Elegant Nut: The Filbert in America
Out along the Willamette River, the forested groves of the Dorris Ranch are moist and quiet. Among the Douglas fir and big-leaf maple, the incense cedar and black walnut, deer graze peacefully. Foxes and beavers can sometimes be spotted as well. What the visitor comes to see, however, are the filbert trees, for this is the first filbert orchard in North America and very likely the granddaddy of all commercial filberts in the United States today.
Virtually all commercially grown filberts (also known as hazelnuts) come from the Pacific Northwest--particularly west of the Cascade Mountains, where the combination of soil type and mild weather make growing conditions ideal. The result is a bounty of highly nutritious, versatile and tasty nuts that one cookbook describes as “elegant . . . extremely popular for their sweet, mild, yet distinct buttery flavor . . . ideal for eating out of hand and for all types of cooking and baking.” It is not difficult to build an entire menu around the modest-looking morsel.
Less than a mile from downtown Springfield, Ore., the 250-acre ranch is listed on the official United States register of historic places as a “living history farm.” Here are 11 filbert orchards with more than 9,000 trees, operated on a nonprofit basis by the local park and recreation district and producing an average of 56 tons of filberts per year.
The ranch was started in 1892 by gentleman-farmer George Dorris, an attorney who imported 50 trees from France. Experimenting with growing methods in their nursery, eventually Dorris and his nephew Ben every year produced 70,000 young trees, which were sent to other orchards in the Northwest. The nursery hasn’t been in operation since 1957.
But commercial orchardist Norman Evonuk continues to tend the trees and harvest the crop for the park district, which keeps 35% of the profits (mostly from cereal companies and big-name nut distributors such as Blue Diamond) to restore the historic buildings and run the educational programs.
“Filbert trees will last forever if you take care of them,” says ranch coordinator Mary Horvat. Keeping an eye on things here is retired ranch caretaker Reynold Briggs, who’s in his 80s. “He’s very protective of this place, and he’s also a great resource,” says Horvat.
The senior Dorris could become rhapsodic about the Barcelona variety of filbert, which he found to be the most productive and profitable. In a 1934 pamphlet describing his method of propagating filbert trees, he wrote: “The Barcelona is to filberts what the Bartlett is to pears; what the Italian is to tart prunes and the French is to sweet prunes; what the Royal Ann is to all general-purpose cherries and the Montmorency is to sour cherries; what the Navel is to early and the Valencia is to late oranges; what the Early Mission olive is to all pickling olives, and what the Black Mission fig is to all figs.”
In her just-released book on Northwest cooking (“Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers,” Knopf: $23), Janie Hibler of Portland, Ore. quotes nurseryman Michael Dollan of Onalaska, Wash., who predicts that “soon you’ll start to see an explosion of new hazelnut varieties that are suitable for different purposes--such as those grown just for flavor, or to grind into flour or smaller nuts good for candy making.”
Hibler also explains the two theories on how the European hazelnut (which has been harvested for centuries) came to be known as the filbert. “One suggests that it was named after the husk that completely covers some of the varieties, resembling a ‘full beard,’ while the other relates it to its ripening date around Aug. 22, which is also St. Philbert’s Day and the time when the hazelnut is ripe in England.”
Filberts or hazelnuts, they play a prominent role in hundreds of recipes, many of them gathered from cooks around the Northwest and published by the Dorris Ranch. Here’s a menu for those who just can’t get enough. (Warning: Filbert fans should not read further if hungry.)
As an appetizer, Lura Pierce’s filbertized spinach balls or Rick Satre’s filbert won tons. For the first course, a three-pepper hazelnut soup or maybe Casey Bemis’s potato-filbert soup. Next, the entree--turkey with Rosemary Schamber’s fruit and filbert stuffing, or perhaps the Oregon trail risotto hazelnut sausage mix (a hearty and flavorful main dish that may be the only recipe in the world to include two bananas and a red pepper). Pass around some of Horvat’s avocado-hazelnut bean salad and Janet Van Nada’s Barley-Filbert Casserole.
After a brisk walk, come back home for some of Pam Peabody’s Favorite Filbert Cookies, Juanita Gilbert’s chocolate creme hazelnut pie, or maybe a handful of Mrs. E. H. Sawyer’s Honey-Coated Filberts. Then, with visions of hazelnuts dancing in your head, arise the next morning to the aroma of Janith Yturri’s Oregon filbert muffins and Carmen Olsen’s filbert prune bread.
“Dorris Ranch Favorite Filbert Recipes” is available for $8 (includes postage and handling) from the Dorris Ranch, Willamalane Park and Recreation District, 151 N. Fourth St., Springfield, Ore. 97477.
FAVORITE FILBERT COOKIES (Pam Peabody)
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup finely ground raw filberts
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter and sugar in mixer until light and fluffy. Add ground filberts, flour and vanilla. Mix well. Shape into walnut-size balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet and flatten using smooth-bottomed drinking glass or measuring cup dipped in flour.
Bake at 325 degrees about 12 minutes. (Bottom of cookies should barely be browned. Don’t allow edges to become brown.) Let stand few minutes on sheet, then remove to cooling rack. Makes 3 dozen cookies.
HONEY-COATED FILBERTS (Mrs. E.H. Sawyer)
1 cup shelled filberts
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
Toast filberts in shallow pan in 350-degree oven 10 to 15 minutes. Cool slightly. Rub as much skin off filberts as possible, using rough cloth or your hands. Heat sugar in skillet slowly until it melts and begins to caramelize. Add honey and blend. Stir in whole filberts.
Drop by heaping tablespoons onto buttered baking sheet. When cool, store in tightly covered container. Makes about 1/2 pound.
BARLEY-FILBERT CASSEROLE (Janet Van Nada)
1 cup pearl barley
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup filberts, chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped green onions or chives
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
2 (14-ounce) cans clear chicken broth, undiluted
Rinse barley and drain. Heat 2 tablespoons butter in skillet. Add nuts and stir until lightly toasted. Remove from heat and set nuts aside.
Add remaining butter to skillet, along with barley and onion. Cook until lightly browned. Stir in nuts, green onions, and salt and pepper. Spoon into 1 1/2-quart casserole. (Freeze or chill at this point, if desired.) Heat broth to boiling and pour over barley mixture. Stir to mix.
Bake at 375 degrees 70 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve immediately. Makes 6 servings.
All recipes are from “Dorris Ranch Favorite Filbert Recipes.”