Friday, March 7, 2014

The hybrid hazel flavor dilemma-

This is an email from 2011 - the very first time anyone EVER asked about hybrid hazel flavor.  This is my response- I've deleted the persons name and email, since I haven't asked permission-

Date: November 21, 2011 8:08:58 AM CST
To: ""
Subject: Inquiry

Hello, I am currently living in France and working for an Italian gelato company..we use Piedmont hazelnut paste and roasted nuts in the production of our different ice creams...I would be interested to know about your hybrid nuts and how they compare taste-wise to Italian hazelnuts.  I see your products are available at Heartland...I ate there in August ( I didn't notice your products at the time)...I may ask my Highland Park based brother to pick up a packet and send them.

Kind regards,

Dear Mr.--

I'm delighted to have your inquiry!  You'll be interested to know- and I hope, appalled, as I am- that your inquiry about the actual taste of the hybrid hazels is the first such inquiry I've received, from any quarter.

We do teach a section on flavor, and how to taste and rate the hazels, in our annual Short Course; so growers we educate are fully aware- but others not paying attention seem remarkably incurious- and they're going to regret it.  Of course, these hybrids differ from the European.

Short answer - it will be a decade, at least, before I would have a hazelnut I would dare to offer to any European company, except as a purely experimental experience.  I'm fully aware of the flavor, quality, and standards that apply for your type of operation, and we cannot approach it.  Yet.

Incidentally; we do not offer hazelnuts for sale through Heartland - they do not meet my own standards yet.  We do offer our chestnuts, which we can deliver reliably at the highest quality; and starting this year we hope to offer our new hickory-pecan hybrids; where quality is consistent and at least superior to commercially available pecans; but the hazelnuts, as a product, are just not ready.

The reasons for that are quite complex.  Starting out with- the process of breeding a hazelnut that can be grown in the central US has not included taste as a selection criterion until quite recently.  It couldn't.

As you are very likely aware, "flavor" is probably the most genetically complex trait breeders must deal with- at a guess, there are certainly 10 genes involved in "adequate" flavor, and another 20 genes or so responsible for exceptional taste characteristics.  In addition to the many needed to maintain a healthy plant.  Add to that the fluctuations in flavor due to annual growing differences- drought, wet, cold/hot seasons, fertilizer levels- and you begin to appreciate the complexity.

At the outset  - we didn't even have a plant.  Mathematically- the chances of finding a climatically functional plant; that also managed to assemble the 10-15 genes responsible for noteworthy flavor - are worse than vanishingly small, they are "compatible with zero", as it is phrased in statistics.

And approximately 100 years of amateur and university breeding attempts showed exactly that; F1s do not contain adequate flavor; backcrosses to the European are not climatically functional.  It was necessary to first create a large gene pool of plants that are reliable in this climate; then those that produce reliable crops, and only later search for flavor once those characters were "fixed".

Without going into complete detail, which would tend towards the "encyclopedic" end of things; we've now reached our 4th cycle of selection, and taste IS a primary selection factor in that cycle.  It has always been measured; and never been ignored; but could not be a primary factor, until now.

One thing we know about the majority of our neohybrids - they do not have their full flavor at harvest.  At the moment, we believe it takes 3-4 months post harvest for flavor to develop.  Then- indeed, many of them have genuinely excellent flavor.

But you'll appreciate the difficulties in getting new growers (all our growers here are completely new, of course) to fully comprehend storage requirements, and control them to the degree necessary for elite food uses- it's going to take years yet.

The neohybrids do contain excellent flavor - some of them.  Some, definitely, do not.  Which is not at all unlike the breeding pool for pure European hazels, of course- the public simply never sees the breeding rejects.

In fact- this is not a secret - we've documented unprecedented flavor types in some of our hazelnuts.  Hazels that taste like - walnuts- hickories - the most extreme is a series of types we can only describe as "aromatic-floral".  They're going to be extraordinarily interesting down the road; our spectrum of available flavors is much broader than exists in gene pools containing only one species.

Our goal is to eventually be able to reliably supply the culinary industries with excellence.  We're making fast progress in that direction- when you understand the difficulty of the project.  Give me ten years more; we might be there.

Please let me know if you have further questions or interests.  If/when you are back in Minnesota, please come and visit us.  I'd greatly enjoy showing you what we have, and where we are.  And you can taste for yourself.

my best,

Philip A. Rutter
CEO/Chief Scientist
Badgersett Research Corp
Founding President, The American Chestnut Foundation
Past President, Northern Nut Growers Association
18606 Deer Rd
Canton, MN 55922
888 - 557-4211

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! This seems to explain a lot of things with taste and flavor that are grown for other characteristics, mainly shipping and shelf life (grocery store tomatoes jump right out). Please correct me if it is different.

    It will be an interesting conversation with my kids about the genetics of selecting hazelnuts initially for growing location. Also the part about educating new growers really applies to so much in life.

    One last comment, I really like this line, it says so much: "compatible with zero"