Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Could Mulch Be Any Sexier? Or Nuttier?

There are few if any things more elegant and distinctive than a hazelnut.
And perhaps none more mysterious.

Sure, if prompted, most of us can identify the flavor hazelnut when paired with oh, let’s say, chocolate. 
Then there is the European-influenced spread, Nutella
And I’ve always put them out with mixed nuts at Thanksgiving.  Nothing solo.

But how many can identify a hazelnut as a biennial with their frilly, gorgeous caramel-coat clusters that look like a fancy collar Tilda Swinton could regally pull off wearing? 

Not me.  Not until I was walking in Chef Keith Luce’s brand new potager kitchen garden behind his newly restored and reopened, Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport, Long Island.  (www.jedediahhawkinsinn.com)

Chef Keith is a celebrated master chef in my upcoming book, “Long Island Homegrown.”  (www.celebritychefsandtheirgardens.blogspot.com)

Recently, we were photographing this amazing farmer/chef in his beautiful and well-kept garden where he grows herbs and vegetables for the food served in the restaurant.

I was keen to learn about Chef Keith’s story about how the garden came to be -- he comes from a North Fork family whose farming roots go back generations.

Chef Keith is a former White House sous chef by the way

I was charmed by the garden layout and his choice of herbs and vegetables.   Increasingly I found myself being wooed by what was underfoot. 
I couldn’t help but notice the fascinating gems that were scrunch, scrunch, scrunching with a decided syncopation along with my every step.    It was a musical "hello-Look at me."
The mulch had my attention.  

I scooped a handful of this most curious bounty.
“What is this? “I ask turning the collection of light brown shells in my palm.
Without breaking stride or stopping to see what I was holding, Chef Keith explains it is hazel nuts.  
He goes on to explain they are the sweeter, French hazelnut variety, DuChilly. 
As I scramble to write it down while juggling an umbrella, I ask again, “What is that you say?”
Chef Keith explains the mulch is spent hazelnuts from Holmquist Orchards in Washington State.

I furiously jot down the name.

Chef explains that at the time he worked at the acclaimed Herbfarm Restaurant in Washington State, he partnered with the Holmquist owners and hazelnut growers extraordinaire to purchase the hazelnuts to use in his creative recipes. 
After moving back to his home in the heart of wine country in Long Island’s North Fork, the siren song of the hazelnut must have wooed Chef too, as he not only continues to use the hazelnuts in his menu offerings, but he asked Holmquist to send him the spent shells they have left over after harvesting and shelling the hazelnuts, before they are gently roasted to use as his garden mulch. 

The family story: this is the 5th generation to grow DuChilly nuts at Holmquist Orchards, the hazelnut growing and processing was all so fascinating. Especially as I just hadn’t ever thought about hazelnuts all that much. 
To learn of this glamorous use of this charming little nut was a delightful discovery.  I felt I had uncovered a treasure tale.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the October issue of Martha Stewart Living magazine – the one with the pretty, lacy pumpkin on the front cover. Included in the issue is a feature article titled, “A Harvest of Hazelnuts” that showcases an outstanding photo essay on the proud heritage of the Foulke family from start-up through success -- and especially the hazelnut harvest. (www.marthastewart.com)

Holmquist Orchards I later learn after research, was featured in a 2008 Martha Stewart story. You can buy the hazelnuts directly from their web site too.

The recent article details how the rains shake the nuts from the trees, harvester vacuums up the nuts and blows about debris leaving clean nuts to bobble into a bin. 
The nuts ride a conveyor belt into the cracker. The bins that hold the nuts drops them one by one into the cracker for shelling. 
This is the mulch: the spent shells!
The nuts go on to the roasting line and then to quality control…

Chef repurposes the DuChilly hazelnut shells from Holmquist Orchards in the Jedediah Hawkins garden with great purpose and success. 
It is too-perfect compost and mulch.
Spread along the garden paths and in the beds it is beautiful to look at! 
It  seemed a bit fragrant, too. 
And they make that lovely crunching come-hither sound when you walk on them.
What a curiously brilliant addition to the garden.

I looked up hazelnuts to learn more and found out they are grown in Mediterranean countries including Turkey (the largest producer) and Italy and here in the United States in Oregon and Washington State. 
The nuts are used in confectionary to make praline. I also learned they are rich in protein and unsaturated fat and are a good source of Vitamin B. 

I’ve always been fascinated with the quick-change, chameleon artist almond, and how it can sweetly romance almost anything from beauty products like cream or oil to food like cakes and candy and beans to candles and oh so many things.

Now, it seems the flirty little hazelnut just might steal the spotlight. 

I learned from Martha’s feature story that hazelnuts can also be used to create not only delicious desserts, but also pizza dough, oil, and pesto.
This is crazy good!

Or just plain nutty J