Harvesting Saffron, Growing Pine Nuts: Taking the Long View

pine nuts

Flickr image by Paul Goyette

I’ve stopped buying pine nuts–except when I find fresh Spanish ones at Sahadi’s when I visit my daughter in Brooklyn.  The only sort available around here are flown in from China–too far for something that needs refrigeration and careful handling–and the $30/pound price is beyond affordable.  Perfect pine-nutty pestos and some Italian cakes and cookies don’t often scent my kitchen any more.  Experiments with apricot-pignoli ice cream are out of the question.  It’s a shame.  There’s nothing like that exceptional, strongly woodsy scent and flavor.

But I’ve adapted.  I’ve swapped in almonds and walnuts, played around with pecans and pistachios, chestnuts and hazelnuts, mostly to good results.  Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention.  Take a handful of chestnuts, for example, instead of pine nuts, mixed with local fresh pears, ginger and cranberries, baked at 375 degrees for 20 minutes or so– it’s  a delicious fall dessert revelation.  Different, not better, not worse. Different.

But I do miss them.  Especially sprinkled on squash-fontina-rosemary-arugula pizza. I am envious of Elizabeth who gets fresh bags of pine nuts gifted to her by Marinella, Emilio’s mom, when she visits from Sicily in pignoli season (they grow and shell their own).

Young Swiss Nut Pine

And so what does a good DIY-er do?  One who has been gifted by that amazing Sicilian kitchen and garden? Try to grow them herself of course.  Or at least see if it’s possible up here in Vermont at reasonable cost. Without introducing non-native species that could turn rogue and push out or sicken native sorts.  And in the meantime find a more local source and learn a bit more about this incredibly delicious but expensive nut.

Indeed, who thinks much about from what kind of pine tree, exactly, pine nuts come?  Who spends time thinking about the journey those nuts take from China to a Vermont kitchen?  We should.  I should.

And so I did a little research. It turns out that a whole range of pine varieties–some from North America– produce edible nuts.  At one time, they were harvested by native peoples from vast stands of pinyon trees across the Southwest.  And even in the north.  And so why do we import them from China? Because grazing cattle is more important than preserving pinyon trees?

After tracking down a Vermont seller of nut pines, I planted four three-foot nut pines this spring–two Korean and two Swiss cultivars; they are growing well so far and may bring us nuts in a couple of years (though some say it can take a decade for them to produce).  Next spring in the hopes of finding just the right trees for this area, I will add other varieties by ordering a couple more from Rhora’s Nut Farm and Nursery.  And be patient.  Take the long view.  There will be nuts in due time.  If the squirrels don’t go for them. Or the jays. Or the bears.  But if they do, that will be okay, too.

I have also located a supplier (in season) of pinyon nuts in the Southwest, and so ordered a sack of Nevada soft shell pine nuts to try–they’re still pricey ($18.49/lb with shipping for under $50/lb), but they are fresh and harvested in this country by people who care about the land, the quality of the food, and the future of the pine nut.  I’m interested to taste them in my recipes–will they lead me to new explorations in flavor combinations?  I’m sure they will.

before-harvest

Saffron crocus just before I harvest the three red stamens

So intrigued by the possibilities of growing my own/making my own that I also ordered saffron crocus bulbs to see if I can, this far north, coax these fall-flowering beauties to grow.  I received a bag of bulbs from Whiteflower Farm early in September with strict instructions to plant them immediately in pots sunk into the earth.  Well, that didn’t happen.  I was away on a work trip and didn’t get them into pots for another month.  And decided to place them on the back porch instead of in the ground.  Take a chance.  And now, just a couple of weeks later, some fifty bulbs are blooming, opening their purple mouths and offering those precious stamens (three in each flower) to dry for saffron.  How simple.  How amazingly easy.  And they’ll not only come back next year, but they should spread and give me more than the 150 saffron threads I’ll get this year (who uses more than that in a year?). I’ll make my money back in no time.

Do these homegrown varieties stand up to those grown in warmer climes–what role will terroir play here? I know that as tasty as it is, my oregano does not hold up to Marinella’s.  Nor do my sundried paste tomatoes.  I just can’t give them that dry, steady sun and heat. I couldn’t replicate the soil, either.  The saffron is tricky to dry without getting lost; in early kitchen explorations it smells and tastes right, but I need to give it  a more extensive work-out before I can claim it’s as good as Spanish or Moroccan.  But it is good.  And that’s a start.

Sometimes, sticker shock can be a good thing.  It can snap me to attention to think more carefully and clearly about the food I buy, the food I grow.  Next time I head to the natural foods cooperative, I plan to examine other choices I make, be on the hunt for other potential garden experiments. Okay, so I’ll never be able to grow olives or lemons without a greenhouse.  But I’ve taken on sweet potatoes and Sicilian pumpkins, figs and favas, artichokes as perennials, za’atar and stevia, lemongrass and quinoa, hazelnuts and peaches, and now saffron and pine nuts all in the open garden.  What else should I be growing?  What else could I be growing?

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Categories: Garden, Harvest, lessons, Local

7 Comments on “Harvesting Saffron, Growing Pine Nuts: Taking the Long View”

  1. pumpkin
    November 14, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    We are having a local class here on growing unusual vegetables in Jan/Feb, and the list includes radicchio, bulbing fennel, endive, celery, sweet potatoes, romanesco cauliflower, sea kale, scorzonera, artichoke, cardoon…some of which you’ve already conquered, but maybe a few you haven’t. I’ll let you know what the final list is…we’re in similar planting zones (4b, 5a) so hopefully there is some crossover.

  2. November 15, 2011 at 8:13 am #

    Pumpkin,

    What a great-sounding class–just the sort of thing I’d like to take. I do grow most of those vegetables but am interested in any tips for any of them and to know more about scorzonera and cardoon as I have not yet tackled them.

    Thanks, too, for the links. More to order!!

  3. anna
    June 22, 2014 at 2:46 am #

    Hi, I just bought a pine nut tree and hadn’t realised they can take 8 years to fruit! I found your page saying you hoped to have fruit in a couple. Just wondering, has your pine nut fruited yet? Thanks Anna

    • July 27, 2014 at 7:31 am #

      Not yet, Anna, but they are growing like crazy, so fingers crossed for next year to produce a crop! Good luck with yours.

  4. November 22, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    Barbara, I can’t get Rhoras to respond to emails. I live in Upstate NY and want to try some pinyon pines. Do you have particular species you can recommend and places where they can be purchased?

    • November 24, 2014 at 10:20 am #

      Try Elmore Roots in Vermont: — that is where I got mine, Korean and Swiss varieties. I have yet to harvest a crop, but the trees are vigorous and should produce within the next year or two! Good luck!

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