A century ago, Kent was home to more than 7,000 acres of cobnut plantations.
By the early 1990s, after an increase in labour costs and imports, just 250 acres remained. But today, optimism is growing for the industry’s future, with 400 acres now found across the county, and interest in local produce at a high for modern times.
The cobnut is as local to Kent as any product, but its history and nature are a mystery to many.
“It’s a very confusing nut,” explains Karin Craddock, who runs Farnell Farm in Rolvenden with her husband Barry.
“A cobnut is a cultivated hazelnut. The hazelnut is the wild nut, and they’re very small. But the Victorians cultivated them and made them much larger, just like they did with lots of fruit.
“If you look at old Victorian nutcrackers, they have a great big space for the large nuts, but Georgian nutcrackers have just a small space for wild nuts.
“One thing that’s confusing to lots of people is the fact Americans call them all hazelnuts. They call the large, cultivated ones hazelnuts as well, and sell them as that. But really, hazelnuts are the tiny, wild hedgerow nut.
“What also confuses people is that there used to be, in Victorian times, about 7,000 acres of cobnut trees, mostly in Kent, but we’re down to about 400 now.
If you think about where these acres went, there are actually still a lot of those cultivated trees around that someone might come across in a wood and think, ‘Oh, this is a wild one’, but it’s actually a cultivated one, because not all those commercial trees have gone. “
The history of the cobnut is just as hard to crack, with the birth of the Kentish cobnut, our most common variety, shrouded in uncertainty.
Karin said: “There are stories about a Mr Lambert who lived in Goudhurst developing this variety of nut that we all sell now in about 1830, but it’s very difficult to follow up.
“It’s similar to another nut grown in Spain, so it’s unclear whether he brought it in or developed it himself. But the story is that this man from Goudhurst started it.”
Karin and Barry started their own venture nearly two decades ago, taking inspiration from this rich local history.
“We planted our trees in 1997,” she said. “They’re wonderful, and we’re so pleased we planted them. When we bought the farm, we had a field that had been used for pigs, so it just looked terrible because they dig up everything. We had to think of something to do with it.
“We like history, and the cobnut is a traditional, historical crop of Kent. A field nut trees are grown in is called a plat, which is where villages like Platt to the north of Tunbridge Wells take their name.”
And while Karin is now in a position to educate others about cobnuts, she had to do some learning of her own in the early days.
She explained: “We were so naïve, we thought you could grow everything everywhere! Luckily the majority of the trees took.
“When we first thought of it, I thought there was only variety but there are loads of different cobnuts. These ones are known as Kentish cobs because they’re grown mainly in Kent, though they were originally called Lambert’s filbert after the man from Goudhurst.
“There are loads of others kinds, and ten per cent of our trees are a different variety that we need as a pollinator, like you have with apple trees. This other variety, Gunsleberg, is of German origin and looks different. It’s very pretty, but it’s not as reliable a nut. If you have a wet year they can rot, a dry year and they can drop off.”
Though the Kentish cob offers a much more reliable crop, says Karin, they still don’t have it all their own way.
She said: “We lose about a quarter of our crop to grey squirrels. We lose them to badgers too. They’re in the bear family, so they climb up the trees, put their weight on the branch till it breaks, then they’ve got the whole branch.
“Woodpeckers take them as well, because they can get into the nut.”
Those that survive the scavengers are harvested in two stages. This year’s early harvest was at the end of August, and the resulting green nuts are currently for sale.
“They were highly prized in Victorian times,” said Karin. “They were eaten as an after-dinner dessert with port. They didn’t cook them or anything, they had them fresh.
“There are two harvests. We sell them fresh and when they get older. At the moment, they’re fresh and green. They’re a bit like wet walnuts, soft and sort of milky.
“I think they taste like a fresh pea, some people say like a fresh coconut. They’re only like this for about a month, then they start to dry and mature. We sell them green until the end of September.
“The next harvest will be in about three or four weeks. We pick them, de-husk them, take the outside cover off and sell them up to Christmas as an alternative to imported nuts. We sell them as brown, more mature nuts, and they will keep. The nuts from the first harvest are soft so they won’t, you need to keep those in the fridge.
“Some people sell chilled nuts all year round, but we just sell seasonally, on the internet and at Christmas fairs.”
Business is good for the Craddocks, but they are naturally concerned about the health of the industry, and the number of nutters (the official term for a nut picker) around the country.
“I think they’re as easy as apples to produce,” said Karin. “I don’t know why there aren’t more producers. It’s fashion. And some people don’t want the bother of shelling them. No one really uses nutcrackers these days. It’s all convenience foods.
“And food is so cheap now. It’s a bit like this milk price thing – it’s almost not worth growing food or having a cow.”
But despite this, Karin is optimistic for the future, encouraged by a more positive recent trend.
She said: “So many more people are interested in food and what they’re eating. And people really are interested in different varieties. Whereas food was previously all lumped together – these are nuts – buyers are interested in different varieties, and the slightly different tastes between them.
“People are also more interested in knowing where things come from. We have got increasing interest in, and buying of, our nuts. There’s a revival of interest, and that great because they’re so good for you. They contain lots of healthy proteins and minerals.
“We don’t spray them or fertilise them, we just leave it to ladybirds and pheasants to look after them. You’d be surprised how much some crops like apples are continuously sprayed.
“Cobnuts have a protective casing. Once you’ve cracked it, you’ve got your fresh nut. They’re not in plastic, they’re like a healthy sweetie that’s kept in this natural packaging. And each one is perfect.”
When it comes to getting your hands on this perfect product, your only option, unless you want to wait for Christmas, is to order it online. This may seem like a wholly modern innovation, but Karin sees the tradition at the heart of it.
“People like something delivered to their door with no middle man,” she said. “It’s slightly Victorian, like when food came on a bicycle with the butcher’s boy!”
And while you don’t have to leave your house to get your hands on them, you’ll have to move fast if you like your nuts fresh.
OPENING UP THE COBNUT
Cobnuts are full of essential oils and a rich, balanced mixture of minerals and vitamins. They fall into a ‘heart-healthy’ food group as a result.
- A good source of energy thanks to their 60.5 per cent fat content.
- A good source of vitamin E, which prevents oxidisation of the polyunsaturated fats.
- One of just a few nuts to contain vitamin A, cobnuts contain a natural antioxidant that could help prevent cancer.
- High in oleic acid, a mono-unsaturated fatty acid, which helps lower cholesterol.
- Rich in manganese, selenium and zinc. Potassium, calcium and magnesium help lower cholesterol.
- Contain arginine, an amino acid that helps the relaxation of blood vessels.
- Number one among tree nuts for folate content, which reduces depression and contributes to a reduced risk of neural tube birth defects.
- Number one amongst tree nuts for proanthocyanidin content, which, along with carotenoids and flavonoids also present, may help reduce the risk of blood clotting and urinary tract infections.