When considering availability, there's a tendency to put Oregon hazelnuts into the "Year around" category. Which is generally correct, thanks to controlled atmosphere storage, excellent distribution networks, and the nuts' natural keeping qualities. But last fall I was reminded of just how seasonal they truly are when I needed some and couldn't find them. Even one of the city's major supermarkets told me that their supplies were depleted and to come back in mid-October.
The upside was that I got a fresh product once they finally came to town.
Well, they’ve come to town again, because early autumn is when the hazelnuts begin to drop from their trees, signaling to growers that it’s time to ready-up the harvesting equipment.
It then becomes a waiting game because timing is everything. The most efficient harvest would be one in which the majority of the crop has fallen before harvesting begins so you only have to go through the orchard once or twice, depending on the equipment used. But if the weather turns so bad that it’s impossible to move the equipment through the orchard, then the crop would be lost. So if weather conditions are marginal, growers will capture as much of the crop as they can before it gets too muddy, with hopeful intentions of returning for the late droppers if the ground is dry enough.
Phase one of the harvest is all about assembling the carpet of nuts into tidy, long rows with the help of a cute little motorized sweeping machine called a Flory Sweeper. It can take as many as four passes down each row to line up the nuts. Then along comes a tractor with the harvester in tow. The machine will suck up everything in its path, spewing dirt and debris out the bottom while the nuts are carried up a metal conveyor belt where they topple out into the hopper.
By the way, if you’ve been thinking, “Well, a hazelnut story is fine and dandy, but what about filberts?” you’ve pondered to the right food writer. When I started writing about this famous Oregon nut back in the early 1980s, the Hazelnut Marketing board conducted a huge campaign to train us writers to call ‘em filberts (like growers out here call ‘em), instead of hazelnuts (like all Europeans). Even though it seemed that we were in the minority, I liked that we were bucking tradition up here in great Pacific Northwest. So filberts it was.
But it seems that even though growers grow filberts, they sell hazelnuts. At least, if they want to move in international circles. And so, in order to reduce the confusion, we food folks been asked to reverse course. Which I begrudgingly began doing many years ago. No matter its name, it’s still the Official State Nut. And it still tastes absolutely fabulous with all sorts of sweets and savories, from chocolate and raspberries to salmon and pork tenderloin.
So on with the season, which, like I said, is in full swing.
Actually "old crop" versus "new crop" is of much less concern in the nut trade than any other type of produce. While the biggest damage to nuts occurs through moisture, modern storage facilities, and packaging control it. And so, there is little qualitative difference between last year's and this year's crop.
If you intend to squirrel away large quantities for the winter keep in mind that exposure to air, light, warmth and moisture will hasten rancidity. If you have an area which eliminates those conditions, then large quantities are best stored in their shells. On the other hand, shelled nuts take up less room and fare very well in the freezer.