As if you needed another excuse to get outside during fall color season, here’s it is- Pine Nuts! If you have ever visited Buena Vista and South Main, you’ve seen Piñon Pine- lots of Piñon Pine. From South Main, we have a clear view of a huge stand of piñons which blankets the contours of Midland Mountain to the east, plus many which grow in and around South Main. And many of them are exploding right now with lots of tasty pine nuts!
I love munching on this delicacy while on a hike of the Whipple Trail, and collecting pine nuts is especially fun with little kids. Make no mistake, these will be the best pine nuts you’ve ever tasted- more tender, fresh and flavorful than anything store-bought. Now is harvest time, and while not every hiker is aware of it, the Pinon Jays sure are!
If the open pine cones with dark brown seeds inside or the squawking Jays clamoring around on them aren’t enough to identify the proper tree, here are some more technical characteristics: Pinus edulis can be quickly identified by its needles which are ¾ to 1½ inches long and occur in bundles of two; most other pines around here do not have needles in bundles of two. Its cones grow at the tips of branches and take nearly three seasons to mature. At maturity, each cone holds between 10 and 20 seeds a piece, and a given tree can yield as much as 20 pounds of nuts. Crops are unpredictable, however, and a given stand of piñons will yield only one or two large harvests each decade with less bountiful crops occurring every several years. But every autumn about a third of piñon stands will have good crops.
As we speak, a significant percentage of the Piñons around Buena Vista are laden with pine nuts, and this may not occur again for a couple years. So if all of this has you craving this nut whose taste Haniel Long, author of Piñon Country, describes as “Pine and sunshine and popcorn, and peanuts too in a way,” here are some harvesting tips:
Pine nuts are mature by late August or early September, although the cones may not open and drop their seeds until some weeks later. A common method of collection is to wait until the cones have opened to the point that the nuts easily drop from them if disturbed. At this point you can spread a large blanket beneath the piñon of your choice, shaking the branches or tapping them with a pole (taking care not to damage the tree or break branches) in order to jar the seeds loose. The vanilla-colored nut will be encased in a brown shell.
You will find that some trees bear mostly hollow nut shells, so be sure to crack some open to see if you’re collecting from the right tree. I find that the hollow shells are often a much lighter brown, while the shells that bear nuts are a darker, chocolate brown. Usually when you find a some good ones, most of the other nuts on that tree will be good.
Once you have amassed a cache of nuts, leave them in their shell if you intend to store them. Note: take care not to seal them in an airtight container too soon! I had my first harvest go rancid after sealing them in jars. Better to store them in a paper bag until you are certain they are well-dried. Once dried, they should keep for two to three years. If frozen, pine nuts can be stored indefinitely.
When you are ready to eat the nuts, you have several options for removing the hard, outer shell, all of them time consuming; at this point you will learn why this is one of the most costly nuts you can buy. You can either crack the nuts between your teeth, taking care not to do any dental damage, or you can use pliers, a nut cracker, a rolling pin or some similar tool to break the outer shells without crushing the tender meat inside.
At this point you are free to enjoy the flavor and nutritional value of this ancient food from our local land. Ronald M. Lanner, author of The Piñon Pine: A Natural and Cultural Hisotry, reports that pine nuts were such an effective staple food for the Native Americans largely because of their excellent nutritional value. Pine nuts from Pinus edulis contain 14% protein, 62-71% fat, and 18% carbohydrates. Their protein contains all 20 of the amino acids, and “One pound of shelled Colorado Piñon nuts provides 2,880 calories, more than the food energy in a pound of chocolate, and nearly as much as in a pound of butter. The biologic value of its protein exceeds that of all commercial nuts but the cashew and is comparable to that of beefsteak.”
A Little Cultural History:
Pine nuts have long been a staple of the Native Americans of the southwest who depended on them for winter sustenance and would travel extensively to find piñon stands with a good harvest. Early European explorers, including John C. Fremont, reported trading extensively with the Indians for this winter staple.
Some scientists now believe that an isolated stand of edulis in Owl Canyon near Fort Collins actually originated from piñon seeds dropped by Native Americans traveling an ancient trade route between the piñon’s typical range and the northern plains region. The Owl Canyon stand is more than a hundred miles from the nearest piñons to the south. The most ancient of the trees are believed to be 400 years old and grow in close proximity to one another, suggesting a common origin from a pile of dropped seeds.
Early western settlers quickly developed a taste for this abundant and nutritious nut. During the 19th century caravans making use of the Camino real between Santa Fe and Mexico City transported, among their many other valued items of commerce, pine nuts. To this day cars line the highways in piñon country during September and October as locals capitalize on the local bounty.
It seems rather fortunate that we live in a region where such a widespread tree species produces such a tasty crop. Get out there and enjoy this local delicacy while it lasts!
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