Right around St. Nick’s Day and Christmas there’s a market on Monmouth Street in Newport that probably has the area’s largest selection of hand made old fashioned candies. It’s called Peluso’s market and its been around for many generations. The Peluso family were Italian immigrants who had a large family that has been involved in Newport Mayoral politics since the 1940s.
Peluso’s get their old fashioned candy from where else – an old fashioned candy company called Candy Kraft in Guilderland, New York, that’s been making them since 1935.
The first of these candies to make its appearance this season was the Creamed Filbert, also known as mothballs or snowballs. The nut that is at the center of the candy is now what we call the hazelnut, but up until about World War II it was called the filbert.
Although the hazelnut has experienced a bit of a comeback in the confectionery world, it has played third and fourth fiddle to the likes of the peanut and the almond or even the cashew. Indeed, there were no filbert clusters like the goo goo, and no Filbert Joy. The Peanut and the Almond seemed to be the preferred nuts for commercial U.S. confectionery. Maybe that’s why peanut butter is more popular in the U.S. than hazelnut based Nutella from Europe.
The creamed filbert is a member of the sugarplum family – a category of candies where a nut or seed is rolled in layers of sugar for a perfect shell. This was before the modern electric pan coating machines used to coat anything from pills to Boston Baked Beans. It has been made since the late 1700s, and came to the U.S. with French and German confectioners. The first filbert or hazelnut tree came to the U.S. in 1737 from Spain, and now 98% of the hazelnuts in the U.S are grown in Oregon, but that’s only a fraction of the world supply. Most hazelnuts are grown in Turkey, Spain, and Italy.
The hazelnut was called the filbert after St. Philibert, a French saint, whose feast day falls on August 20. St. Philibert was born in 608 and became an abbot, founding the abbey of Jumieges, which was plagued by Viking attacks, forcing the monks to flee to form another abbey. The work of his order was reclaiming wastelands, so he is sort of a patron of lost causes. The history channel’s Vikings series had an entire season based on their ramsacking a French monastery and kidnapping one of the monks who ended up converting King Ragnar to Christianity.
St. Philibert’s Day also happens to be peak harvest season for hazelnuts, which traditionally mature in late August. So people started applying the saint’s name to the nuts that were in season on his feast day. Local Cincinnati candy makers like Mullane’s made coated and creamed filberts. They were also a specialty of Goelitz Candy Company, who introduced candy corn to the U.S. while they were operating in Cincinnati from 1898-1909.
Another derivation of the filbert is said to come from the German word, vollbart which means “full beard,” which the husked shell of the hazelnut resembles. Although the terms filbert and hazelnut are used interchangeably, filbert typically refers to commercially cultivated crops of hazelnuts. They are also called cob nuts in some places in the U.S.
So if you want to try a very historic cream coated candy – head to Peluso’s and buy a bag of their creamed filberts.