Growing pine nuts is an exercise in patience. The European stone pine (pinus pinea) takes around 10 to 12 years to produce it’s first edible nuts, but then doesn’t really come into maturity until it’s 40 years old. The cone itself (which houses the seeds – that we call the ‘nuts’) takes three years to go from a bud (yes, pine trees flower) to the mature cone. Oh, and then there’s the extraction process. Even with heat applied to the cone (which ain’t easy to get off the tree), it takes about 3 months for the tightly clinched woody misers to slowly open up and give you access to the shell, which then needs to be cracked and extracted for the actual ‘nut’ to appear. On top of all that, there’s the hand sorting, cleaning, packaging and sending required for me, the happy customer, to be able to snag a few bags of these precious nuts at my local Raeward Fresh. And to think, all I wanted was to make a lazy Sunday afternoon pesto with rocket from my garden to share with some friends over a glass of Central Otago pinot (or two). Phew!
For these reasons, we’re all pretty grateful for Zoë Thompson, her partner Lee Paterson, and their business partners Andy and Barbara Wiltshire at Pinoli Pine Nuts who had the foresight to plant 14,000 stone pines 18 years ago. Pinoli have the largest pine nut orchards in New Zealand with about 430,000 trees currently growing and plans to plant at least another 50,000 in the next two years. These guys have been in it for the very long haul and have the right stuff when it comes to growing this rare kind of food. Zoë has worked in gardening for ages and Lee and Andy have worked in forestry, forest management and silviculture all their lives – jobs they kept after planting their pines and waiting for the cones to show up. Along with Andy, Zoë and Lee searched the Marlborough region for just the right Mediterranean-like environment for the stone pine to flourish. They initially chose the Wairau Valley for its fertile soils and high sun shine hours but later plantings have been out towards the east coast of Marlborough where its drier and the land is slightly cheaper. European Stone pine does best in well drained soil. Zoë tells me “they don’t like wet feet and humid weather, preferring instead cold winters and hot dry summers.”
The bulk of today’s worldwide production of pine nuts (which isn’t a lot) comes from Asian varieties noted for their shorter rounded kernels. These smaller nuts also taste bland by comparison. The team at Pinoli, Italian for pine nut, have instead raised a forest of European stone pines noted for their longer kernels and distinctive taste. It’s like fresh pine combined with buttery, nutty notes. Zoë is committed to this fresh flavour coming through in every package, so she hand sorts these little jewels and ships them promptly. When Zoë and Lee first started harvesting their pine cones they had to No. 8 wire all kinds of systems. No one in NZ had ever done pine nuts at this level. For example, picking the cones was originally done by hand using long, 5m poles with hooks on the end! They have since researched, travelled and invented their way into a harvesting system that now includes proper tree shakers (which again, only work on trees that are at least 15 years old so as not to damage them… more of that pine nut growers patience required) and better processing equipment.
After all this waiting and diligence, Zoë still packages by hand and heads over in person to the Marlborough Farmers Market to share the pine nut love with their region. She likes the interaction with customers, sharing taste comparisons with other pine nuts, swapping recipes and telling their story. And it seems their story has gotten around too. Initially chefs heard about Pinoli, before a couple of successful Fete events put them firmly on the specialty food map. They still only sell in a few stores around NZ and are now considering exporting as the effects of an evil weevil plaguing Italian and Spanish forests takes it toll on international yields. Pinoli is grateful for the strict bio standards we have in NZ which is helping to keep their forests bug free. Pinoli doesn’t need to use pesticides or fertilizers on their trees and the pine nuts have no added chemicals or preservatives.
Pine nuts have traditionally been used in making pestos, their creamy flavour rounding out the herbal bitterness. But as you’ll see on Pinoli’s site, there are heaps of ways to make use of these versatile nuts. The nutritional profile of European stone pine kernels is particularly beneficial, weighing in at almost 34% protein with healthy quantities of vitamins (especially Thiamine B1, Vitamin E & K) and minerals (especially iron, manganese and zinc). All of this is good news, but it does come at a price. As our little blog highlights, this rare breed of tree (for NZ) with long harvesting cycles and the labour extensive extraction processes takes both time and money. This is why pine nuts, especially those from the stone pine, are expensive. But like all good things, having a little less of delicious, nutritious high quality food is always better – and, we think, ultimately more affordable across a holistic approach to wellbeing – than having lots of bland, empty-calorie, low quality food. Pinoli’s NZ grown pine nuts are well and truly in the high quality, exceptional food category!
Zoë’s tips on how to toast or roast your Pinoli pine nuts
Pine nuts maybe eaten raw but are usually toasted or roasted to bring out the flavour. The only times we prefer to use them raw are when they will become toasted, fried or roasted during the cooking of the recipe.
To roast: place raw pine nuts on a flat baking tray in a 180C preheated oven for about 10 minutes, shaking the tray halfway through the cooking time. Nuts are ready when they are lightly golden. They will continue to brown a little more even after you remove them from the oven. Keep an eye on them as all ovens are different and pine nuts can burn easily because of their high oil content.
To toast: place pine nuts in a dry (no oil) frying pan on top of a medium heat, move continuously by shaking the pan every 20 seconds or so. Pine nuts will toast quickly, remove from heat when golden and place on a cool plate to stop the pine nuts cooking any further.