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Hazelnut farmer Barb Foulke watched in disbelief as the relentless storm lashed Oregon’s Willamette Valley in late September. Two weeks of rain punctuated by a 5-inch deluge over four days.
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A warm May meant the valley’s hazelnuts had matured early and were already lying on the ground when the rains started. Instead of “vacuuming” up the nuts in the typical whirl of dust, Foulke’s crop was sitting in the mud. “It’s painful,” she said.
Hazelnuts (filberts in England) have become a hot commodity in Oregon with acreage dedicated to the scrubby trees increasing 10% a year during the last decade. Three thousand more acres were planted this year with the region’s 2013 crop predicted to be close to 40,000 tons.
That’s slim pickings when compared to the flow of hazelnuts from Turkey, which produces 75% of the world’s crop by weight. Still, it’s enough to give the state runner-up status along with the countries of Italy, Georgia, Greece and Spain.
Foulke and other growers are working to distinguish Oregon hazelnuts in terms of quality by focusing on sustainable farming and modern harvesting technology. As the Portland culinary scene has exploded, the locally grown nuts have become a signature ingredient.
Discovering great hazelnut recipes
Visiting the Willamette Valley for the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration in August, I fell in love with the nut’s rich, creamy texture and sweet flavor. In the shell, they look like acorns. Lightly roasted, they lose their paper-thin skin and have a bite that is firmer than a cashew, softer than an almond.
A dinner in the sleek, new Sokol Blosser Winery tasting room, created by Jenn Louis, chef/owner of Lincoln in Portland, featured crushed, toasted nuts in a honey spread spiked with toasted rosemary, chili oil and sea salt. Louis’ slab of roasted porchetta was made from pigs fed on the meaty nuts.
The same holy trinity of toasted hazelnuts, honey and rosemary was the heart of a tapas prepared by Colin Stafford and Alex Yoder of Portland’s Olympic Provisions with paper-thin lardo enveloping whole hazelnuts.
When I returned home, I dog-eared half a dozen yummy hazelnut recipes in my cookbook collection. All called for toasting the nuts — 10 to 20 minutes at 350 F, single layer on a baking sheet, removing the skins by rubbing the toasted nuts between tea towels.
Beloved L.A. food guru Joseph Shuldiner features chopped hazelnuts in his dukkah and halvah. He grinds them into fig paste, folds them into his mushroom risotto and tosses them atop his wild mushroom polenta in “Pure Vegan” (Chronicle).
Taking my shopping list to the grocery store, I began looking for hazelnuts.
Getting nuts on the grocery shelves
“You don’t see hazelnuts that much in stores,” said Mike Klein, a spokesman for the Willamette Hazelnut Growers. While the exploding sales of Nutella — a sweetened hazelnut spread — are testament to the popularity of hazelnut’s flavor, the naked nuts are rarely on the shelf. Grocery chains don’t think cooks want to mess with toasting them, he said.
You rarely find them in cans of roasted mixed nuts because they are relatively rare. Only 40 million pounds of shelled hazelnuts are produced each year compared to 1.8 billion pounds of almonds, he said.
I found hazelnuts at Surfas in Culver City and there were a few containers of them at my neighborhood Whole Foods. But the local Ralphs grocery store doesn’t carry them.
The easiest way to buy hazelnuts, said Klein, is to go to the website of an Oregon grower and buy direct. Unfortunately, Oregon growers sold out months ago, and you’ll have to wait for the new harvest.
The line is forming at Barbara Foulke’s Freddy Guys Hazelnuts, the nuts many Portland foodies consider the gold standard. Her small-batch processing using a tricked-out little roaster she traveled to Italy to buy directly from the manufacturer provides the obsessive attention to detail that appeals to the local DIY ethos.
And Foulke will have plenty of nuts. The rains stopped the second week of October. The sun came out and ushered in an Indian summer as odd as the earlier deluge. The warm days dried the ground, allowing the crew to “vacuum” up the nuts with Foulke’s harvesters before mold or mildew could gain a foothold.
The 2013 harvest is expected to set records.
Top photo: Cracker thin toast with fresh ricotta, stewed kumquats and other fall citrus, shaved fennel and toasted hazelnuts from Sycamore Kitchen in Los Angeles. Credit: Corie Brown
“California cuisine?” When my friend Evan Kleiman and Santa Monica’s public radio station KCRW dedicated a Sunday afternoon to discussing the topic, I was curious.
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California has a rich and evolving food culture, but a distinctive style of cooking? Hardly.
Turns out I’m not the only naysayer on this topic. On the stage at New Roads School in Santa Monica were three people comfortable with the label sitting next to three folks who clearly weren’t. The difference was written on their faces — three older white faces next to three younger Asian and Latino chefs.
A turn toward fresh ingredients
California was stuck in post-World War II “continental cuisine” muck with the rest of the country, according to San Francisco cookbook author and chef Joyce Goldstein, whose new book, “Inside the California Food Revolution” (University of California Press), provided the background for the sold-out event.
In the mid-1970s, a group of young, largely self-taught California chefs decided to throw out the cream sauce and started building menus around fresh produce. Today the whole country talks about farm-to-table cuisine. The idea, however, said Goldstein, took root here then.
Unfortunately, “the ingredients weren’t here,” said Ruth Reichl, the former Gourmet Magazine editor who, at the time, was a cook in Berkeley.
Michael’s in Santa Monica, the first Los Angeles restaurant promoting “California cuisine,” flew ingredients in from New Zealand to serve produce good enough to take center stage, said Nancy Silverton, the chef behind La Brea Bakery and L.A.’s Osteria Mozza, who worked the cash register at Michael’s when it opened in 1979.
From the earliest days, Reichl said, California’s food revolution was part of an anti-industrial farming political movement. To get the food they wanted to serve, the chefs had to cultivate farmers willing to learn how to grow it.
“The big change — beyond just connecting with farmers — was when restaurants became personal businesses where you knew your purveyors,” said Goldstein. Chefs shared their sources with each other, something she said could not have happened in the secretive world of New York City’s better kitchens.
“We made sensible choices and cooked sensible food,” said Silverton. Formal dining gave way to raucous rooms with open kitchens; waiters dressed in khakis. Going out to dinner became fun.
California’s casual ingredient-driven way of eating spread across the country long ago, but the Mediterranean climate continues to give the state a distinctive edge. “If you go to our farmers markets, on our worst day, our produce is orders of magnitude better than what you have on any day in the Greenmarket in New York City,” said Sang Yoon, chef/owner of L.A.’s Lukshon. “California is all about celebrating that bounty.”
International influences make their mark
The difference is the personal histories of today’s California chefs. The European traditions that underscored the original “California cuisine” have been pushed aside in favor of the richer, spicier flavors familiar to chefs who grew up in immigrant communities.
“I see California beyond the food we cook as chefs and look at the way we grew up,” Kogi taco truck impresario Roy Choi told the audience. “It’s about immigration and how some of our food becomes stronger here.”
Take the taco, Choi said. “A taco from L.A. tastes like a taco from L.A. You can’t duplicate it in New York.” Yet, he added, “Korean food in L.A. is better than what you find in Korea.”
Mexican food has been slow to gain respect, said Chef Eduardo Ruiz. But the critical accolades for his Corazon y Miel in the Los Angeles suburb of Bell is evidence of change. Ruiz said he looks to his grandmother and mother for inspiration.
If he had the chance to start his career over again, Korean-born Yoon said he would skip the years he spent training in the “physically and emotionally abusive” kitchens of France’s top chefs. “I’d embrace my own culture and start there.”
“I’ve never been more proud to say I’m from L.A.,” said Yoon.
The hometown crowd erupted with applause.
“California cuisine” may have been definable back when farm-fresh, casual dining was novel. Today’s California chefs have more interesting stories to tell.
Top photo: Joyce Goldstein and Nancy Silverton discuss California cuisine at a KCRW event in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Timothy Norris
This Sunday morning, we filled our farmers market baskets with fragrant heirloom melons, the tastiest of the dozens of varieties of plums and pluots on offer and piles of fresh greens, lugging home a rough balance of fruits and vegetables.
Scientists might identify our fruits according to which produce started out as a flower. Sweetness, however, is the distinction that makes a difference to us.
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The perfect accompaniment to the season’s intoxicating abundance is Yung Chang’s film “The Fruit Hunters,” a love letter to the world’s rarest, most delicious fruits and the people obsessed with finding and eating them, which is being released on DVD and digital on July 16.
Chang calls his cast of sweet freaks “fruities” and they are manic about the taste of their favorite fruits. “There is a need to grow the fruit, to cultivate the fruit, not just to taste it,” he says. “There is an explorative, adventuresome sensibility. They want to discover the origin of the fruit they love.”
Don’t call them “foodies,” says Chang. Fruities only love to eat fruit.
Inspired by his friend Adam Leith Gollner’s 2008 nonfiction book “The Fruit Hunters,” Chang spent two years following fruit obsessed scientists, anthropologists and conservationists around the world in search of nature’s sweetest treats.
Noris Ledesma and Richard Campbell lead an Indiana Jones-like quest for rare mangoes in Bali and Borneo as they race to preserve disappearing varieties. Honduran scientist Juan Aguilar struggles to breed a banana capable of resisting a devastating fungus threatening the world’s banana crop. And in the hills of Umbria, Italy, Isabella Dalla Ragione researches Renaissance-era paintings for clues to where she might find the remaining examples of ancient cultivars.
As Gollner writes in his book, “These denizens of the fruit underworld are as special as the flora they pursue.” Largely hidden from the public eye, “they have devoted themselves to the quest for fruit.”
The passion is understandable, he writes. “Fruit is inherently erotic. After all, every time we eat a fruit, we engage in a reproductive act.”
Food porn for the smart set
“I’ve lived for the last 20 years for each day off when I can learn more about fruit,” Bill Pullman told the crowd at a Santa Monica screening of “The Fruit Hunters” earlier this summer. The star of Chang’s film, Pullman is a fruit tourist traveling to tropical fruit hot spots to meet his fruit heroes and learn their secrets, slurping and moaning over each local delicacy he discovers along the way.
At home, the actor is a fruit community organizer, leading his Hollywood Hills neighbors in a quixotic quest to turn abandoned land near their homes into a community orchard. He spreads the gospel of fruit through communal fruit harvests, known as gleanings, and homey canning parties.
There is urgency to the effort, Pullman explains. Industrial farming has taken a toll on fruit diversity. The race is on to save what is left.
Fruities believe a special bond connects fruits and humans, says Chang. Fruits nourish us and, through the act of consuming it, we ensure the future of that fruit species by dispersing its seeds.
“It is a love affair gone awry,” he says. “We need to reconnect with what it means to be a fruit hunter. These people we meet [in the film], these fruit hunters, take us through the world to rediscover our innate connection with fruit.”
As Gollner writes, “To love a diversity that, as limitless as it is fragile, both haunts us and fills us with hope.”
‘Fruit Hunters’ unearths an inner-fruit fanatic
“My connection to fruit was nostalgic,” says Chang. The people, not the fruit, drew him to the project. Several months into filming, he realized things had changed.
“At the beginning, I was very focused as a filmmaker, looking through the lens, so to speak. But people were always handing me fruit to eat. You can’t deny it. You have to taste it,” Chang says. The revelations “became overwhelming. Everywhere. Every second. Someone would have, for instance, a freshly fallen durian fruit [a spiky skinned Southeast Asian fruit with creamy almond flavored pulp] in the backyard of a grandmother’s home and at that moment that would be my favorite fruit.
“Then we’d be at a nursery in Hawaii and I’d be presented with a Burmese grape. It looks like it is in the lychee family. You open the shell, and inside is this semi-translucent pearl with swirls of pink. It tastes like Bubblicious gum.”
The tart, sweet blue Haskap berry that grows in arctic climates and has three times the antioxidant value of blueberries will be the next fruit craze, predicts Chang.
You don’t have to be a fruitie to enjoy “The Fruit Hunters.” The film is playful and joyous, a feast for the mind and the senses.
“When you watch this much food porn, you’ll want to eat fruit,” cautions Pullman. “Would you have come to a movie about vegetables?”
Hamdi Ulukaya was crazy about the tangy strained yogurt his mother made for him growing up in eastern Turkey. It was the simple, everyday food of a sheep farmer’s family. After he moved to America as a college student, Ulukaya wondered why there was there nothing like it in grocery stores in the United States.
As so many immigrants before him, Ulukaya thought he could make a living in his adopted country by sharing the food from home. In 2007 when he introduced Chobani, he bet everything he had on that dream.
When my daughter recently accepted her diploma from Colgate University, 41-year-old Ulukaya shared the stage with the class of 2013, grinning and flashing a thumbs-up like the other graduates.
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“You invited America into your family’s kitchen when you founded Chobani,” Colgate President Jeffrey Herbst told the assembled graduates and their families. “For those who craved pure affordable [Greek-style] yogurt, there were no options. So you purchased a defunct Kraft plant in central New York and spent two years creating the perfect formula, using memories of your mother’s own recipe for inspiration.
“Finding the ingredients for success, you transcended mere merchandizing. Your remarkable attention to detail, willingness to take educated risks, and your candor inspires a workforce of more than 1,700 people in this region alone.
“Using a conglomerate’s castoff plant, you have disrupted the status quo, offered nature’s produce in its purest form and revolutionized the quality of life in central New York. In your native language, ‘Chobani‘ means shepherd, someone who gives and expects nothing in return. Through your determination, creativity and generous spirit, you have put that Turkish word firmly in the American lexicon.
“Hamdi Ulukaya you have asserted that when something is authentic and real, you do not have to say much about it. So I will be brief, it is an honor to recognize you and the impact of your entrepreneurial spirit.” With that, Herbst handed Ulukaya an honorary doctorate in humane letters.
Last year, Ulukaya sold $1 billion worth of yogurt, opened a second plant in Idaho, one of the largest yogurt-processing facilities in the world and expanded his operations into Australia, all of which seems to have made him everyone’s favorite entrepreneur. This month he was named the 2013 Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year. Last year, he was named the U.S. Small Business Administration National Entrepreneurial Success of 2012.
Chobani founder connects with Worlds of Flavor
Ulukaya told the Culinary Institute of America’s Worlds of Flavor conference in St. Helena, Calif., the story of sitting at his desk at his little feta factory outside of Albany. He’d dropped out of business school to make feta, just as his father had done in Turkey.
An advertising flyer was on top of a stack of junk mail he was throwing into the trash. An abandoned 1920s cinder-block yogurt factory was for sale in a town more than an hour’s drive west. He fished the flyer out of the trash. Maybe he could make the yogurt he so missed from home.
Just as they did at Colgate, the crowd rose to their feet in applause. This was a billionaire they could believe in.
Top photo Chobani CEO Hamdi Ulukaya addresses a session of Colgate University’s Entrepreneur Weekend in April 2013. Credit: Andy Daddio
Follow Danielle Nierenberg, and you will end up in interesting places. I learned this reading the missives she e-mailed from developing nations around the world during her tenure with Nourishing the Planet and the Worldwatch Institute. The Tufts-educated Missourian delivered awful truths about the world’s broken food system with an upbeat focus on inspiring individual-sized solutions. I missed her ever-present freckle-face grin when the e-mails stopped.
Now she’s back! With her new venture, Food Tank, Nierenberg and partner Ellen Gustafson remain focused on solutions, but this time they are the sweeping, world-altering kind.
Food Tank will bring together farmers, policymakers, researchers, scientists and journalists with the funding and donor communities to participate in a clearinghouse of information and data. Solid information about what’s working, they believe, will lead to more and better research and development. It’s a step-by-step scientific process toward food justice and a sustainable agricultural system.
I recently asked Nierenberg to share some background on herself and Food Tank.
You have worked to raise awareness about food quality and availability for a long time. What led you to become involved in this cause?
I’ve always been obsessed with food. I’m the person who wants to know what she’s having for dinner at lunchtime. I had the opportunity to work with a lot of farmers right after undergrad as a Peace Corps volunteer and that really helped me understand the connections between how we grow food and the impacts on health and the environment. Since then I’ve really tried to highlight what farmers, business, entrepreneurs, researchers, youth, policymakers and others are doing to make the food system more sustainable.
How did that work lead you to create Food Tank? What do you hope to accomplish?
We want to build a network of eaters, producers and policymakers and highlight the solutions that are already working.
There is so much focus on investment in big, sexy technologies, and we want to highlight how many of the answers to our most pressing social and environmental problems are already out there.
If we start now, there is an opportunity to develop a better vision for the global food system. Fixing the system requires changing the conversation and finding ways that make food production — and consumption — more economically, environmentally, and socially just and sustainable.
We also want to work with our advisory group to develop a new set of metrics to measure the “success” of a food system. For the last 50 years, the measurements have been based on calories and yield and not on the nutritional quality of food, or whether a food system protects water and soil, or whether it promotes the empowerment of youth or gender equity.
What organizations and individuals are working with you on this project?
Ellen Gustafson is the co-founder of Food Tank. She and I have had a mutual crush and admiration for one another for years. Often she and I are the only young-ish women who end up at both industry conferences and sustainable food conferences. Ellen’s work has been more on the entrepreneurial side. She co-founded FEED Projects with Lauren Bush and started 30 Project.
My work has focused on more on-the-ground research and evaluating environmentally sustainable ways of alleviating hunger and poverty. Over the last few years I’ve traveled to more than 35 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America talking to farmers and farmers groups, scientists and researchers, policymakers and academics, youth, journalists and others collecting their thoughts about what’s working to increase incomes, raised yields, improve nutrition and protect the environment.
People around the world seem to be far more aware of the issue of food quality and food security. What has caused this awakening?
I think that since the food and economic crisis began in 2007 and 2008 there’s a growing movement around how not just to feed people, but nourish them. Most of the investment in agriculture is on starchy staple crops and less has been invested in leguminous crops, protein-rich grains or indigenous vegetables. These are crops that are not only more nutritious, but tend to be resistant to drought, disease, pests, high temperatures, etc.
And more and more young people are getting involved in the food system — as producers in urban gardens in Asia, as bakers in New York, as seed distributors in Kenya, and as chefs, food manufacturers, etc. The food system and agriculture have often been something young people feel forced to do, rather than something they want to do. We need to find ways to make it more economically and intellectually stimulating so it becomes something that people want to do and know that they can make money from.
If you could snap your fingers and make one change in the food system, what would it be?
There’s no one thing that can happen to change the system, but a big thing I’d like to see is more investment in agro-ecological practices. Again, most of the investment in agriculture is in sexy technologies and commodity crops and starchy staple crops, and not in the things that are already working — everything from agroforestry and solar drip irrigation to combining “high” and “low” technologies through using the Internet and cellphones. The solutions are out there. They’re just not getting the attention, research and investment they need.
Top photo: Danielle Nierenberg at a site visit to the AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center in Arusha, Tanzania. Credit: Bernard Pollack
At Zester Daily, we scour the world for interesting food and drink stories to share with our fans. As luck would have it, we only had to drive an hour south to Orange County, California, to find our latest discovery: Best Wines Online, a new wine e-tailer we know you will enjoy.
We have trusted the talents of founders Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon since their years managing another wine store. Their well-earned reputations as wine sleuths able to sniff out values in the obscure corners of wine’s ever expanding universe are complemented by an encyclopedic knowledge of Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Their picks reflect a preference for balanced wines that shine on the dinner table. Kyle and Tris take the time to learn the backstories of the wines they sell. With their guidance, wine shopping is more treat than chore.
When we learned this dynamic duo was opening a store of their own, we jumped at the chance to introduce the venture to Zester fans.
Discounts for hand-selected wines
Today, we are proud to announce that Zester Daily and Best Wines Online have launched a marketing partnership. Each week, Kyle and Tris will hand-select a wine they will make available to Zester subscribers at an exclusive 10% discount below the store’s already competitive prices.
Zester newsletter subscribers will find a Best Wines Online promotion detailing the weekly wine offer in our new Weekender newsletter sent out toward the end of the workweek.
On bestwinesonline.com, you’ll find detailed wine descriptions and a growing library of videos both from Kyle and Tris’ travels as well as interviews with winemakers who visit their shop. Their personal touch extends to customer service. When you call their store during California office hours, you’ll get a living, breathing human being on the phone.
They are limiting their stock to 1,000 labels — enough variety to represent the wide world of top-shelf wines along with stacks of tantalizing under $20 treats. Rare among boutique e-tailers, the pair also feature hard-to-get older vintages straight from the wineries.
We know you will enjoy getting to know Kyle and Tris and their particularly delicious take on fine wine at bestwinesonline.com. Sign up now for Zester’s newsletter so you won’t miss out on any of these delicious deals.
Top photo: Kyle Meyer and Tristen Beamon of Best Wines Online. Photo and video credits: Matthieu Silberstein