Nut in our backyard — picking pine nuts

You can buy your pine nuts for 120 to 250 shekels a kilo. Or you can pick them off the ground in a public park or your backyard.

OK, maybe that’s a little flippant. It’s quite a lot of work to find them yourself, let alone to find enough to cook with. But they’re there, dropping from indigenous pine trees, and lying dormant in the ground for years — until an enterprising bird or human digs them out, or until they sprout into a sapling.

Pine nuts grow on the stone pine, known in Hebrew as oren hatznobar — the pine-nut pine. The nuts are actually seeds that grow encased in hard shells, inside pine cones. Yet like many other foods that grow wild, most people don’t harvest their own. It’s much easier to buy them, and most of the pine nuts consumed here are actually imported from China.

Following the stormy weather last weekend, a reader, Leor, mentioned that now would be a good time to forage. Now is the season for pine nuts, although you can forage for them on the ground at pretty much any time of the year. Last weekend’s strong winds would bring tons of them to the ground, Leor told me. A resident of the more forested Jerusalem area, he has his regular pine nut spots, but only his children have the necessary patience to hunt for nuts and then crack open the hard shell. The catch? Then they eat them all.

Leor’s kids are not the only ones, of course — I’ve been told it’s a popular pastime for children in less urban areas. But where does one find pine trees in a city like Tel Aviv? Well, in public parks. The closest thing to a forest we have here is the Yarkon Park. And lo and behold, as you cross the street into the park at this time of year, you’re immediately hit with the fresh smell of pine. (In the photo: A fruitful stone pine in the Yarkon park, near a basketball court.)

Stone pines are shaped like mushrooms, not Christmas trees, as Leor aptly put it. They have long, bare trunks, crowned by hats of branches and needles. Of the various mushroom-shaped pine trees, the stone pines have ruddy, flaky-looking bark.

My husband and I picked a tree, and began rooting around in the dirt. We found all sorts of hard, round berries. Not pine nuts. So we moved on to another tree. We knew we were getting close when we started finding oblong, pine-nut shaped shell casings. A bird clearly had gotten to these nuts before us. But we knew we were on the right track.

After a few more minutes of brushing through dead leaves, we had a small number of brownish black seeds. They come out of woody pine cones, and at the base of the cone’s scales are indentations that match the size and shape of the seeds. The seed shells have the texture of sunflower seeds, and are close to the same size, but have less of a teardrop shape. They’re semi-hard, and can be cracked open easily to reveal the nut inside.

And that’s about all there is to it — you crack open the shell, and there’s your pine nut, golden-pale and ready to eat. No more work needed. Or alternatively, store them inside the shell to give them a longer shelf life.

That said, don’t eat anything you’ve found in the wild if you’re not absolutely certain you know what it is — as they say, when there’s a doubt, there is no doubt. Find yourself a pine nut expert, if needed. Such as a child.

My pine nut recipes:
I have several recipes with pine nuts, including:

Other foraging resources:

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