The History Of Pine Nuts

When we first started using pine nuts in our cooking, we didn’t have much of an idea of where they came from. We had never been aware of anything edible on the pine tree. Pine nuts may have lurked in the pine cones that we saw on in pine tress and on the ground beneath. We never knew that there was a seed inside that we could get to and eat.

The Production Of The Modern Pine Nut

Pine Nut Production From A Pine Cone

Pine nuts are the seeds of the pine. There are more than a hundred different pine trees across the world, and all have seeds, but only about a dozen species yield a nut worth collecting-one that is tasty and big enough. All of them grow in the Northern Hemisphere – Europe, Russia, Siberia, Central Asia, China, Korea, and North America.

In fact, just three species yield most of the world’s commercial production. The Eu­ropean pignolia is number one, while some pine nuts from the Western Pinon will come to market in the United States. Third, the Chinese pine now yields a substantial and mar­ketable crop. These are often most commonly found in U.S. markets.

The Known History Of Pine Nuts

Pliny The Elder, The History Of Pine Nuts
A lot of nuts were found in the ruined kitchens of Pompeii and pine nuts were among them. There is evidence that the first Roman soldiers to explore England car­ried stashes of pine nuts among their provisions. Pliny The Elder looked into pine nuts, too, but it’s no surprise, he checked out everything. In his era, they were sometimes preserved in honey.

The very early Greeks sometimes put pine nuts in their stuffed grape leaves. There is a Chinese tradition of making sweets with them.

We know that they were widely consumed by the Native Americans of the West. They were carefully gathered and shelled, often ground into meal and stored in crocks or baskets for the winter. Ethnobotanists have found evidence of the history of pine nuts consumption through the carbon dating of materials found in anthropological digs, some from as long ago as six-thousand years. (Like history? Check out the history of American Pralines here.)

Pine Nuts In Medicine

In European folk medicine, people thought pine nuts were good for gout and cataracts. In the Balkans, they were said to make one who dines on them bulletproof. Of course, we can hope that over time they learned the truth of this fabrication.

A possibly more exciting attribute of the pine nut is its ability to perk up a sagging libido. It was Roman and Greek Viagra . The food writer Marcus Gavius Apicius recommended a stew of pine nuts, cooked onions, white mustard, and pepper. The poet Ovid told us to eat “the nuts that the sharp-leaved pine brings forth.” Galen, the Greek chronicler of medi­cines, advised taking a mixture of pine nuts, honey, and almonds for three consecutive nights. An unnamed Arab Herbalist, later in the history of pine nuts, was more specific adding, “a glassful of honey, twenty almonds, and one hundred twenty pine nuts.” Three nights of this, they wrote, will help a man “acquire vigor for coition.” Coition is another term for coitus.

Like other tree nuts, the pine nut has lately been absolved by modern medicine of the charge that they contain too much fat to be good for you. We now know that, while they have a lot of fat, it is the good stuff, and not the bad.

Harvesting Of The American Pine Cone

Pine Cone On The GroundHarvest techniques are labor intensive, difficult, and primitive. In the United States, collection of the native pine nuts is haphazard and unorganized. Regardless, that the pine nut is slow to produce, often not yielding seeds until the trees are twenty-five years old. It can take up to three years for a growing a single pine cone to maturity. It just isn’t feasible to try to create orchards.

There are actually two varieties of this western species. A hard­ shelled nut grows in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. They have to be cracked to col­lect the tender kernel. There is also the more popular and easier to handle soft-shelled nut that grows in Nevada. Food writer Janet Podelak, warned of being coated in pine tar by the end of a harvest. Most of all, her experience collecting for a day made her understand why she has to pay $20 for a single pound of them at the specialty food market.

Even at that kind of a retail price, foragers often find it is simply too costly and time-consuming to collect them. The crop is unpredictable. One year there could be a lot of pine nuts and the next year almost none. During the disorganized harvest in the United States, it is estimated that between two and four million pounds will be gathered. In Nevada, col­lecting the nuts is often a family hobby. You can gather twenty-five pounds without a permit. If you take more than that, you are considered a commercial collector.

How To Release The Seeds Of The Pine Cone

First of all, the pine cones are dried until the scales open and the seeds are loosened. The seeds are shaken out and dried some more. Then they are cracked and the kernels are brushed to get rid of the thin brown covering. Finally, the white kernels are ready for pine nut lovers who are always ready to pay whatever price the market demands.