Youthful, blight-resistant Jefferson trees are the heroes of this fall’s Willamette Valley hazelnut season, boosting Oregon’s crop yield.
The harvest started early, at the end of a hot, dry August but slowed as orchard grounds turned muddy during rain-plagued October. Nut washing and drying machines finally shut down about three weeks into November.
And just to be clear, hazelnuts and filberts are the same nut.
Filberts were renamed in the 1980s because “hazelnut” is the recognized global-market term. Miffed older native Oregonians grouse that it’s just a marketing ploy, but they are surely losing this “one true name” power struggle.
Back to the Jeffersons: Oregon State University’s hazelnut breeding program spent decades developing cultivars resistant to eastern filbert blight, a fungus that threatened Oregon’s industry after it took hold in the 1970s. Starting about six years ago, Jeffersons have been widely planted to replace diseased trees and in new orchards, expanding total hazelnut acreage, according to Grant Allen of the Nut Grower’s Society and Hazelnut Industry Office in Aurora.
“The yield from Jeffersons has doubled in one year,” says Jeff Fox, CEO of Hazelnut Growers of Oregon, a marketing co-op with 200 member-growers. In August, the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service predicted the 2016 U.S. hazelnut crop would total about 38,000 tons. Fox is using unofficial end-of-season numbers to “guestimate close to 43,000 to 45,000 tons, due to exponential yields of the Jeffersons.”
Oregon grows 99 percent of U.S. filberts on around 800 orchards and farm operations covering an estimated 50,000 acres, mostly in the northern Willamette Valley, according to the Hazelnut Industry Office. Allen says around 60 to 70 percent of the Oregon crop is shipped to a region in northern China, where the nuts are brined and eaten like pistachios for Chinese New Year. Much of the rest goes to Europe for confections such as Italian Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Turkey grows 70 percent of the global crop.
New-crop hazelnuts and walnuts are typically available locally in November and early December, mostly at orchard and farm shops and farmers’ markets. You can celebrate “all things hazelnut” and more at the fifth annual Mt. Angel Hazelnut Fest and German Holiday Market near Salem. Highlights include an early “5K Run for your Nuts” road race and some 40 market booths purveying wine, honey, jewelry, filbert-studded delicacies and more.
In the home kitchen, hazelnuts are a natural for desserts and pair up well with chocolate. Sweet or savory, they’re versatile: roast with vegetables, chop and sprinkle onto salads and pasta or use as a base for pesto. They’re tasty out of hand, too, but start by oven-toasting the shelled nuts and then rubbing off the rough skins. Unless you’re quite hypervigilant or have a particular presentation in mind, don’t struggle to remove every brown speck. You could gouge the smooth, slightly pointed globes.