Libuše Šafránková in “Drei Nüsse für Aschenbrödel”, 1973. DEFA-Stiftung

24 calories for Cinderella

"Drei Haselnüsse für Aschenbrödel": in the 1973 Czech-German fantasy film, three enchanted hazelnuts make all the heroine’s dreams come true. But even without any magic, the hazelnut is a remarkable fruit.

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel

Thomas Weibel is a journalist and Professor of Media Engineering at the Fachhochschule Graubünden and the Hochschule der Künste in Berne.

The common hazel (corylus avellana), popularly known as hazel or hazelnut bush, is a member of the birch family and, thanks to its fruits, one of humankind’s most important crops. Researchers believe homo erectus collected hazelnuts for consumption in Bilzingsleben in Thuringia as long as 230,000 years ago. And in the Mesolithic period (~10,000-5000 BC), when people were gradually switching from hunter-gathering to farming, hazelnuts and other nuts still provided the basis of nutrition, along with acorns, roots and tubers. For good reason: hazelnuts are easy to store, and they deliver a big hit of energy. A single dried hazelnut – weighing an average of 1.2 grams – contains around 8 calories in the form of protein (12%), fat (63%), carbohydrates (10%), water (4.5%), fiber (8%) and minerals (2.5%). This means a single hazelnut holds as much energy as 10 grams of potatoes.
Common hazel (corylus avellana), (A) twig with male catkins, (B) twig with leaves, (C) hazelnut in its bracts, (4) female flower consisting of ovary and red stigma, (5) ripe hazelnut. Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé, 1885.
Common hazel (corylus avellana), (A) twig with male catkins, (B) twig with leaves, (C) hazelnut in its bracts, (4) female flower consisting of ovary and red stigma, (5) ripe hazelnut. Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé, 1885. Wikimedia
Scores of excavations of Neolithic and Bronze Age lake shore settlements in the foothills of the Alps have shown that our ancestors valued hazelnuts as a calorie source; organic material such as hazelnut shells was particularly well preserved in these soils. Hazelnuts were also very popular among the ancient Romans. A cookbook entitled “De re coquinaria” (“On the art of cooking”) dating from the 1st century AD, compiled by a Roman gourmet by the name of Marcus Gavius Apicius, contains a shopping list featuring foodstuffs and ingredients that no Roman kitchen should be without, including – in addition to walnuts, pine nuts and almonds – hazelnuts. (There could be no doubt about Apicius’ culinary authority, even if his lifestyle apparently displeased Pliny the Elder; in his “Historia naturalis” Pliny vilified Apicius for his being “born to enjoy every extravagant luxury that could be contrived”.)
Hazelnuts dating from the Neolithic period, found in Egolzwil (LU).
Hazelnuts dating from the Neolithic period, found in Egolzwil (LU). Swiss National Museum
While nuts can trigger allergies, they are fundamentally little packages of nutrients. A 2015 Maastricht University study suggests that as little as 10 grams of nuts a day can reduce the risk of death. This is due to their high content of unsaturated fatty acids (“good fats”), the vitamin E and various B vitamins (e.g. riboflavin) they contain, the minerals such as magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, iron and calcium, the fibre and other valuable plant compounds. The study found a 23 per cent lower chance of death over 10 years in people who regularly eat nuts. Beneficial effects were demonstrated in particular in neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Parkinson’s disease, respiratory diseases and diabetes. Test subjects who regularly ate nuts had statistically fewer cardiovascular diseases and were less likely to develop cancer. Even though the hazelnut tree thrives in Switzerland and a handful of trailblazing companies are entering into hazelnut production, the agricultural cultivation of hazelnuts in this country is hardly worth the trouble. Most hazelnuts, around 10,000 tons with a commercial volume of CHF 77 million per year, are imported by bakeries and chocolate manufacturers. The main producer is Turkey, which produces 75-80% of all hazelnuts eaten worldwide.
Turkish agricultural workers drying hazelnuts in the village of Saçmalıpınar (Düzce Province).
Turkish agricultural workers drying hazelnuts in the village of Saçmalıpınar (Düzce Province). Wikimedia / Gerhard Pils
In the Czech-German film classic “Drei Nüsse für Aschenbrödel”, released in 1973 and known in English as “Three wishes for Cinderella”, three magic hazelnuts ensure that the penniless Cinderella, who is picked on by her stepmother and stepsister, miraculously obtains a hunting outfit, a ballgown and, finally, a beautiful wedding dress. But even without magic, the hazelnut is full of surprises. In 1942, when World War II was raging around Switzerland’s borders, naval blockades meant that chocolate manufacturer Camille Bloch was starting to run out of cocoa. But necessity is the mother of invention, and the company’s founder Camille Bloch decided that a portion of the cocoa content would have to be substituted with hazelnuts. At his factory in Courtelary (JU), Bloch had a thin shell of dark chocolate poured into flat moulds and covered with whole hazelnuts, which could easily be imported from effectively neutral Turkey. A soft mass also consisting largely of ground nuts was added to this. The flat tablets were then cut into rectangular bars weighing 50 grams, and packaged for sale. As company lore has it, when it came to naming the new chocolate bar Bloch took his inspiration from memories of sunny holidays in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Because the ancient name of the city can be pronounced equally well in all four of Switzerland’s national languages, the original Swiss chocolate bar is still called “Ragusa”.
Early “Ragusa” advertising poster c. 1957.
Early “Ragusa” advertising poster c. 1957. Camille Bloch

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