“Why a small bag of pine nuts is setting me back $20 these days?” someone asked me today. Why indeed? Some nuts are notoriously expensive, like Brazilian nuts that have a cement hard shell or pecans (the price of which always seems to increase around Thanksgiving). But pine nuts take the cake. I assumed the labor intensity of shelling them was to blame and I was partly right. Where I grew up, where shelled nuts are incredibly hard to find and every household is equipped with a nutcracker, nuts tend to be cheaper than the neat bags I carelessly drop in my cart at the market. In my current household the nutcracker hardly ever takes a walk out of its drawer – come to think of it, I believe it was one of the items I brought when I moved from Italy, never to be used again.
But I am digressing. Pine nuts are the edible seeds of the pine tree – yes the one that produces cones and needles but only a few varieties yield seeds big enough to be worth harvesting. In the US there are three main varieties: the Colorado Pinyon, the Single Leaf Pinyon and the Mexican one. What is intriguing is that the harvesting of pine nuts is the almost exclusive domain of certain tribes of American Indians who negotiated such rights with the US Government. The way to extract the seeds from the pine cones which, by the way, take three years to mature, is to let them dry in the sun (or heat them to speed up the process). The heat will open the scales of the cones and the seeds can then be threshed and hulled, a process mainly done by clever machines – so stop imagining American Indian workers sitting in a circle shelling nuts…
Which brings us to the price of the lovely, creamy, oblong nuts – yes, it is labor intensive to extract them from their shells but, in the last few decades, thousands of hectares of pinyon pine forests have been converted to different use thereby extensively lowering the production to the point that demand is now much higher than the industry can satisfy. And if you remember anything about those boring economics classes the function of price vs demand explains it all.
To obviate to this, the US started importing Chinese pine nuts (along with Italian ones that are also horribly expensive). It appears the Chinese nuts have a slightly different flavor, sometimes associated with Pine Nut Mouth. I swear such a condition exists and it is the metallic taste that stays in your mouth after eating certain pine nuts. It affects the taste of anything else you will eat afterwards and, although harmless, can last up to two weeks. It could be the Chinese variety or also the fact that pine nuts, because of their high oil content, spoil easily and eating a rancid one (especially if heading all the way from China) could be more common than in times past.
Two kitchen tips – if you shelled out $20 for pine nuts and you haven’t gotten around to using the entire stash, freeze them. They will preserve their flavor beautifully. And, no matter the use, always toast them in a dry skillet for a couple of minutes – it will draw some of the oil to the surface, increasing the flavor exponentially.