OUT along the Willamette River, the forested groves of the Dorris Ranch are moist and quiet. Among the Douglas fir and bigleaf 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 an d baking." It is not difficult to build an entire menu around the modest-looking morsel. 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 nonprofit 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. "Filbert trees will last forever, if you take care of them," says ranch coordinator Mary Horvat. Keeping an eye on things here is retired ranch caretaker Reynold Briggs, who's in his 80s. "He's very protective of this place, and he's also a great resource," says Ms. Horvat. THE senior Dorris could become rhapsodic about the Barcelona variety of filbert, which he found to be the most productive and profitable. In a 1934 pamphlet describing his method of propagating filbert trees, he wrote: "The Barcelona is to filberts what the Bartlett is to pears; what the Italian is to tart and the French is to sweet prunes; what the Royal Ann is to all general-purpose cherries and the Montmorency is to sour cherries; what the Navel is to early and the Valencia is to late oranges; what the Early Mission olive is to all pickling olives, and what the Black Mission fig is to all figs." 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. Here's a menu for those who just can't get enough. (Warning: Filbert fans should not read further if hungry.) As an appetizer, Lura Pierce's Filbertized Spinach Balls or Rick Satre's Filbert Won Tons. For the first course, a Three Pepper Hazelnut Soup or maybe Casey Bemis's potato-filbert soup. Next, the entree - turkey with Rosemary Schamber's fruit and filbert stuffing, or perhaps the Oregon Trail Risotto Hazelnut Sausage Mix (a hearty and flavorful main dish that may be the only recipe in the world to include two bananas and a red pepper). Pass around some of Mary Horvat's Avocado-Hazelnut Bean Salad and Jan et Van Nada's Barley Filbert Casserole. After a brisk autumn walk, come back home for some of Pam Peabody's Favorite Filbert Cookies, Juanita Gilbert's Chocolate Creme Ala Hazelnut Pie, or maybe a handful of Mrs. E. H. Sawyer's Honey-Coated Filberts. Then, with visions of hazelnuts dancing in your head, arise the next morning to the aroma of Janith Yturri's Oregon Filbert Muffins and Carmen Olsen's Filbert Prune Bread.
"Dorris Ranch Favorite Filbert Recipes" is available for $8 (includes postage and handling) from the Dorris Ranch, Willamalane Park and Recreation District, 151 North Fourth St., Springfield, OR 97477.