Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pine Nut Insanity

Joanna foraging for pine nuts.
“Now I understand why they're so expensive!” said Joanna, after painstakingly cracking the outer shell of a roasted pine nut, only to find it yet again empty.

We had peeled approximately 50 pine nuts, and how many did we have to show for it? Seven. I yelped in shock when I found my first nut, sweet creamy white after piles of empty or rotten ones.  How did we get to this stage?  Rewind 5 days. 

The Harvest

According to herbalist and ethnobotanist Tellur Fennur of Blue Wind Botanical Medicine Clinic, who I consulted on pine nut collection and processing, the three pines most commonly harvested for pine nuts in our area are the Gray or Ghost Pine (Pinus sabiniana), the Coulter Pine (Pinus coulteri) and the Sugar pine (Pinus lambertiana). They are not common in urban areas, however, and are mostly found towards the east, especially near Mount Diablo.  The most common pine in our area is the Monterey Pine, (P. radiata).  We noticed that it was producing pine nuts, so even though it's not noted as a species commonly harvested for its nuts, we decided to try it.  That was probably our first mistake.

 Joanna, Rebecca and I headed off with a borrowed fruit picker and directions to a parking lot edged with Monterey pines.  We were told to look for pine cones that had just started to open; if they were too open, the squirrels and insects would be there ahead of us and the nuts would be gone.  Another common way to harvest them is when they're fully developed but still green and unopened, so we picked a few cones at that stage, too.

That was easier said than done. From the ground, it was hard to tell the exact stage of the pine cone nestled among all those needles.  The fruit picker was not exactly made for these cones either.  In the end, we figured out that the other end of the fruit picker – the blunt bamboo pole – was more suited for pine nut collection. The cones just needed to be knocked out of the branches, not grabbed.

We were collecting while standing on the sidewalk next to the lot, since all fruit or nuts overhanging sidewalks and public thoroughfares is legal to collect in Berkeley and Oakland. People passed us in business clothing, just finishing their evening commute. Most looked at us like we were insane, although some were curious and encouraging.  We collected about two five-gallon buckets worth of pine cones, and headed back to the house.

Rebecca, Wendy and Joanna concentrating on cracking the cones open.
Seated around a sunlit kitchen table, we donned garden gloves and started prying apart the cones.  It was no joke.  These were big suckers, with sharp, pointy edges.  The pine nuts are wedged between the hard brown talons of the pine cones.  We'd made a tidy pile by the time we called it a day. 

Five days later

We now had a small bowl full of pine nuts encased in a hard outer casing.  Wendy tried to use her metal nut cracker on them and broke it. We decided to try roasting them.

If you try this, use medium-low heat and watch it carefully (although I'm not recommending trying any of this because it was utterly ridiculous).  I mention the heat because Wendy had previously tried roasting a pan full, then gotten distracted until she started hearing explosions and being pelted by tiny pieces of pine nut shrapnel.  This time, we carefully shook the cast iron pan, roasting them evenly until cracks formed in the shells.

After removing the nuts from the heat, we went at them, forcing small paring knives into the cracks to pry the nut apart.  It worked well, and a mountain of empty shells started to form.  The problem was that very few of them contained actual nuts.

I'm still not sure if we were too early, too late, or if it was just an off year for the trees. Probably most of the cones we picked were past their peak, and although the outer shell looked sealed, insects had already gotten to them. Or, since it was planted as an ornamental, some of the trees could have been sterile.

Betsy, surprised, as one goes flying.
 We ended up collecting seven, as I mentioned. Yes, seven.  But we weren't dejected or upset, surprisingly. On the contrary.  The entire process was so satisfying, the company so fulfilling, that the pine nuts themselves were secondary. Those seven sat on the butcher block, no one seemingly tempted to touch them – they were sacrosanct.  As we were about to leave, we gathered around the table, grasped one pine nut each, toasted each other and downed them.  It was quite seriously the best pine nut I've ever eaten.

Worth it?  You be the judge.
P.S. We tried roasting the green cones, but no luck yet.  We are hanging them in a burlap bag in the sun for a while to see if they open that way. I'll post an update when we find out!

1 comment:

  1. So cool. Have you had a torta della nonna? It uses pine nuts. Really good.