A Trip through BC’s Filbert Country
By NATALIA VIGNOLA
It’s a beautiful spring day in British Columbia and we are just outside of Vancouver, heading back to the Okanagan Valley. Our journey includes a stop in the town of Agassiz to visit our organic hazelnut/filbert grower. We pull in to Canadian Hazelnuts, which consists of a big blue barn, a cute house off to the side with a garden overflowing with spring colour and, behind the barn, row upon row of hazelnut trees.
We are met by a kind-looking fellow in a red plaid shirt. This is our farmer, Pentti Hanninen, a former Air Canada pilot who purchased this farm in order to produce small crops as a hobby. I would say that this is a little more than a hobby, as Canadian Hazelnuts is now one of the largest producers of filberts in Western Canada, which makes Pentti a proud orchardist! We are welcomed, and introduced to two members of Pentti’s team: his son Kode and Colin, Pentti’s brother-in-law. As Richard begins chatting about the weather, which could not be more perfect for some great photographs, I prepare my camera.
Ready for our tour, we start walking around the big barn which houses the nut processing areas, as well as a cute little storefront selling “filberts with everything.” We are shortly met by a view that stops us in our tracks. Rows of hazelnut trees stand in a proud orderly fashion on a carpet of short grass, and above them is majestic Mount Cheam covered with snow. It looms overhead and seems to guard this place, while adding an inexplicable air of mystery to the scene. We enter the clean orchard and are welcomed by the trees, surrounding us and stretching for rows in every direction. It is here, among the spring freshness of the trees, where we begin discussing filberts.
A question we, and Pentti himself, I am sure, get asked all the time is: What is the difference between hazelnuts and filberts? The answer is simple; there isn't a difference. Depending on who you talk to, “filbert” can refer to a certain variety of hazelnut or a specific place of origin but it all comes down to the same thing: filberts are hazelnuts. Many believe the name “filbert” originated in England where the start of the hazelnut harvest corresponds with the August 22nd Feast Day of St. Philbert. Today, it's largely the growers in North America, particularly Oregon, who have firmly adopted the name “filbert” for their hazelnuts.
The hazelnut, or filbert, harvest time is late August to early September. The orchard floor is kept as short and clean as possible, as filberts are collected by a special vacuum after they drop from the trees. They are then separated from their husks, and whatever twigs and leaves they’ve picked up in harvesting, and sent to the cleaning area. There the remaining debris is removed, they are inspected for imperfections, and then graded and sorted by size into various bins. Because filberts are a relatively moist nut, they now have to be dried before they are ready to be shelled and sold. Drying preserves the life of the nut, helps prevent mould growth from too much moisture, and brings out that wonderfully unique hazelnut flavour.
Each stage of the process is overseen by Pentti, his family members and his crew, all of whom take great care to make sure that only the best nuts make it to their customers. This certainly includes regular tasting for quality assurance, which we gladly took part in while we were there! Canadian Hazelnuts also has a small roasting facility, where they are continuously experimenting with small batches of nuts. We look forward to some of the results of these experiments in the future: namely flavoured filberts (tamari or honey roasted maybe?) and organic chocolate-coated filberts! Sounds promising to me!
In the meantime, Pentti and his crew will still be bringing us the best of the new filbert crop every year from the beautiful Canadian Hazelnut farm in Agassiz British Columbia.