Go pine nuts

There they were in Queer Plants, an 1894 article in a weekly newspaper from regional Victoria.

The article continues: ‘ … in California the … Indians collect pine nuts, which are the seeds of certain species of pine, sometimes called “pinions,” by kindling fires against the trees, thus causing the nuts to fall out of the cones’.

Pine nuts aren’t nuts, botanically speaking. They’re the edible seeds of those pine species (genus Pinus) whose seeds are large enough to be worth harvesting. European pine nuts come mostly from the stone pine (Pinus pinea), which has a super-long history of cultivation, and an even longer one of gathering from the wild. Russia, Korea, China and—once upon a time, Afghanistan—are major producers of pine nuts. I checked out the pine nuts for sale in my local supermarket, and they’re all, including those labelled ‘organic’, imported from China.

Many cuisines—European, Asian, Middle Eastern—make use of pine nuts. They enliven green salads; you can use them instead of almonds in a Spanish romesco sauce; they add a bit of crunch to pilaf and other rice dishes. And you can use them to stuff mushrooms, tomatoes, marrows—or capsicums, which is what I’m doing today.

There’s more to the pine nut than the classic pesto alla Genovese. But in a sobering 2015 article in the New York Times, Jonathan C  Slaght suggests the pine nut industry may be contributing to the crash of an ecosystem in the Russian far east. Commercial over-harvesting by Homo sapiens along with myriad disruptions caused by climate change is depriving other species of their vital food source.

Pine nuts are rich in oil and the smell of them toasting is irresistible. I always add an extra handful to the pan—and enjoy snacking on them as I put the recipe together. Pine kernels have a short shelf life—that’s my justification for this indulgence.

In the kitchen I toast my pine nuts over a low heat. Mix them with (dark rye) breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, salt, black pepper and a teaspoon of za’atar. Then add the finely chopped onion, garlic and zucchini that I’ve fried in olive oil. I bind the stuffing with a beaten egg, but you could leave it out and use olive oil instead if you want to make your dish vegan. I blanche the capsicums or give them a minute in the microwave to start the softening process. Once filled, they’re ready to go in the oven on a medium heat for about half an hour.

Pine nuts connect us to a world of remote villages and vast coniferous forests, to the world of fairytales and ancient foraging traditions. I’ve always liked the stark beauty of those northern forestscapes, with their understories of fungi, foxes and misfit children. While in Australia, in places like Oberon and surrounds, we’ve got acres of plantation pines—an environment I find unsettling, slightly spooky even. All those fish-bony firs, all those trees in straight lines …