Italian hazelnuts: the great history of a small nut
by Emilia Crippa
“Round was she, beautiful, and of noble aspect”: Dante will forgive us for drawing inspiration from his verses – dedicated to kings and princes in Purgatory – to describe a queen of hazelnuts, born in Langhe: the Tonda Gentile del Piemonte (literally, “round noble from Piedmont”), also known as “Nocciola Piemonte”. The protected geographical indication (PGI or IGP) is a guarantee of excellence in this globalized world, which so often rewards large-scale businesses over tradition and specialization.
In the area in Piedmont between Asti, Cuneo and Alessandria, know-how and beauty make up for quantity: trees are grown with elegant regularity, and feature a lithe trunk – especially in the bushy variant – that even newcomers cannot help but notice. Farming and picking techniques have been combined and fine-tuned in order to allow for higher yield while respecting the identity and tradition of the local territory: trees are planted exactly 5 meters apart in hazelnut orchards, leaving just enough room for a self-propelled picking machine.
The Tonda Gentile is uniform and plentiful in its own right: it has a thin shell almost completely filled with fruit. Not to mention its wonderful flavor: a memorable experience from the moment it crumbles in your mouth, releasing its crunchy intensity and delicate fragrance. A taste of Tonda Gentile is hard to forget. It is not by chance that this special hazelnut crop is completely absorbed by high-end confectionery makers, maître chocolatiers… and anyone aspiring to create certain traditional desserts: in Piedmont, a classic hazelnut cake could simply not be made without using the Tonda Gentile variety!
If you want to enter the universe dedicated to Nocciola Piemonte, visit Cortemilia, in the Langhe region, in August. The Sagra della nocciola IGP Piemonte – which celebrated its 60th edition in 2014 – turns the small town in the province of Cuneo into the capital of this delicious gift of nature. In 2000, a Confraternita della Nocciola (Hazelnut Confraternity) was founded on the basis of a strong love for this territory and its products, and a will to synergize marketing and tradition.
Piedmont is not the only region in Italy that produces exceptional hazelnuts: Lazio, Campania, and Sicily all have excellent products to offer. One of them is Italy’s most exquisite variety, the PGI Nocciola di Giffoni, from the area around Salerno: its history goes as far back as the Roman Age, as some charred remains now on display in the Naples National Archaeological Museum attest. However, it was only during the Middle Ages and modern times that it got a foothold to spread in the peninsula, also thanks to a rise in hazelnut trade that has been documented at least since the 17th century, and especially under the House of Bourbon. Climate conditions and volcanic soil in Campania have generated a regular, even fruit that makes for a very popular snack – plain and simple – to this day. It is also a main ingredient in both regional delicacies and industrial production: its persistent aroma and consistency make it ideal for flavor-enhancing toasting.
These, and a handful of a few more varieties such as the POD Gentile Romana, tell a story of tradition and flavor, ancient know-how and innovation… all inside the shell of a small nut with a great history.