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Pine Nuts

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Also known as pignolia or pinon and often referred to as kernels, pine nuts are the seeds from the cones of certain varieties of pine trees belonging to the family Pinaceae. They are generally about 12mm/ inch long, depending on the variety, with a pale cream colour and a delicate 'pine' taste.


Origin and History of Pine Nuts


Pine Nuts are often associated with the Mediterranean region, in particular Italy where it has been used as an ingredient for over 2,000 years. Evidence found in the ruins of Pompeii, an Italian town which was destroyed when the volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted in 79AD, show that pine nuts were widely used at that time. Some research indicates that the species now grown in Europe, Pinus Pinea originated in the Near East and that it was man who gradually spread it throughout the Mediterranean.


Be that as it may, the high regard for these little nuts in the Mediterranean cuisine is evident when you examine the history. In ancient Roman times they were made into wine, preserved in honey, used in sausages and other recipes and later, huge forests were planted as a direct response to Papal decrees.


However, other varieties of pine nuts have also been grown and eaten in various parts of the world. In the South Western parts of the United states, it is thought that the kernels of the North American Pinon tree were eaten as a staple food some 10,000 years ago and species are also to be found in Korea, China, Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan where it has been a traditional food of nomadic tribes.


Cultivation and Processing of Pine Nuts


There are about a dozen species worldwide that are used for food, but it's mainly the stone pine, Pinus Pinea which is cultivated for commercial use. This species is slow growing and eventually grows to between 6-12 metres, depending on the growing conditions. It takes about 15 years before it starts to produce notable amounts of cones, however once established, they can be productive for 100 years.


The cones are mostly hand-harvested with long hooked poles, although mechanical harvesting using tree shakers is being introduced in some places. Traditionally, the nuts are piled into heaps to dry in the sun so that the cone scales opened and the seeds could then be beaten by hand to extract the seeds. This threshing is also sometimes done mechanically.


The nuts are then passed through a milling machine where they are crushed between cylinders to crack the shells and then sieved to separate the shells from the seeds. The milling process also removes the germ which unfortunately decreases the seeds viability.


Pine nuts in cooking


Whilst pine nuts are relatively expensive due to the labour intensive harvesting, their qualities make them worth every penny. Apart from their delicate taste and texture, they are very high in protein (about 31g of protein per 100g of nuts) which makes them especially useful in a vegetarian diet.


They can be eaten raw, especially good in salads and an essential ingredient in Pesto, or as an added ingredient in many savoury and sweet recipes: the flavour and texture goes very well with meats, cheese, vegetables and fruit. As they can become rancid quite easily, store them in the fridge or freezer, although once you get the taste for them, you won't be keeping them for any length of time.


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