If you’ve ever tried to collect and shell pine nuts, you’ll understand why they’re so outrageously expensive to buy. Each tiny nut, hidden between the pine cone’s scales, is encased in a hard, thick shell that needs to be somehow cracked without destroying the tender meat inside. Within is a delicious morsel, creamy yet crunchy, sweet yet lightly flavoured with a distinctive hint of resin.
Although the nuts themselves are hard to crack, stone pine trees are probably among the easiest edibles to grow, thriving even in dry, windy conditions with poor soil. They grow in spots where other fruit or nut trees would turn up their toes. They will crop more heavily, of course, on deeper, richer soil with some shelter, but generally like a dry, warm Mediterranean climate and free-draining soil.
Of the hundred-plus varieties of pine tree found across the world, only about 20 produce edible kernels big enough to bother with. These include the Pinyon group of pines from the dry mountainous regions of North America, where the nuts are harvested as a traditional food. Other edible pines are found in Asia, from Afghanistan across the Himalayas and China right through to the Korean peninsula. The pines most commonly grown for nuts in New Zealand however are Pinus pinea, aka the stone pine, originating in the eastern Mediterranean, but naturalised since ancient times across North Africa, Spain and Portugal. Mediterranean pine nut varieties tend to be longer and thinner, the Asian types shorter and fatter, while those from America have thinner shells.
For native North Americans, such as the Hopi and Navajo, pine nut trees are an important food resource, and clans travel to the mountains in late summer or early autumn to harvest them for storage over winter. In Asian cuisines, they seem to be used more as a garnish, while around the Mediterranean they are most commonly made into pesto (ground into a paste with basil, oil and lemon), but also used in cakes and salads. And pine nuts have a great history – there is evidence they were eaten by Paleolithic people over 10,000 years ago. Stone pine trees can also apparently be found at regular intervals along the Silk Road, the ancient trading routes that took caravans of camels between China and the Mediterranean coast; pine nuts made the perfect travelling food for traders on the route, being small enough to carry and trade, yet packed with nutrition.
The history of pine nuts in Aotearoa is not quite so long, but it does date back to the early days of colonisation. Pinus pinea were among the species imported by James Hector – geologist, museum director and founding head of the New Zealand Institute. During the 1870s and 1880s, when he was manager of Wellington Botanic Garden, James was charged with investigating species that might be suitable for economic production in New Zealand. The first stone pine specimens were planted in the botanic garden, some along the slope that leads from the main gates up to the Herb Garden ridge, and another on one of the highest ridgelines of the garden, in what is now the James Hector Pinetum above Magpie Lawn. An old stone pine towers over the Hector Memorial amongst Hector’s other imports – the Monterey cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa (more commonly known as macrocarpa), and Monterey pine, Pinus radiata, both of which have become important forestry and shelter trees. Unlike the more sprawling branches of P. radiata and macrocarpa, young stone pines have a round, tight lollipop form while mature trees develop a tidy, umbrella-like canopy.
Despite their lovely shape, stone pines may not be the best trees for the suburban home gardener, as they grow to 10m high and wide. They’d be great for larger gardens or lifestyle blocks, however, maybe as an alternative to Pinus radiata for shelter belts, and wouldn’t it be great to see them in our parks, schools and recreation areas, for those who like foraging?
Though pine nuts never took off as a major crop in New Zealand, they can be an economically valuable harvest. Marlborough company Pinoli have a pine nut forest of 400,000 trees in the Wairau Valley, with factory-scale driers (to pop the cones open, releasing the kernels) and nutcrackers to remove the shells. They sell some locally, but the bulk of the harvest is exported to Spain.
In a nutshell
- Stone pine trees like hot, dry climates and can handle wind and coastal environments.
- They take six to eight years to start bearing cones – cones then spend three years on the tree before they’re ready to harvest.
- After harvest, cones need to be dried so they split open and drop the kernels.
- The hard-shelled nuts are then sometimes soaked before cracking.
- My favourite pine nut recipe: lightly toast some pine nuts, then add to a threeingredient salad chunks of grapefruit and leaves of rocket. Sounds bizarre, but it is amazingly delicious and impressive for something so simple!