SPRINGFIELD, ORE. -- 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 such orchard in North America and very likely the granddaddy of all commercial filberts in the United States today.
Filberts (also known as hazelnuts) are widely available, yet virtually all those grown commercially 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."
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." There are 11 filbert orchards with more than 9,000 trees here, operated on a non-profit basis by the local park and recreation district, 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, Mr. Dorris and his nephew Ben eventually were producing 70,000 young trees a year that 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 percent of the profits (mostly from cereal companies and big-name nut distributors like Blue Diamond) to restore the historic buildings and run the educational programs.
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."
Ms. 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 which 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.
"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. The following recipes are from "Dorris Ranch Favorite Filbert Recipes."
Favorite filbert cookies
Makes 3 dozen cookies.
1 cup butter or margarine, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup fine-ground raw filberts
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter or margarine and sugar. Add ground filberts, flour, and vanilla. Mix well. Shape into walnut-size balls, place on ungreased baking sheet and flatten using a smooth-bottomed drinking glass or measuring cup dipped in flour. Bake at 325 degrees for about 12 minutes. Bottom of cookie should barely be browned. Don't allow edges to become brown. Let stand a few minutes on sheet, then remove to cooling rack.
Makes about 1/2 pound.
1 cup shelled filberts
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon honey
Toast filberts in a shallow pan in a 350-degree oven for 10-15 minutes. Let cool a moment. Rub as much skin off the filberts as possible, using a rough cloth or your hands. Heat sugar in a skillet slowly until it melts and begins to caramelize. Add honey and blend. Stir in whole filberts. Drop by spoonfuls onto buttered baking sheet. When cool, store in tightly covered container.
Barley filbert casserole
1 cup pearl barley
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup filberts, chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1/4 cup green onion or chives
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 14-ounce cans chicken broth, undiluted
parsley for garnish
Rinse barley and drain. In frying pan, heat two tablespoons butter. Add nuts and stir until lightly toasted. Remove from heat and set nuts aside. Add remaining butter to pan, along with barley and onion. Cook until lightly browned. Stir in nuts, green onion, 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 for 70 minutes, or until liquid is absorbed. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.