You needn’t have lived in New Mexico, as I did, to appreciate the sweet earthiness of pine nuts. Consider the Genoan sauce pesto, the provençal sauce pistou, the grain salads of the Middle East that make use of them, the Persian and Tunisian treats, the Milanese panettone: pine nuts figure in dishes both savory and sweet wherever the nuts are grown.
Here in North America, piñons—the small, scruffy pine trees that bear pine nuts—are found throughout the American Southwest and northern Mexico, but they grow most spectacularly in the high desert places of New Mexico. They seem to have arrived there almost 200 million years ago from Asia, where they still grow in climates like New Mexico’s: high and dry. Part of the high cost associated with pine nuts is a result of their narrow and rigid demands for plentiful sunshine, dry climate, and thrifty soil. Like the truffle, the pine nut resists cultivation; it must still be gathered from the wild.
Getting here and finding simpatico growing conditions weren’t the only challenges for these once-tall, now almost bonzai-like, trees. Pine nuts lack the wings (samaras) that propel most fertilized tree fruits toward the ground, so the piñon depends on another method to guarantee its survival. Happily, the piñon jay feasts almost exclusively on pine nuts in season, and like other members of the corvid family, it craftily buries much of its cache to prevent other would-be piñon eaters from stealing its stash. Once buried by jays, pine nuts can germinate and produce new trees.
Jays, as you know, have long, sharp beaks, and this should suggest the challenge that harvesting pine nuts presents to us non-beaked humans. For jays?—no problem. For us?—slow, painstaking, exclusively manual work, the other big factor in the high cost of pine nuts: they must be extricated, nut by nut, from beneath the scales of mature pine cones.
In slower times, New Mexico families made weekend or longer visits to stands of piñon trees to gather the nuts; harvesting became holiday as well as work. Today, gathering method hasn’t changed much: ripe cones, their scales fanned outward, are picked and struck against something hard to release the nuts, which are then shoved into burlap sacks.
Because of their very high fat content, pine nuts can’t just sit around at room temperature for long; their delicate fats, redolent with the scent and taste of pine, quickly become rancid. That’s why Mississippi Market keeps its pine nuts refrigerated.
Yes, they’re expensive, and for a reason: it takes about 1,500 human- or jay-harvested pine nuts to make up a single pound—that’s a lot of labor tied up in those small, luscious nuts. But they’re irreplaceable in certain recipes, and if you’ve ever toasted a small skilletful of them, you understand why they’re worth every penny.
Nutritionally, pine nuts are protein powerhouses—somewhere between 24–30 percent protein by weight—but that’s not really why we love them. Incorporated into a bread, a scone, a pesto or pistou, they imbue the food with a sweet and slightly resinous quality, a soft chewiness, that’s unique.
In the next few weeks, you may see reports in the news about foodborne illness associated with Turkish pine nuts. There’s also a peculiar condition known as pine nut mouth that affects some people who eat Chinese pine nuts: sufferers develop a transient condition that makes everything they eat taste metallic.
Your food co-op’s pine nuts are home grown, sweet, and safe to eat. We hope you’ll give these marvelous nuts a try. They are unrivalled in fancy holiday breads, where their sweetness and diminutive size contribute wonderfully to the taste and look of your loaves.
(And if you need more convincing, how about pine nut brittle . . .?)