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