Saturday, March 10, 2018

8: Keeping the "Troubled Child" Happy




You’ll pardon my having disappeared for awhile.  I have been deep into hazelnuts.  It’s what you do as you must when you make a hazelnut biscotti.  

My Hazelnut biscotti may be the most dependable baker of the three biscotti we make at Benish's Bakery, but it is not undemanding.  It requires wonderful ingredients, from fine Madagascar vanilla to rich, dark rum to fresh eggs and organic flour.  It also demands lovely hazelnuts for roasting.

For years, the Turkish hazelnut was both plentiful and dependable.  Their blanched hazelnut was pretty and toasted to a deep brown and gave you that ubiquitous roasted hazelnut flavor.  Turkey produced about 3/4ths of the world’s supply...until suddenly they didn’t.  "Suddenly" came In 2014.  It was beyond anything that could have been imagined.  A late frost took out over half their production just about the time the hazelnut spread Nutella and its cousins went ballistic in popularity.  Supply couldn’t meet demand.  Prices soared.  Quality became unreliable.

Quality is always relative with hazelnuts.  In the best of times, you must pick and sort before and after toasting to remove the odd shrunken, misshapen, and stale ones that over-brown.  After the frost wrecked the world’s supply, I had to spend more time, accept more loss, and occasionally return entire boxes of them.  Meanwhile, the price soared - no matter the quality.

Recently I had to return two boxes of them and scramble to find an emergency supply.  And after that I decided I could no longer count on Turkish hazelnuts and had to see if a more permanent substitute was available.

I had sampled Oregon hazelnuts in the past.  The difficulty was finding a supplier of quality hazelnuts that can supply them year round and who sells larger amounts than one pound bags but more modest quantities than a ton.  The Oregon hazelnut distribution system is developing as their harvests increase.  These hazelnuts are also getting more attention because of the trouble with Turkish hazelnuts and the expanding demand worldwide.

The Oregonians have also been developing new varieties through their state ag department.  I was sent samples by one supplier I contacted of both raw and roasted hazelnuts.  They were of the relatively new Sacajewea variety.  Trees planted in the past decade are just beginning to produce in sufficient quantities to be commercially sold.  The raw turned out to be marvelous if a bit more trouble.  They require skinning after roasting - rubbing to loosen and discard as much of their skins as possible.  But the flavor is worth it.

The Sacajewea variety has more natural sweetness and fewer of the sharp, higher notes.  The sweetness is amplified by toasting.  The flavor is slightly softer and richer.

No one wishes to have supply problems.  But this once, a shortage of Turkish hazelnuts took me on a journey which ended with a better hazelnut for my biscotti.

The hazelnut shortage is not over.  The love of spreads like Nutella will continue to press supply, elevate prices and result in shortages when weather affects crops in Turkey and elsewhere.  But production in Oregon is growing and should help keep My Hazelnut a sweet treat for you to enjoy in the years ahead.

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