Sori, 24 May 2022
There are certain foods that somehow, without our being quite being aware of it, my wife and I will methodically demolish if they are put in front of us. Kabanosy sausages very much fall into this category for me.
As for the both of us, berries definitely have this effect (it’s strawberries at the moment, they are pouring into the shops and they are cheap).
But so do peanuts.
And – the subject of this post – so do pistachios.
Put a bowl of pistachios in front of us and before we know it, one will smoothly follow the other until we have popped every single one of them into our mouths – except the pesky ones where the shells are firmly closed and stubbornly resist being cracked open by our aging teeth.
This is really the only way I eat pistachios, and I rather sense that it is the best way to eat them if you want to truly appreciate their unique taste. Sometimes, when I’m eating a slice of mortadella (a rare occurrence in these diet-dominated days, alas!), I will come across thin slices of pistachio embedded in the mortadella.
Quite honestly, it seems to be a waste of pistachios; they don’t materially alter the taste of the mortadella as far as I can make out. My wife will occasionally have pistachio as one of the two tastes she chooses for her post-hike celebratory ice creams.
Researching for this post, I recently tried pistachio ice cream, twice. I was not impressed. In the first case, even though the shop claimed that the ice cream was made with high-quality Italian pistachios with a Protected Designation of Origin title – see below – I could detect no pistachio taste at all. In the second case, there was a pistachio taste but it all came from the pistachio crumbs sprinkled on the ice cream; the ice cream itself had no pistachio taste to it at all. Talking of pistachio crumbs, Middle Eastern and Indian desserts will often be sprinkled with them. For instance, this is a pistachio-sprinkled kulfi from India.
And this is a pistachio-sprinkled mouhallibieh from Turkey – although this dessert originated in Sassanid Persia.
If my experience with pistachio ice cream is anything to go by I’m not sure how much the pistachios add to these desserts; they act more like a garnish. But there are lots of Middle Eastern pastries where pistachios play a more important role as a stuffing, often mixed with various other things. Baklava, for instance, will often have pistachios as the stuffing.
I rather suspect, though, that all the honey and other sugary additions to these stuffings overwhelm that delicate pistachio taste.
On the salty side of things, Moroccans will add a fistful of pistachios to their tajines.
But again, it seems to me that the strong tastes of the tajine will drown out the delicate tastes of the pistachios. Of course, I may be wrong; time to find a Moroccan restaurant here in Milan which makes tajine the right way, to perform a taste test. On top of it, we haven’t had a tajine in a long time – but is it diet-friendly??
I read that Clever Persons Out There have commercialized pistachio butter, the pistachio equivalent to peanut butter. This intrigues me. As I recall from my youth, peanut butter tastes pretty peanutty, so maybe pistachio butter tastes pretty pistachio-y. This needs to be followed up – and pistachio butter definitely exists in Italy, although it goes by the much fancier name of crema di pistacchio (everything about pistachios in Italy is fancier, as we shall see).
BUT, when all is said and done, what is crystal clear is that an excellent way of eating pistachios is one after another: crack open the shell, scoop out the nut, and pop it into your mouth. Mmm-mmm!
In this, we are merely following in the footsteps of our most remote ancestors. Archaeologists have discovered pistachio shells in a dig in Jordan dating back 780,000 years. We’re not even talking Homo sapiens here, but Homo erectus!
So we are in very venerable company when it comes to the scarfing of pistachios off the trees (although it is true to say that we tend to eat them roasted and slightly salted, while our ancestors ate them fresh. On this point, I have read that fresh pistachios are delicious – something else my wife and I need to try; somehow, we need to be near some trees when the nuts are being picked).
I should clarify at this point that there are several species of pistachio trees and that they all offer us hungry humans edible nuts. The nuts which our Homo erectus ancestors were eating in Jordan came from the Pistacia Atlanticus tree, whereas the pistachios we find in our shops today come from the Pistacia vera tree. The nuts from P. vera are much bigger than the nuts from the other Pistacia trees (and the shell harder, which makes their transportation much easier), so no-one really eats these other types of pistachio nuts anymore.
The original home of P. vera is the dry steppe lands that go from north-east Iran through southern Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan, southern Uzbekistan, and on into Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan – more or less the region which the Ancient Greeks called Bactria.
Our hunting and gathering ancestors who lived in the area happily munched on wild P. vera nuts. There are still stands of wild P. vera in the area, although they are sadly depleted from their glory days.
Then someone, or probably someones, decided to domesticate the tree. Quite when this happened is unclear, but certainly no earlier than 2000 BCE. After that came the tree’s slow westward migration. It was the Persians who were responsible for that; the eastern marches of their Empires overlapped with the tree’s western range. They brought the domesticated tree to the rest of their Empire. In the process, they gave the nut the name we all know it by: pistak was the nut’s name in Ancient Persian.
It is possible that during this drift westwards the Persians made a fundamental change to the tree’s life cycle, systematically grafting it onto the root stock of one of its cousins, either P. atlanticus or P. terebinthus. If it wasn’t them, it was people in the eastern part of the Roman Empire who did it, where the tree eventually arrived as it continued its slow shift westwards. The Ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastos, whose life saddled the 4th and 3rd Centuries BCE, mentioned the habit of grafting the tree (as well as pointing to Bactria as its original homeland). It is certainly a fact that nowadays almost all commercial orchards of P. vera the world over are grafted onto a root stock. These root stocks are hardier than P. vera, thus allowing the tree to be moved successfully out of its original ecological niche into new ones. But it does mean that all commercially grown P. vera trees are a sort of botanical Frankenstein.
The tree was brought to Italy and Spain in the western part of the Roman Empire during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. P. vera is still grown there commercially, although production is quite modest compared to other parts of the world. But what these orchards lack in quantity they make up for in quality. The Italians especially have turned their tiny output, mostly grown near Mount Etna, into a high quality product, which has received the EU’s Protected Designation of Origin title and is being aggressively promoted through some savvy branding and promotion.
The fact is, though, that P. vera is a desert plant. The trees can survive temperatures up to 48°C in summer; in fact, the trees actively need long, hot summers for the nut to properly ripen (and of course because temperatures can plunge in desert regions the trees are equally tolerant at the other end of the temperature scale, being able to survive winter temperatures as low as −10°C). Consistent with their desert nature, the trees dislike high humidity levels and their roots prefer to receive modest amounts of water and sit in a well-draining soil. They are also highly tolerant of saline water and saline soil, a big advantage in desert-like areas. All of this to say that the Arabs first, and the Ottomans later, recognized the potential of P. vera in many of the lands they had newly conquered and promoted the tree extensively. As a result, historically the major production area other than Persia was in Syria, around Aleppo, with Turkey also getting into the act. Here is a photo of one of Syria’s pistachio orchards.
Even though, as I have said, there was modest production in southern Europe, it was from Syria that most of the pistachios eaten in Europe came from. The Venetians, those inveterate traders with the eastern rim of the Mediterranean, were the first in this trade. They delivered the Aleppo pistachios they purchased to northern and central Italy (and much later to northern European countries via trade routes across the Alps). In later centuries, when French ships out of Marseilles challenged the Venetians in their trade with the Ottoman Empire, Aleppo pistachios also began to be imported into France. I use this occasion to show what Aleppo looked like several hundred years ago. I don’t want to even think about what it looks like now.
It is from this trade in pistachios – not just to Europe, but more generally – that came the habit of dyeing the shells red or green.
Now, if it’s done at all, it’s just an aesthetic touch. But in the old days, it was a way of masking stains on the shell caused by mishandling during manual harvesting.
So that’s how the global production of pistachios stood until quite recently: Persia, now called Iran, first; Syria second; Turkey third.
Then along came California.
It had long been recognized that California’s Central Valley, with its hot, dry summers, moderately cold winters, and well drained soils, offered ideal growing conditions for the pistachio.
Already back in 1929, an American botanist had gone to Persia to collect about 10 kilograms’ worth of various pistachio nuts from the country’s orchards, taking them back to California, and planting them. After nearly ten years (it takes that long for a pistachio tree to give its first harvest of nuts), he found that only one of his nuts had worked out. That one nut gave rise to California’s pistachio industry. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the industry really took off – it took quite a while to find the right root stock. Since then, though, Californian production has grown meteorically. This, coupled with the sanctions on Iran (and general economic mismanagement) and the civil war in Syria, has meant that California is now Top Dog in world pistachio production.
But who knows for how long? All sorts of places with the right climatic and soil conditions are looking to grow pistachios, drawn by the high value of the crop (as well as its relatively modest requirements in water). In full production, the trees guarantee more than €10,000 per hectare: I’m not a farmer, but my readings assure me that this is a very good return for an agricultural crop.
In this pistachio Gold Rush, there is one place I’m rooting for: the tree’s original homeland. I mean, doesn’t natural justice tell us that this is really where we should be getting our pistachios from? What right do these other countries have of making money from someone else’s genetic heritage? (this is basically the argument behind the Convention on Biological Diversity). In addition, the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia need to move away from the environmentally unsustainable crops which central economic planning from the Soviet era foisted on them (think cotton, whose continued production in this region is destroying the Aral Sea). In the arid foothills where the wild P. vera originated, the raising of livestock is particularly harmful, as the animals overgraze the land and lead to desertification – all made worse by climate change. So bring it on! Here we see the land being prepared for pistachio planting in Uzbekistan.
I’m particularly chuffed to see that an international fund, the Global Environment Facility, is actively involved in promoting the return of P. vera to its natural range. I should explain that there was a period in my life when I was deeply involved with this fund; I still wear a cap on my hikes which I picked up at one of their do’s.
The one cloud on the horizon that I see is that if everyone and their dog piles into pistachio growing, then of course supply will soar. So, unless the demand for pistachio soars by an equal amount, the price of pistachios will fall, thus wiping out one of the main reasons people want to grow pistachio trees. The same thing happened in the coffee business. Some two decades ago, the World Bank financed enormous increases in coffee plantations in Viet Nam, with the net result that coffee prices dropped vertiginously and coffee farmers in various parts of the developing world who had been doing quite well up to then, thank you, suddenly found they could no longer make ends meet.
With this sobering thought in mind, let me toss another handful of pistachios into my mouth.