Talk about gourmet connections. When people know you love edibles, they will go out of the way to make sure you connect. Recently while at one of my Wednesday morning's wood-turning sessions at the Waikato Guild of Woodworkers in Hamilton where for about 2 1/2 years i've been turning large native wood bowls and platters, Clive, one of the senior turners, approached me with a question. It seems that one of the old fellows has on his Te Kowhai farm some pine trees whose large pine cones he was using for stoking his winter fire. Accidentally as one was burning, some nuts popped out on to the floor in front of the fireplace and he wondered whether they might be edible, so he asked Clive to bring some pine cones in for me to analyse. Well, to my surprise these were the cones from pinus pinea, the favoured Mediterranean pine nut.
Historically the pine nut has been around for 6-10,000 years as a revered food source and there are some 10 - 15 varieties of pine trees that produce edible nuts, but the ones from pinus pinea are the largest and tastiest. In 300 B.C. recordings were made of Roman soldiers ordering and using sacks of pine nuts as food supplies and on a recent trip to Pompeii, I saw evidence of pine nuts in the recovered ruins of the city. In fact, while in Napoli and on the isle of Capri, I was referred to many beautiful umbrella-shaped pine trees called stone pines or Umbrella trees locally that really were pinus pinea. Not only is this pine nut wonderful in flavour, but is full of energy (oil), protein (33%) and vitamin B1 (thiamine). I also found out that they grow here in New Zealand on farms or life-style blocks all over the country, but particularly in the Marlborough Sounds area of the South Island. Normally producing small quantities after only 4-5 years, a typical tree will produce only about 5 kg of nuts a year with a bumper crop every 3-4 years with the production tripled. There are normally about 50 nuts per cone, with each bract holding 2 nuts each. Not only are they toothsome and delicious, they are quite expensive, $50-60/kg due to the labour intensive harvesting and processing, but the common and more widely available Chinese imports (which accounts for about 80% of total sales) are much cheaper, smaller and not quite so tasty. Of course, pine nuts are most famous for their inclusion in basil pesto, but when lightly roasted/toasted they are great in baking, with veggies, desserts and many other dishes. Here's a simple recipe to try.
Roasted Pumpkin Salad with Feta and Pine nuts
(quantities are very flexible – adjust to taste and appearance)
Fresh pumpkin in 2 cm cubes
A splash of olive oil
A few cloves of garlic, chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
Feta cheese in 1 to 2 cm cubes or roughly broken into pieces
A good handful of Pinoli pine nuts lightly toasted in a dry frying pan until golden.
Toss cubed pumpkin in olive oil, add chopped garlic and season with salt and pepper. Roast in a moderate oven until cooked through and golden, about 20 minutes, combine with cubes of feta and toasted pine nuts and chopped chives while still warm, serve hot or cold.
An Umbrella tree or Stone pine on the isle of Capri.