Several years ago we stayed in the home of some friends in Rome. In their yard were large pine cones, with open scales. Here’s one we found in the yard this week and took a photo of:

 

And lo and behold, in between the scales were small seeds (see them?), and each held a pine nut. Whooppee! I was going to get some “œfree” pine nuts! I went through the yard, collecting the pine cones, brought them inside and shook or pried out about a cup of nuts. That was the easy part. Those cotton-pickin’ little nuts were the hardest nut I’d ever cracked!

 

Inside was a tiny pine nut. I managed to get out about 5 pine nuts before deciding I would just “œpay the price” and buy them! So I learned, firsthand, why pine nuts are so expensive.

PRIMARY REASONS FOR HIGHER PRICES:

  • Pine nuts must be harvested by hand.
  • The pine cones must either be gathered from the ground, or harvested from the tops of tall pine trees. Sometimes large vibrators are used to shake the cones from the trees. Otherwise, men climb up to pick them. (If you want to watch someone take his life in his hands, watch this Korean video“”with English subtitles–showing a man putting on homemade “œspikes” and climbing an incredibly tall tree to harvest them! You’ll be glad to pay dearly for pine nuts once you watch him risk his life for your pine nuts!)
  • The cones must first be dried, usually in the sun, until the cones open up, revealing the seeds. Removing all those small seeds from between the scales is a time consuming process. If the open cones are left on the tree or the ground too long, birds and squirrels get to them first, which is why they are often picked when closed and left to open in the warmth of the sun or an oven.
  • After the seeds are extracted from the cones, they are dried further before the hard shell is cracked to reveal the small pine nut.
  • Pine trees start producing pine nuts after 25 years and are only commercially viable after 75 years.
  • Italian pine trees have been infested with an insect (called “œleptoglossus” or “œwestern conifer seed bug”) since 2006 which has greatly limited production.
  • Supply and demand. World production of pine nuts is small in proportion to the demand for them.
  • Pine nuts have a high oil content and go rancid quickly, especially in hot, humid conditions. This makes it difficult for producers to keep quality high as they are difficult to store. (I recommend keeping your pine nuts in the fridge or freezer.)

CHINA TO THE RESCUE? Not really.

  • China has begun harvesting and processing pine nuts from Vietnam, Korea and Russia.
  • Labor is cheaper”¦so their pine nuts are less expensive.
  • Asian pine nuts are distinguishable because they are shorter, fatter and more triangular in shape.
  • European pine nuts are elongated and slender, with a more nutty taste.
  • Chinese pine nuts have been documented to cause taste disturbances, lasting between a few days and a week. The disturbance, called Pine Mouth Syndrome is described as a bitter, metallic taste which, though unpleasant, has no lasting effect (thank goodness!).

                         VS.   

PRICES:

  • Best prices I’ve found online is at Wholesale Pine Nuts. These are American Pine Nuts, from Nevada. They are sold out of their 2010 crop; orders will not be filled until late fall 2011. You can pre-order: 8 pounds  are only $ 9.99 /lb. with free shipping for a total of $79.92. Consider splitting the order with a friend or two.
  • Consider purchasing them from Costco, Sam’s Club or Trader Joes but let me encourage you to read the fine print. If they are from Asia you risk getting Pine Mouth Syndrome.
  • Best price I’ve found locally (in Torino) is €38/kg or $26.50/lb.

 

SUBSTITUTES and SUGGESTIONS:

  • When making pesto, consider substituting walnuts, cashews or pistachios. I have used walnuts for years when I make Basil Pesto and we really don’t taste the difference.
  • Pine nuts taste much better if they’re toasted first. Otherwise they can have a somewhat mealy taste.
  • I often substitute slivered or sliced almonds for pine nuts in a recipe.  I especially like the fact that the slivered ones almost look like a pine nut. I can’t buy these cuts of almonds in Italy but sometimes purchase them in Germany or the States and bring them back with me.

RECIPES:

Pine nuts are most commonly associated with making Basil Pesto. Italians also make a variety of cookies with pine nuts, though even the pastry shops in Italy have begun substituting almonds in these cookies due to higher prices.

If I use pine nuts, I like to use them primarily as a garnish, sprinkled on top of pasta, vegetables, salad or pizza. If I stir them into the pasta or toss them with salad, they tend to fall to the bottom of the serving bowl. Instead, I sprinkle them on top so we can appreciate them. Below is a delightful recipe for Tagliatelle with Lemon and Pine Nuts. It’s fresh and light–especially nice in spring and summer. Enjoy!

Click here for the recipe for Tagliatelle with Lemon and Pine Nuts.

WANT TO KNOW MORE?

These are the basic FACTS about pine nuts. If you want to know more, check out these sites:

Ciao!

Debbie

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