are ripe enough that they fall right out. Back in the kitchen, with baskets full, we gather around the table to sort through the nuts and remove them from their green pods, one by one. It's a labour-intensive job, but one that passes quickly when you have good company, good coffee and a lovely cake to help you through it.
The fresh nuts, slightly damp and with a pale-green tinge, need to be dried out for a couple of weeks, when they begin to turn a warm, caramel-brown. Fresh hazelnuts are perhaps one of the most wonderful nuts to eat and use in the kitchen, and make wonderful autumn dishes.
Hazelnuts do not need to be toasted - they can be eaten raw, but they generally keep better once toasted. To skin the opened hazelnuts, toast them gently in the oven until warm and fragrant then rub them between tea towels to remove the dark-brown skins. Peter puts the warm nuts in a plastic box and shakes them around - same principle, a little easier.
Fresher nuts will not only taste better but will also release more oil when they are blended, which is useful for the following recipe for gelato, in particular. To make the most of this nutritious autumn nut, it's hard to go past a classic Piemontese recipe (this corner of northern Italy is, after all, the original home of Nutella) for baci di dama, hazelnut biscuits, sandwiched together with a "kiss" of homemade gianduja, or hazelnut chocolate filling. Gelato alla nocciola is another classic way to enjoy hazelnuts.
Hazelnuts go beautifully in savoury dishes, too, pairing well with pork, fish and cheese. Sprinkle them in salads made with bitter greens such as radicchio, or try this recipe for ravioloni filled with pear and ricotta, with hazelnut, butter and sage sauce.
Hazelnut baci di dama with gianduia
Makes 20-25 biscuits
With the name ''ladies' kisses'', these elegant, melt-in-the-mouth hazelnut biscuits from Cuneo, Piemonte, in Italy's north, are sandwiched together in a ''kiss'' of gianduia (hazelnut chocolate) to create the perfect bite-sized morsel. They make quite the ladylike accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee, too.
100g hazelnuts, shelled and skinned
100g very cold butter, cubed
40g good-quality dark chocolate
40g hazelnuts, shelled and skinned
30g icing sugar
Blitz the 100g of skinned hazelnuts in a food processor until the mixture resembles sand. Like a good shortcrust pastry, make sure your butter is very cold and work quickly. Combine the hazelnut meal, cubed cold butter, sugar and flour in a bowl and rub with fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs (or use a food processor), then knead until it just comes together into a dough. Flatten to a disc about 2.5 centimetres high and place in the fridge, preferably leaving overnight if you can, or at least an hour if you're in a rush.
When ready to make the cookies, remove from the fridge and roll out teaspoon-sized portions of dough into perfect balls and place them on a lined baking tray at least 6cm apart (they will spread a little as they sink into domes). Place back in the fridge for a couple of hours before baking (or, if low on time, pop it in the freezer for at least 30 minutes).
Bake in a low oven at about 140-150C (less if using a fan) for 15 minutes or until the biscuits become hemispheres and are dry to the touch. They will be very lightly baked and extremely fragile at this point, but you do not want them to brown or melt into a puddle, so watch them carefully during this time and if they seem to be cooking too quickly, remove them from the oven.
Let cool completely before even touching them as they are very fragile. Once cool, they harden enough to handle.
For the gianduia, place the 40g of hazelnuts in a food processor and blend to a paste, like peanut butter. Add the icing sugar. Place the dark chocolate over a double broiler and let it melt. Take it off the heat then add the ground hazelnuts to combine. Let the gianduia cool about five minutes or until it is no longer too runny that it will drip off the biscuits. Place a teaspoon of the gianduia on the bottom of half of the biscuits and, before the chocolate sets (but not too early as it will spill and slide!), place the other hemisphere of biscuit on top and leave to set.
Gelato alla nocciola - hazelnut gelato
Gelato alla nocciola is a beloved gelato flavour in Italy. This homemade version, inspired by a Tessa Kiros recipe for pistachio gelato, is subtle, not too sweet, and creamy with a wonderful little crunch to it. It's a very simple process and is a great dessert to make when you have guests as it can all be prepared in advance. Serve it as is or sprinkled with chopped hazelnuts or dark chocolate.
50g of hazelnuts, skinned and shelled
200ml pouring cream
2 egg yolks
60g of sugar
Blend the hazelnuts in a food processor until creamy (similar to peanut butter) but still a little grainy. Place the hazelnut paste in a saucepan with the milk and cream and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat and blend with a stick blender until frothy.
Beat the yolks with the sugar for a few minutes or until very pale and creamy. Add about half a cup of the hot hazelnut and cream to the yolks and mix, then slowly and carefully incorporate the rest of the yolks into the hazelnuts and stir over a very low heat with a wooden spoon until the cream thickens to coat the back of the spoon (about five minutes). Remove from the heat and let cool completely before adding to an ice-cream machine and following the manufacturer's instructions.
If making without an ice-cream machine, place the cooled hazelnut cream in a container with a tight-fitting lid and put it in the freezer. Remove it every hour or two, give it a quick stir with a whisk then return to the freezer. Repeat until it has hardened. If it is too hard to scoop easily, leave it on the bench for about 15 minutes.
Pear and ricotta ravioloni with hazelnuts and sage
For the pasta:
2 eggs, plus 4 yolks (set aside
1 egg white for later)
4 tablespoons water
For the filling:
2 medium pears, peeled and cored
200g of firm ricotta
80g of grated Parmesan cheese
pinch of salt
For the sauce:
30g hazelnuts, toasted, skinned and chopped finely
a few sage leaves
For the pasta, place the flour in a bowl and make a well in the centre. Place eggs, yolks and water in the well, and whisk eggs with a fork, incorporating the flour little by little until you can no longer whisk. Use floured hands to combine the rest of the flour until you have a smooth, elastic dough.
Wrap in plastic wrap and let rest at least 30 minutes.
For the filling, poach the pears, sliced into quarters, in water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain and let cool, then roughly chop into tiny pieces. Combine the pears with the rest of the filling ingredients.
To assemble the ravioloni, cut the dough into four pieces and roll out the dough dusted with plenty of flour using a pasta machine or rolling pin. It should be thin enough that you can see your hand through it. Working on strips of pasta at least 10cm wide and as long as you like, place heaped teaspoons of filling onto the pasta sheet about 5cm apart. Brush all around the filling with the leftover egg white from earlier, well beaten, then place a sheet of pasta of the same width and length over the top and, working quickly, press the pasta sheet down carefully around each blob of filling, being careful not to trap air inside. Work from one side to the other, and if needed (and if you have two extra hands helping you), work one raviolone at a time. With a frilled-edge pastry cutter or a sharp knife, trim the ravioloni so that you have a 1cm border around the filling. Continue until you finish the pasta and filling.
Cook the ravioloni immediately for about five minutes in salted, boiling water until al dente. In the meantime, make the sauce by melting the butter in a large skillet. Add the sage and hazelnuts and a ladle of the pasta cooking water to create an emulsion. When the ravioloni are ready, drain them with a slotted spoon and add to the sauce and toss gently to coat. Serve as is or with some grated parmesan cheese.