Kasnakovo Village, South Bulgaria; Photo: Zlatina Tochkova

Discovering Hazelnut Country

Kasnakovo Village

September 2020

Text: Marina Mihaylova
Photos: Zlatina Tochkova

September has arrived, and with it the time for gathering nuts. Organic hazelnuts, almonds, and walnuts have all been bathing in the summer sun while ripening and readying for harvest and winter storage. Similar to squirrels, we gather nuts in autumn in order to have yummy things to nibble in winter like hazelnut butter, cocoa spread with hazelnuts and all sorts of protein-packed roasted nuts. At 5 am, the usual crew; Ruslan, Zlati, and I, leave South to start the harvest.

Why so early?

Hazelnuts are typically harvested from 6 am until noon. Later than that and the heat becomes unbearable, reaching temperatures as high as 35 degrees C. Every day we get up early to finish early. In this case the early bird… gets the nut.

The hazel tree plantations in the village of Kasnakovo are tucked into the rounded hills of Southern Bulgaria. The magical Rhodope Mountain is visible in the background.

Hristo Georgiev, or “Itso” for short, welcomes us. Within the family-run estate, he is the younger generation. Itso and his father have been taking care of these organically certified hazel tree plantations for more than 12 years. And as we will come to find out, it’s not an easy job.

Hristo drives us to the hazelnut orchards to observe and join in the harvest.

The beautiful living corridors of hazel shrubs spread as far as the eye can see. Though lined up like soldiers, the plants don’t grow that way naturally. Each bed conceals years of hard work, immense manual labor, pruning, trimming, irrigation, and care for each leaf and branch.

The hazel shrub alleys of the Georgievi family.

“I am the Executive Director …. because I execute directives” Georgi jokes.

We meet Georgi, Hristo’s father. Even though Georgi is very busy, he welcomes us warmly and turns his attention completely over to us. We are at the height of harvest season. From early morning, Georgi is in the orchards together with his team. From within the corridors, one can hear cheerful voices and laughter. I can’t wait to meet who they belong to.

Georgi shows me how to determine if the hazelnut is ready for harvest.

There is a knack to hazelnut picking.

“There is a distinctive ‘little cane’ on every nut. Grip it, swing it with a turn of the wrist, and twist it in a direction opposite to the growth, until you hear a characteristic ‘crack’. But be careful not to damage the next fruit bud which will grow into a hazelnut”, advises Georgi.

Georgi helps Bozhidar to adjust the blower.

“What do you do with this machine?” I ask curiously while watching Georgi assist Bozhidar adjust the ‘backpack’ on his back. The noise is indescribable. The blower serves to remove the foliage on the ground. That leaves behind only the hazelnuts which are in turn picked by hand. The job is certainly no picnic. You need to get down on your knees to collect the fallen hazelnuts, while the ripe hazelnuts on the tree have to be picked by hand, one by one. Georgi praises the pickers:

Extremely hard-working, good people.

“I know I can rely on them. They are good, extremely hard-working people.”

A few years back, we had a difficult time. The money for the pickers ran out within harvest season. So, I gathered everyone up and had to tell them openly that the money ran out. They shrugged and simply asked, “How much do you need, boss? We’ll lend it to you.” That’s the kind of people they are!”

The pickers in Georgi’s orchards are bright, warmhearted, and extremely dedicated.

As we watch them pick, the work seems easy as pie. Although hard to perceive from the pictures, the temperature reach at least 30 degrees C during the day. With smiles on their cheerful faces, the pickers don’t mind us taking photos of them. In fact, it turns out they are secretly taking pictures of us as well. Apparently, with our amateur questions and zero hazelnut experience, we are quite the attraction.

The hazelnut pickers.

I am gathering hazelnuts under a shrub while talking to two of the female crew of pickers. We find out we have something in common with Angelinka. Both of our daughters were born the same year and are starting school in two weeks. We end up discussing what we need to buy – backpacks, pencils, and notebooks. Since Todor, Angelinka’s son, is already in the third grade, she isn’t worried about her daughter, Minka. Big brother will help her out in school.

The ripe hazelnuts, fallen on the ground, are gathered in buckets.

Although they show me how to pick the ripe hazelnuts from the branch, I prefer gathering the ones on the ground. There is less chance for mistakes, so I can’t mess anything up (and there is a lot to mess up). If you break off the hazelnuts too high, you destroy the future fruit. If the hazelnut is not yet ripe, the kernel inside the shell won’t taste good.

Tricks of the hazelnut trade.

Around the same time, I meet two people, both named Toma. The first Toma is the team supervisor. He runs around the hazelnut alleys, helping out wherever needed. In addition to this job, he’s worked as a gravedigger for almost 20 years. I ask him how he does it and whether it’s hard.

“It’s hard, especially when somebody dies before their time. It’s a sad job, but somebody has to do it.” I’ve never met anyone with a similar profession, and I get an overwhelming feeling. While listening to his stories, I can’t help but think of how isolated and closed our urban bubbles are. I become aware of how special and valuable it is to meet such authentic and diverse people.

Toma and Toma

Later I meet Gosho and Valya. They are a family. She is gorgeous, kind, and young (in my eyes), even though she has a 3-year-old daughter. They ask for our photos, which I promise Gosho to send over social media. Proudly, he states that he adores his wife, takes care of her, and protects her. Here is the picture I send them.

Gosho and Valia Dimovi.

While I have been busy talking to the pickers, Georgi and Hristo have already driven the bags full of hazelnuts to the drier and returned. It’s high time I ask Georgi why his hazelnuts have such a delicious taste. Once you try harmonica hazelnut butter or cocoa spread with hazelnuts, you understand why you can’t stop until the jar is empty.

Georgi explains the differences between growing hazelnuts organically and conventionally.

When the family planted their first shrubs, they had already decided to commit to organic farming. “We have been organic since 2009 because we wanted to do something sustainably and to pass it on to our grandchildren”, explains Georgi.

No perfume smells sweeter than freshly plowed land.

“I took on the commitment that no artificial fertilizer would reach my orchards, no ammonium nitrate. The land, the care we take of the soil, it’s all connected and has an impact on the kernel’s taste. Besides all that, you know what?” he adds, “no perfume smells sweeter than freshly plowed land.”

“There is so much magic in these orchards. While I am working the land in Spring, the storks come and keep me company. They walk beside me with no fear. You should come in Spring, and you’ll see them. Besides, the estate is different when everything is green. Each leaf is inspired for a new life, a new beginning.”

Our hazelnut tastes different – there is intense flavor and richness.

We grow three varieties of hazelnut trees in our gardens: Roman, Ran Trapezund, and Tondo Gentile. They have an established symbiosis and can’t live without one another. Each one of them is responsible for pollinating the others. The pollen in the hazel tree lamb’s tails can fly more than 60 km to pollinate the female plant.

The pollen in the hazel tree lamb’s tails contains a million seeds and can fly more than 60 km to pollinate the female plant.

Organic farming helps in the fight against climate change.

“Do you know why there is grass between the shrubs?”  Georgi asks me.” By growing grass, we keep the soil cooler. Thus, we reduce surface heating. That’s how organic farming aids the fight against climate change and supports the cooling down of the planet.”

The time comes to drive the picked hazelnuts to the drier – an excellent opportunity for us to see what happens to them after the harvest. On the way, we take a little detour to visit an intriguing and legendary place – The Spring of the Nymphs and Aphrodite.

On our way to see the Nymphs – or the very least Aphrodite.

We are curious to see this Thracian sanctuary, rooted in ancient Greek mythology. The legend says that the water has miraculous powers, and people bathed there for millennia.

The Spring of the Nymphs and Aphrodite.

Here it is. Although the spring has dried, one can feel the ancient history and magic in this place. Greek inscriptions are still visible on the walls.

The spring.

We never expected the small village of Kasnakovo to have such a great and rich history. We return to the hazelnuts. It’s time to dry the gathered nuts so that they shed their husks. The hazelnuts are spread throughout hot greenhouses. The husks are removed, and the hazelnuts are ready for storage.

The nuts are dried to shed their husks.

Organic hazelnuts are stored in their shell. No chemicals are used to extend the shelf life of the nuts. Once they are gathered and ready, the hazelnuts are sent to be roasted and ground. That’s how they are transformed into the jars  we have come to love.

Here is what the hazelnuts transform into.

This is how I learned that in the shell of each hazelnut, there are 12 years of persistence, misfortunes, challenges, hails, drought, hard decisions, manual labor, early mornings, emotions, and lots of patience. Thank you, Georgi and Hristo, from all of our hearts for not giving up, for pushing forward, and for caring for every single leaf with love and respect. We are happy that we can support you so that there is purer land, more delicious and genuine food, prepared with love and attention here on this earth.

We will definitely come back in the Spring!

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