From Oregon State University's renowned hazelnut-breeding program, here's the latest scoop: Welcome Wepster, a new, high-yielding, blight-resistant hazelnut tree bred to fulfill the wishes of the chocolate industry.
In a competitive marketplace where bigger usually is better, Wepster is being hailed for its petite nut — a suitable trait for some of the world's most famous chocolatiers with persnickety specs. Indeed, to fit into their precisely engineered candy-making processes (think tender, little morsel centered in a Ferrero Rocher chocolate truffle), only hazelnuts with a diameter of 11 to 13 millimeters will do.
OSU plant breeder Shawn Mehlenbacher announced the release last week in Portland at the annual meeting of the Nut Growers Society of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Considering that any given variety takes up to two decades to perfect, last week's announcement was genuine cause for celebration.
The tree also has a high level of resistance to eastern filbert blight, present throughout the Willamette Valley where 99 percent of the country's hazelnut crop is grown.
OSU's world-class hazelnut-breeding program began under the direction of C.E. Schuster in the mid-1920s. With the joint support of OSU's Agricultural Experiment Station and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Schuster began the quest for breeding high-quality hazelnut varieties that would be resistant to filbert blight, responsible for destroying the East Coast and Washington state hazelnut industries.
When Maxine Thompson took the reins from Schuster in 1969, she concentrated on improvements that would be particularly benefit for the kernel market and would generate a premium price on the world exchange. During her 17-year tenure, she produced several crosses that were eventually released as named varieties.
In the mid-1980s, Mehlenbacher arrived to carry on the breeding program and meet the demands and wishes of growers and consumers: varieties naturally resistant to filbert blight and other diseases but that exhibit high-quality kernel characteristics, high yield and performance in a wider variety of soils. Mehlenbacher, along with his highly capable team, make 25 to 50 crosses each year. This generates about 8,000 seedlings, every one of which ultimately gets evaluated by Mehlenbacher, and most don't measure up. In fact, the phrase among the research team is "We grow 'em to throw 'em."
The result of a cross made in 1997, the new variety is named after the Wepster family of Yamhill in honor of their contributions to the Oregon hazelnut industry and OSU's hazelnut-breeding program. So thank you OSU, Oregon Hazelnut Industry and the Wepster family. Now it's time to eat.
With Valentine's Day on the horizon, this would be the perfect time to honor Oregon's wonderful hazelnut. I've pulled a three-course meal with appropriate wine and craft-beer recommendations from my cookbook, "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit."
Because harvest was completed just a couple of months ago, there are plenty of new-crop nuts around. Check your nearest bulk-food suppliers and don't be afraid to ask how old the nuts are! You want fresh.
The meal starts with Mushroom Bisque With Leeks and Hazelnuts, preferably paired with Oregon pinot noir, such as a vintage from the Willamette Valley's Spindrift Cellars. Pinot also would complement the second course of Dungeness Crabmeat on Mixed Salad Greens With Fresh Lemon-Hazelnut Vinaigrette. Or choose a toasty, barrel-aged chardonnay. The third course of filet mignon with homemade potato chips needs a wine that's just as hearty. Go with Del Rio Vineyards 2010 Syrah.
These recipes call for roasted hazelnuts. To roast, simply tumble shelled kernels onto a baking sheet and roast in a 350-degree oven just until the nuts begin to turn a light brown and are very aromatic. Remove from heat and cool. The outer skins will rub off with just a bit of jostling in a towel or even your hands. Another approach is to place roasted nuts in a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid and shake vigorously. Once the papery skins have detached from the nuts, tumble nuts back onto the baking sheet, go outside and blow away the skins.
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of five cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.