Did you know that the Willamette Valley and surrounding region grows 99.9 percent of the nation's domestic hazelnut crop?
It began at the turn of the century with George Dorris, who jumped in with both feet. And that, of course, is a story all unto itself: how the hazelnut industry in Oregon began.
However, an even earlier grower was Ferd Groner. In 1880, at age 17, Ferd helped his family build a grand, Victorian-style house, one brick at a time. The historical estate still stand where Scholls Ferry Road and River Road intersect about 20 miles southwest of Portland.
After taking over the family business at age 28, when his father died, Ferd soon built a farming empire around hay and walnuts. Somewhere along the way, he put in a hazelnut orchard that grew to 200 acres.
It wasn't until 1943, when he was 80, that Ferd decided he needed some help with the orchard. His ad in the Oregonian was answered by Andrew Loughridge, who had a wife and infant son to support and needed the work. To the questions posed by Ferd, "Do you smoke? Do you drink?" Andy was able to answer in the negative. Ferd took a shine to him and even invited the family to move into living quarters on the lower level of his brick mansion.
The Loughridge family lived in the main house for about a year before moving to another house on the estate. A few short years after that, Ferd died. In his will, he bequeathed half of the hazelnut orchard — 100 acres! — to Andy. And so, for the next 60 years, Andy grew hazelnuts.
It was a life that suited a man with such a strong work ethic, with the consistency of its year-round demands. His barnlike, red nut dryer, with its iconic cupola, drew customers from near and far. Others came to Loughridge Farm to buy his nuts. And after Andy filled up their bags and weighed them, he always topped off the purchase with a few extras — just in case there were some bad ones.
Up to the age of 89, he still was farming the entire orchard on his own, with only one hired hand. Then he leased out all but five acres, which he kept working. In November 2005, at age 94, Andy suffered a debilitating stroke. That previous October, however, he had participated in the harvest one last time. He'd raked the end rows in the orchard, run the sweeper and even driven the tractor pulling the harvester that picked up the windrowed nuts.
Before his death, he was told that the price for nuts had hit a new high: $1 a pound. His eyes lit up: "I'll have to tell the bank to get a bigger box to put my money in."
You'll begin to notice lots of markets rejoicing in the fact that the harvest has begun because they now can boast "new-crop" hazelnuts. Here are a few ways to relish their goodness.
Three things happen when you roast a hazelnut: It gets more flavorful, it blushes from the inside and it takes on a pleasing crunch. So you definitely want to roast them in most cases. Another way to look at it is that roasting almost always improves how hazelnuts perform in a given recipe.
This is simple stuff, roasting hazelnuts. There is no absolute right way to do it. The pendulum swings from "low-and-slow" all the way over to "high-and-fast." I tend to go for the middle range: 350 F. At that temperature, you have quite a bit of control over the outcome. A medium roast only takes about 15 to 20 minutes. At higher temperatures, things move a bit quicker, and it's easy to overshoot your desired endpoint. When you begin to smell the delicious, toasty aroma, it's time to start checking the roasting progress. The longer you roast hazelnuts, the richer their flavor. You have to decide how deep of a roast you want based on how you're planning on using them.
Light roast: The skins have cracked on the majority of the nuts, and the surface of the nut still will be a creamy, ivory color. Break into one of the nuts (careful, they're hot!). Its center will be a slightly darker color, a sort of beige.
Medium roast: The skins will have cracked on the majority of the nuts, and surfaces still will be a creamy, ivory color (just about the same color as the light roast). Centers will be notably darker than surface color.
Dark roast: The skins will have darkened more and cracked on the majority of the nuts; surfaces will have darkened to a pale tan. Centers will be very dark (and getting darker faster at this point, so get those nuts out of the oven; they're done!).
SKINNING HAZELNUTS: The time-honored approach to skinning involves roasting and then rubbing them around inside a towel. But this method produces only 40- to 60-percent success, depending on the variety of hazelnut. Another method is to simply throw the cooled, roasted hazelnuts into a tupperware container with a tight lid and shake them very violently. The skins literally will peel away from the abrasion. Then tumble the nuts onto a baking sheet, walk outside and blow away the papery skins!
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.