Piedmontese hazelnuts: welcome, autumn!
Harvested in early autumn, the Piedmontese hazelnut variety is famous for being - hands down - the best hazelnut in the world.
If you were to sum up the characteristics of the Piedmontese hazelnut with two adjectives, those would be "round" and "gentle". Tonda and gentile are, in fact, two of the names often associated with one of Piedmont's most beloved and sought-after products: the Piedmontese hazelnut. Many names refer to this variety, so don't be confused if you see "Tonda Gentile Trilobata", "Nocciola Piemonte IGP", "Tonda Gentile", "Piemonte IGP" etc. while travelling through Piedmont. It all boils down to the same, delicious product that, for institutional reasons, has changed name over the years. Quite simply, some producers still like to refer to it as it was called in the olden days, others have taken on the new nomenclature. Italy (thanks, mainly, to Piedmont) is one of the world's largest producers of hazelnuts, rivalled only by Turkey. The Piedmontese hazelnut, however, is recognised as a special variety thanks to its distinctive flavour. The 'tonda gentile trilobata', so called because of its perfectly round shape, is amongst the world’s best hazelnuts not only because of its delicious taste but also because it is easy to peel and can be stored for long periods without losing its characteristics.
It grows in the hilly areas of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato and is a protected I.G.P. (protected designation of origin), which means that the quality and the authenticity of the product are guaranteed with strict supervision.
Its popularity comes from the famous Gianduiotto, a chocolate and hazelnut praline invented in 1806 when cocoa had become very expensive due to import limitations imposed by Napoleon. To reduce the amount of cocoa needed to produce their products, chocolate-makers tried to add ground hazelnut and the result was an amazing success.
Italian chocolate-maker Ferrero conquered Italy, and eventually the world, with its Nutella, an industrial version of the traditional Gianduia cream - in other words, the Piedmontese cocoa and hazelnut cream. Now a giant company, Ferrero doesn’t exclusively use the local crop anymore, as production is not high enough: they use about a quarter of the world's hazelnut supply — more than 100,000 tons every year!
Today the “Tonda gentile” is used for a series of high quality preparations including the aforementioned Gianduiotto pralines, Gianduia spread, Torrone, hazelnut cake and brut e bon biscuits, all delicious and very popular. They key to this hazelnut's full yet gentle flavour is toasting it correctly. When roasted properly, it tastes spectacular - if you get the chance, exalt its aromatic savour with a glass of rich, red wine or try to dip it in honey.
And, last but not least, recent studies seem to demonstrate that, if eaten regularly, hazelnuts have a positive effect on human health. They can help maintain low "bad cholesterol" levels in the blood, and thanks to their high vitamin E content, they supply a significant quantity of antioxidant agents. So, whether you enjoy your Piedmontese hazelnuts alone or in one of the various mouth-watering preparations, make sure you try this Italian delicacy.
Travel tip: if you happen to be in the Piedmont area, check the dates for the next Nocciola fairs in Cortemilia or Alba.