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Pine Nuts - The Popularity of Pignoli

by Janet Fletcher

With pesto now as familiar to Americans as marinara sauce, pine nuts are a hot commodity. Traders in Los Angeles, New York and Virginia struggle to find enough for their giant foodservice customers, who need the little beige nuts for frozen pesto, pesto pizza and pesto pasta salad.

"When we moved our business to Richmond, Virginia, seven years ago, nobody here knew what a pine nut was," says David Rosenthal, a sales representative for Red River Foods, a specialty nut importer. "Today, you can go to TGI Friday and see pine nut pesto sauce."

Americans may know pine nuts now, but few have a clue how these tiny tidbits get from the tree to their plate. Nor do they realize that this nut-of-the-moment can be traced back to Biblical times and beyond, with a rich history in the world's kitchen and pharmacopia.

Remember those pine cones you used to gather for grade-school crafts projects? Nestled inside their bark-like brackets are the shell-covered seeds, capable of generating another pine tree under the right circumstances.

Every pine tree makes seeds, of course, but only certain varieties produce seeds that are large and tasty enough to eat. In New Mexico, Pinus edulis is the official state tree, producing piñon nuts that are a local delicacy. In Nevada, Arizona, Utah and parts of California, enthusiasts harvest the cones from Pinus monophylla (Nevada's state tree) and claim that its soft-shelled seeds are even tastier than New Mexico piñons.

The Mediterranean pine nut crop, so prized in Greek and Italian cooking, comes primarily from Pinus pinea (in Spain, Portugal and Italy). Pakistan harvests Pinus gerardiana, and in China and Korea, Pinus koraiensis yields edible seeds.

But none of these trees gives up its seeds easily. Harvesters must first gather the cones in the late autumn or early winter in some countries, from wild trees. Europe has pine plantations, but in China, at least, the pines aren't cultivated in orchards like walnuts or hazelnuts. Harvesters pick up fallen cones, clamber up ladders to cut them off, or break them loose with a long-handled hook. Then, typically, the cones are sun-dried or heated to encourage the brackets to open and make their cache more accessible. Depending on the processor, the seeds are then coaxed out by hand or machine, then dried further before processing to remove their hard outer shell. Traders say much of this process is done manually in some countries, which partly explains the nuts' high price.

China, the chief pine nut exporter today, wasn't even a player 25 years ago, says Rosenthal. That's when Chinese officials approached his company to ask if the little nuts might find a niche in America. This year, the Chinese are expected to ship well over two million pounds to the U.S. alone.

The Chinese nuts are triangular, with, some say, a milder flavor. The Mediterranean nuts are slender and elongated with a more pronounced nutty taste. They are also considerably more expensive, two to three times as much as the Chinese nuts, but many Mediterranean cooks and bakers insist on them.

Mysteriously, the retail price of pine nuts has been stuck in double digits for the last few years, while the price the importers pay has been as volatile as Internet stocks. "A few years ago, China had a huge crop, a bumper crop," says Rosenthal. "Our price went way down, but the retail price didn't change. It's almost like the (import) market has no influence over the retail market."

Pine Tree Nuts

Perhaps the popularity of homemade pesto, classically a pounded sauce of basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan cheese, has persuaded supermarket managers that consumers will buy pine nuts at any price. Certainly, the Mediterranean food craze in America has also boosted demand, as chefs and home cooks scatter pine nuts over spinach, stir them into rice pilafs and sprinkle them over fish.

But it's pesto, commercial pesto flavoring the pasta salad at the local delicatessen, the pizza in the supermarket freezer case, or the linguine at the national restaurant chain, that is fueling pine nut demand nationally.

"It's like bagels," says Rosenthal. "It's the mainstreaming of an ethnic food. At least 25 percent of what we do goes into pesto sauce's tremendous business. It has joined the ranks of Alfredo and marinara. You can go into any supermarket now and buy pesto."

Cooks interested in taking pine nuts beyond pesto will find plenty of ideas in Italian (especially Sicilian), Spanish, Turkish, Lebanese and Greek cookbooks. Italian cooks stuff escarole with capers, anchovies and pine nuts, or add the nuts to a fresh sardine sauce for pasta. Spanish cooks include them with braised rabbit and sprinkle them over fried sole. In Greece and Turkey, fresh mussels are stuffed with rice, herbs and pine nuts. Rosemary Barron's authoritative Flavors of Greece (William Morrow, 1991) offers a recipe for a sort of Greek pesto, a blend of pine nuts, bread crumbs, garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, chives and broth. The sauce accompanies grilled or baked chicken or fish.

As for the domestic piñon, it is typically sold in the shell, raw or roasted, and primarily to a regional clientele. Some Southwestern chefs are using them in sweet and savory dishes, but most people eat them like popcorn.

In exploiting the edible seed of the pine tree, modern cooks are perpetuating an ancient foodway. Archeologists have found piñon seed coats in Nevada carbon-dated as 6,000 years old. When Spanish explorers arrived in the Southwest in the 16th century, they found Native Americans grinding pine nuts for flour and mashing them to make a savory spread.

Apparently, the ancient Greeks and Romans also ate pine nuts. Archaeologists have found the seeds in the ruins of Pompeii. Indeed, according to Johan's Guide to Aphrodisiacs, pine nuts were a sort of early Viagra. The Roman poet Ovid includes "the nuts that the sharp-leaved pine brings forth" on a list of love potions; Galen, a second-century Greek, recommended pine nuts with honey and almonds, taken on three consecutive nights, for enhanced performance.

Today's consumers don't need any encouragement to keep downing pasta al pesto. But it's nice to know that every bite is stoking that love-making fire.

Pine Nut Recipes from the recipe archive

Janet Fletcher is a food and wine writer in the Napa Valley and the author of Fresh from the Farmers' Market (Chronicle Books).

Riso Verde (Green Rice)
Serves 8

1 pound rice (Uncle Ben's is recommended because it does not overcook)
1 cup of olive oil
1 teaspoon pine nuts [I've used as much as a quarter cup and I prefer the nuts toasted]
3 tablespoons parmesan cheese
2 bunches of basil
1 clove garlic

1. cook the rice 'al dente.' Cool under running water for a few minutes.

2. Meanwhile, place together in the blender, the basil leaves (washed and dried), garlic, pine nuts, grated parmesan and the olive oil (less 1 tablespoon which you leave aside). Blend all of the ingredients together. If the sauce is too thick, add a little water or cold broth.

3. Place the rice in a tureen, dress with the sauce and add the tablespoon of olive oil which you left aside. Fold to incorporate the pesto.

4. Refrigerate for 5 minutes before serving

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