Pistachio, green desert fruit
Syria. Afghanistan. Iran. Iraq. They all have something in common, right? Yep: they’re all associated with the pistachio.
Our food precedes us and our squabbles and frailties. The Pistacia Vera tree is native to Afghanistan and Iran, and Iran and the US today produce more than 70% of the world’s supply of the tree’s seeds. Brings to mind the old Coke ad from circa 1971, I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke, turned into a massive pop hit by the New Seekers as I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (in Perfect Harmony), a saccharine yet earworm-compelling ditty full of, well, harmony. Our modern-day product marketers might like to unite us all with a campaign around pistachios, a far worthier cause than the bilge that divides us.
This column accompanies this recipe.
The name of the pistachio, being the seed of that tree, derives from the Persian (i.e. Iranian) and has come all the way from Middle Persia via Greek, Latin and Old French to the Middle English pistace. The earliest cultivation of it, quoth Wikipedia, can be traced to Central Asia in the Bronze Age in what is now Uzbekistan. Nebuchadnezzar had pistachio trees planted in the Hanging gardens of Babylon, and the Queen of Sheba was rather fond of them and gave them a royal decree.
Today they are cultivated in southern Europe (including the volcanic soil of Sicily where police do chopper patrols to guard crops) and North Africa, but also in South Africa’s Northern Cape at Prieska, where Senqu River pistachios “are grown where winter nights are freezing cold and summer days scorch the desert sand”, to quote the rather attractively florid tones of the brand’s website. On a family farm near Prieska, “an orchard of pistachios silently drinks from the banks of the Orange River – only to burst with blushing pistachio fruits when late summer comes”. I bought some of them recently from Richard Bosman’s online shop, and they are top drawer despite their modesty.
Blushing is an interesting choice of word, for they are predominantly green – but that’s inside. Actually the shell has more of a beige hue, while the exterior of the seed is more mauve than pink. It must be the heat. Wikipedia confirms that Pistacia Vera is a desert plant and can cope with temperatures as high as 48℃ and as low as 10℃. Not one for your garden, perhaps.
Why, then, are some pistachio shells vividly green? I’ve seen them; you probably have too. You occasionally even see red ones. We expect the raw seed within to be that beautiful shade we might think of as Pistachio Green, but not the shell. The disappointing truth is that if the shell is green (or red), they have been dyed. Is nothing safe from human interference? Happily, however, that practice has largely dyed (sorry) out because they used to be coloured to offset the discolouration caused by picking by human hand, whereas today they are usually picked mechanically.
Like cashews, cherries and olives, the pistachio is a drupe, and though it is a nut in culinary terms it is not one botanically. When I see a ripe pistachio, my mind usually flips to mussels and how their shells are usually partly open once steamed or poached very briefly. Pistachios open their shells rather coyly when they are ripe, in a process known as dehiscence. Intriguingly though, Wikipedia tells us that this opening “is a trait that has been selected by humans”. In China they’re known as the “smiling nut”.
Persian recipes include scented rice studded with pistachios and chopped dates and pistachio nougat with rosewater. For push-the-boat-out luxury, roast them with saffron and sprinkle with lemon juice. Bastani is a pistachio, saffron and rosewater ice cream, while cookbook author Yasmin Khan extols the wonders of Persian Love Cake which reminds her of “a Persian garden in the late spring, adorned with the floral scent of rosewater and citrus, and decorated with bright green pistachios”.
Syria has pistachio and sesame biscuits called Barazek, and there are various Arabic recipes for pistachio ice cream logs. But the best image of glistening, emerald-hued pistachios is atop Turkish baklava. In Sultanahmet in old Istanbul you’ll find them on street corners and shop window displays, impossible to resist and sold in tiny but richly satisfying little squares.
For dessert in Sicily you might demand a slice of pistachio cake made with seven eggs, and topped with pistachio and icing sugar butter. I think we might need to make that one soon, but they’re useful in savoury dishes too. In Sicily you might find pistachio pesto on the menu, or in a pasta with ricotta. A Sicilian pesto swaps the pine nuts or cashews for pistachios but still uses basil, garlic, Parmesan and olive oil.
Closer to home, and needing to avoid sugary treats, tempting as the idea of making baklava was, this week I cooked fillets of fish topped with a pistachio and parsley crumb, using Senqu River raw pistachios. You can make it within half an hour. DM/TGIFood
Tony Jackman is the Galliova Food Champion of the Year 2021. His book, foodSTUFF, is now available in the DM Shop. Buy it here.
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