The Kent Cob or cobnut is a cultivated variety of hazelnut which originated, as the name suggests, in the county of Kent.
Mankind have likely eaten wild hazelnuts from the dawn of our species, an excellent source of protein foraged from the land. Hazels are found throughout the temperate band of the Northern hemisphere and the nuts from Common, American, Asian and all other species of hazel are edible.
Evidence from an archaeological dig in Colonsay, Scotland suggests that hazelnuts have been cultivated on the British Isles for at least 9,000 years, probably longer.
In the more recent period of recorded history, hazelnuts have been grown in British gardens and orchards since at least the 16th century, though they were often referred to as filberts.
Unlike other nuts, hazelnuts were traditionally marketed as fresh. The season typically lasted from mid August through to October. Wholesalers bought and stored nuts, to sell them throughout the year. They were also much loved by mariners, as they kept fresh for many months and stored so well.
The Victorians adored them and many new cultivars were bred for yield, flavour and shape during the 19th century .
The Kentish Cob was introduced around 1830 and proved so popular that it quickly supplanted most other varieties grown in England. It was probably named for a children’s game similar to conkers but played with hazelnuts – the winning nut was called the cob.
By 1913, over 7,000 acres of plantations fed huge demand, with much of the produce taken into London by train. Kent was certainly the key producer, but cobnuts were also grown extensively throughout the Home Counties.
However, as labour became more expensive, after the First World War and throughout the rest of the 20th century, and as transport and refrigeration improved, British-grown nuts were less able to compete with imports. By 1990, barely 250 acres remained and many of these were derelict.
In that year, The Kentish Cobnuts Association was established with the aims of regenerating the industry, promoting cobnuts and representing its members.
Today, Turkey is the largest producer of hazelnuts in the world, with significant quantities also produced by Italy, America, Greece, Spain and the UK.
In the UK, acreage is still around 250, but new orchards are once again being planted, not only the Kentish Cob, but other varieties too. They are proving to be a perfect crop for modern sensibilities as they are not prone to pests and diseases, they require little or no fertiliser or crop protectant and the crop is picked by hand.
If you are considering buying a hazel for your own garden, be aware that cobnuts are largely self sterile and cannot pollinate from the same variety. If you live in a rural area where there are wild hazels nearby, these will probably pollinate your tree, but otherwise, it is recommended that you purchase two compatible varieties that can pollinate each other.
The reason I’ve been doing so much reading about cobnuts (and other hazelnut varieties) is down to Demarquette, makers of very fine chocolates indeed.
A few weeks ago, Marc and Kim invited some friends to their Fulham Road store to sample some of their latest creations, and to meet their cobnut supplier, Hurswood Farm.
From the first, Demarquette have sought out the very best British ingredients, and created chocolates that really show them off at their best. So when they tell me about a product I should be enjoying, I know it’s going to be good.
Catherine Robinson from Hurswood Farm told us a little about the Kent Cob, and how Kentish farmers are not only renewing old orchards but planting new ones. She also introduced us to a product I had never come across before, pressed cobnut oil. Like walnut oil (which Hurswood also make) cobnut oil really is the very essence of the nut. Hurswood make a regular and a roasted variety, the latter takes twice as many nuts to produce the same volume but is very special indeed.
Cobnuts (and other varieties of hazelnuts) are commonly used to make pralines. But I was surprised to learn that many chocolatiers buy in their praline ready made. Marc makes his own, and it packs a much more natural and intense flavour than the ready made variety.
We tried a range of Demarquette products featuring cobnuts including Kentish Cobnut Pebbles (I absolutely adore these), Kentish Cobnut Jubilee Diamond Chocolate Pralines, Cobnut Nougat and Cobnut Brownies. All as good as they sound!
When I mentioned that I’d love to try making some cobnut bread, Kim kindly packed me some to take home, along with the little sample bottle of roasted cobnut oil and some of Marc’s pebbles.
How To Make Cobnut Bread (Hazelnut)
70 grams cobnuts (or other hazelnuts), lightly roasted
15 ml cobnut oil
2 cups strong white bread flour
1 teaspoon dried baking yeast
Approximately 1 cup water
Place the cobnuts into a bag and use a rolling pin or heavy bottle to break them into small pieces.
In a mixing bowl (or using a stand mixer) combine the strong white bread flour, crushed cobnuts and baking yeast.
Now add the wet ingredients – first the cobnut oil and then some of the water.
Start to mix the ingredients together, adding more water as needed. Take care not to add too much water, or your finished dough will be very sticky and harder to handle and shape.
- Either use the stand mixer to knead the dough well or knead by hand.
Put the dough into a large bowl, cover and leave aside to rise. For us, this took about 2 hours.
Shape the dough and bake in a preheated oven (200 C fan oven, approximately half an hour but may vary).
Leave to cool down a little before slicing.
I enjoyed this bread fresh with salted butter and a home made broccoli and stilton soup, toasted with butter and jam and dipped into soft-boiled duck eggs. Delicious!