Edible Monterey Bay

IN THE WOODS: IN SEARCH OF WILD PINE NUTS

An exotic delicacy turns up close to home

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Sterling Novell, a cook and forager at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar, with sugar pine cones;

Story and photography by John Cox

Pecans come from pecan trees. Walnuts come from walnut trees. Pine nuts come from pine trees. This may not sound like rocket science, but I have met many an avid cook who did not realize pine nuts came from pine trees. I myself have spent many hours foraging around the Monterey Bay area and never thought to try to crack open a local pine cone. So when Edible Monterey Bay editor Sarah Wood asked me to write an article on locally foraged pine nuts, I was skeptical to say the least.

Despite my misgivings about the likelihood of finding wild pine nuts along the Big Sur coast, I decided to give it a try. After all, our area is known for its pines, two of the most common being bishop and Monterey.

After a short walk around Post Ranch Inn, where I work, I was able to collect a half dozen unopened pine cones in various shapes and sizes. Using an oyster knife, I tried to separate the tightly closed cones with limited success. This would have been a good point to stop the project and turn to Google to research various pine nut harvesting methods. Instead, halfway joking, I decided to ask one of my cooks, Salvatore, how they collected pine nuts back in his home of Naples, Italy. To my surprise, he nonchalantly described how they would roast the cones until they began to pop open then hit them to collect the seeds.

Fifteen minutes later, the sweet smell of toasted pine filled the kitchen as the tray of golden pine cones were removed from the oven. Sure enough, they had blossomed open, revealing the parchment-like wings that fasten each seed within its cone. Using a pair of tweezers, I was able to remove the seeds and separate them from their wings. The seeds, around the size of a shelled sunflower seed, ranged in color from dark black to mottled grey.

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Processing sugar and bishop pine nuts.

I removed one of the dark seeds from the pile. With a mallet, I gently tapped the top of the seed while holding it upright against a cutting board. After a few quick taps, the seed cracked down the middle, enabling me to remove the outer shell. Much to my disbelief there was a tiny white pine nut hiding inside!

Subsequent seeds yielded mixed results. Some seeds would produce tiny nuts, but the majority were empty or filled with a sliver of withered skin. After a bit of trial and error, I determined that the mottled seeds were unlikely to have a developed nut, while the dark black seeds almost always had a nut inside. It turns out that pine trees will abort their cones if growing conditions become too warm or dry; given this information, and our current drought, it should not have been surprising that 100 seeds only yielded a few dozen nuts.

Sadly, while the locally foraged pine nuts were delicious, the process of extracting them is completely impractical. Some people have cooked the whole seeds with water and then blended them into a fine pulp before straining them to create a nut milk. This sounds like a good compromise for incorporating the flavor of locally foraged pine nuts into your cooking without the hours of shelling.

Just as I was ready to call the pine nut exploration project to a close, one of my cooks, Sterling, mentioned some massive sugar pine cones he had found while hiking near Cone Peak. The next afternoon, he arrived at work carrying five of the largest pine cones I have ever seen!

Like the piñon pines of northern New Mexico and other parts of the West, which yield some of the world’s most renowned pine nuts, sugar pines only grow in high-altitude locations. Clinging to steep cliffs far up the coastal range, out of the reach of forest fires and away from the heat of the lower elevations, these massive trees are a sight to behold.

Because of their very large cones and the cool, high-elevation climate in which they thrive, sugar pines seemed like an ideal candidate for harvesting wild pine nuts.

The roasted sugar pine cones produced large black nuts resembling watermelon seeds. When shucked, these revealed beautiful ivorycolored pine nuts similar in size to what you would find in the store. While labor intensive, the yield was far higher than with the Monterey or bishop pines. Each cone produced more than 70 pristine pine nuts.

As the world supply of European pine nuts has dwindled, it is more common to find pine nuts from Korea and China in markets. Over the last few years, many people have reported experiencing a bitter-metallic flavor after eating pine nuts from China. Scientists speculate that this affliction, known as metallogeusia, is caused by chemicals used during the cleaning process. Fortunately, the condition goes away within a few days without treatment. I have personally experienced this odd occurrence twice, both times after eating store-bought pine nuts. The second experience was so unpleasant that it had deterred me from eating them up until this recent search for local pine nuts.

If you have a neighborhood pine tree, or happen to be hiking and spot some large, unopened cones, I strongly suggest that you examine them to find out whether there are pine nuts inside. If nothing else, it will give you a great appreciation for the effort that goes into these tiny delicacies.

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