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Thanks To Nutella, The World Needs More Hazelnuts

Sep 16, 2014
Originally published on September 17, 2014 4:48 am

Nutella, that sinfully indulgent chocolate-hazelnut spread, turns 50 this year, and it's come a long way, baby.

There's even a "Nutella bar" in midtown Manhattan, right off Fifth Avenue, tucked inside a grand temple of Italian food called Eataly. There's another Nutella bar at Eataly in Chicago. Here, you can order Nutella on bread, Nutella on a croissant, Nutella on crepes.

"We create a simple place," explains Dino Borri, Eataly's "brand ambassador," a man so charming that he should be an ambassador for the whole Italian country. "Simple ingredients, few ingredients. With Nutella, supertasty, supersimple. When you are simple, the people love!"

Nutella was the product of hard times. During World War II, an Italian chocolate-maker named Ferrero couldn't get enough cocoa, so he mixed in some ground hazelnuts instead. Then he made a soft and creamy version.

"It was one of the greatest inventions of the last century!" says Borri.

It's a bold claim, but greatness, you have to admit, is a matter of taste. In any case, Nutella conquered Italy and, eventually, the world.

The recipe for world domination, it turns out, isn't too complicated: Sugar, cocoa, palm oil and hazelnuts. Three of those ingredients are easy to get. Sugar, cocoa and palm oil are produced in huge quantities.Hazelnuts, though, which some people call filberts, are a different matter. Most of them come from a narrow strip of land along the coast of the Black Sea in Turkey.

Karim Azzaoui, vice president for sales and marketing at BALSU USA, which supplies hazelnuts to the U.S., says the hazelnut trees grow on steep slopes that rise from the Black Sea coast. The farms are small; grandparents and children help to harvest the nuts, usually by hand. "It's a very traditional way of life," Azzaoui says. "The Turkish family farmers are extremely proud of the hazelnut crop, as it has been part of their family history for centuries. Farmers have been growing hazelnuts here for 2,000 years."

Nutella is now making this traditional crop extremely trendy.

Ferrero, the Nutella-maker, now a giant company based in Alba, Italy, uses about a quarter of the world's hazelnut supply — more than 100,000 tons every year.

That's pushed up hazelnut prices. And this year, after a late frost in Turkey that froze the hazelnut blossoms and cut the country's hazelnut production in half, prices spiked even further. They're up an additional 60 percent since the frost.

Because they're so valuable, more people want to grow them. Farmers are growing hazelnuts in Chile and Australia. America's hazelnut orchards in Oregon are expanding.

And now, one can even find a few hazelnuts in the Northeastern United States, where they've never been successfully grown before. They're standing in a Rutgers University research farm, an oasis of orchards tucked in between highways, just outside New Brunswick, N.J.

"All the green leafy things you see here are hazelnut trees. But in the beginning, they all used to die from disease," says Thomas Molnar, a Rutgers plant scientist who is in charge of this effort.

The disease, called Eastern Filbert Blight, is caused by a fungus. Some relatives of the commercial hazelnut, native to North America, can withstand the fungus. But the European hazelnut, the kind that fetches high prices, cannot. When the fungus attacks, it ruptures the bark around each branch, and the tree dies.

About 10 years ago, though, a plant breeder at Rutgers named C. Reed Funk embarked on a quest for hazelnut trees that could survive Eastern Filbert Blight. Similar efforts have been underway at Oregon State University, because Eastern Filbert Blight has made its way to Oregon as well, threatening the orchards there.

"I personally went and made seed collections in Eastern Europe, Russia, Poland, Ukraine," says Molnar. "I collected thousands of seeds. We grew them as we normally would, and I'd say that 98 percent of them died."

The other 2 percent, though, did not. They carried genes that allowed them to survive the blight. Molnar cross-pollinated these blight-resistant trees with other hazelnut trees, from Oregon, that produce lots of high-quality nuts. He collected the offspring of that mating, looking for individual trees with the ideal genetic combination: blight resistance and big yields.

Molnar shows me a few candidate trees. They're thriving, and producing lots of nuts. Molnar and his colleagues now are conducting field trials of these trees in 10 locations around the Eastern U.S. and Canada to see whether they yield enough nuts to be commercially successful.

Molnar is optimistic. His efforts have even caught the attention of Ferrero, the Nutella-maker. "They've come here several times," Molnar says. "They've told me, if we can meet their quality specifications, they'd be interested in buying all the hazelnuts that we can produce."

If you just want to get one of these trees and grow hazelnuts in your backyard, though, Molnar does have a warning. "I haven't seen any other food that drives squirrels more crazy than hazelnuts," he says. Squirrels will do almost anything to get their greedy little paws on the nuts before you do.

So your hazelnuts may need a guard dog — one that likes to chase squirrels.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Nutella, the sinfully indulgent chocolate-hazelnut spread, turns 50 this year. It has become a global phenomenon so successful that it now drives demand for one of its main ingredients, hazelnuts. As a result, people are trying to grow hazelnuts in new places - even New Jersey. NPR's Dan Charles reports.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: In midtown Manhattan inside a shrine to Italian food called Eataly, there's an actual Nutella bar. New Yorkers and tourists alike are lining up to order Nutella on bread, Nutella on a croissant, Nutella on crepes. Eataly's Dino Borri explains the culinary concept here.

DINO BORRI: We create a simple place - simple ingredient - few ingredient - with Nutella, super tasty - super simple. When you are simple, the people love.

CHARLES: Nutella was the product of hard times. During World War II, an Italian chocolate maker named Ferrero couldn't get enough cocoa, so he decided to mix in some ground hazelnuts instead. Then he made a soft and creamy version.

BORRI: It was, like, one of the greatest inventions in the last century.

CHARLES: Nutella was?

BORRI: Nutella was. Nutella was.

CHARLES: It's a bold claim, of course. But you have to admit, greatness is a matter of taste. In any case, over the past 50 years, Nutella conquered Italy and then the whole world.

The recipe for world domination, it turns out, is not too complicated - sugar, cocoa, palm oil and hazelnuts. Three of those four things are easy to get. Sugar, cocoa and palm oil are produced in huge quantities. Hazelnuts, though, which some people call filberts - most of them come from just one place.

KARIM AZZAOUI: The vast majority of hazelnuts are grown in Turkey in the hillsides surrounding the Black Sea.

CHARLES: This is Karim Azzaoui, an executive with the Turkish company Balsu USA, which supplies hazelnuts to the U.S. He describes the scene. Hazelnut trees - they're more like bushes - grow on steep slopes that rise from the Black Sea coast. The farms are small. Grandparents and children help to harvest the nuts, usually by hand.

AZZAOUI: It's a very traditional way of life.

CHARLES: Farmers have been growing hazelnuts here for 2000 years.

AZZAOUI: The Turkish family farmers producing hazelnuts are extremely proud of their hazelnut crop, as it has been part of their family histories for centuries.

CHARLES: But Nutella has made what's traditional trendy. The company that makes Nutella, Ferrero, now claims about a quarter of all the world's hazelnuts - more than 100,000 tons of them every year. It's pushed up hazelnut prices, and this year there was a late frost in Turkey that froze the hazelnut blossoms and cut Turkey's hazelnut production in half. So prices have spiked even further. They're up another 60%.

Because they're so valuable, more people now want to grow them. Farmers are growing hazelnuts in Chile and Australia. America's hazelnut orchards in Oregon are expanding. And there are even a few growing where commercial hazelnuts have never grown before - in the eastern United States. They're on a research farm that Rutgers University operates just outside New Brunswick in New Jersey. Tom Molnar, a plant breeder at Rutgers, shows me around an oasis of orchards in between highways.

TOM MOLNAR: All the green leafy things you see here are hazelnut trees. But in the beginning, they all died from disease.

CHARLES: The disease is Eastern Filbert Blight, caused by a fungus.

MOLNAR: Here's a good example of what Eastern Filbert Blight does to a European hazelnut.

CHARLES: This tree is a corpse. It got about as big as a short bush before the fungus attacked rupturing the bark around each branch. You really can't escape this fungus in the eastern part of the U.S., so everybody knew you cannot grow European hazelnuts here. But about 10 years ago another plant breeder at Rutgers, Tom's Molnar's mentor, decided to try anyway. He and Molnar went looking for trees that could survive Eastern Filbert Blight.

MOLNAR: I personally went and made a number of seed collections in Eastern Europe in Russia, Poland, Ukraine, and brought back thousands of seeds and grew them as we normally would. And I would say 98 percent of them died.

CHARLES: At the other 2 percent, though, did not. Molnar cross-pollinated these blight-resistant trees with other hazelnut trees from Oregon that produce lots of high-quality nuts. He collected the offspring of that mating, looking for individual trees with the ideal genetic combination - blight resistance and big yields. He shows me a few of those possibilities.

MOLNAR: This tree here is a good example of some of our better material.

CHARLES: He pulls down a branch and shows me the nuts. Each one is hidden inside a leafy husk.

MOLNAR: They look quite a bit like acorns, but they taste much better - I promise that.

CHARLES: Molnar is waiting to see just how productive these trees turn out to be. He's optimistic. And Ferrero, the Nutella maker, is also interested.

MOLNAR: Actually, they've come here several times. And they're interested. They told me if we can meet their quality specifications, they would be interested in buying all the hazelnuts we could produce.

CHARLES: So stay tuned. If you just want to grow hazelnuts in your backyard though, Tom Molnar does have one other warning.

MOLNAR: I haven't seen any other food that drives squirrels more crazy than hazelnuts.

CHARLES: Squirrels will do almost anything to get their greedy little paws on the nuts before you do. Molnar says your hazelnuts may need a guard dog - one that likes to chase squirrels. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.