This is the time of year when I consider that my opportunities to harvest my basil plants are fast dwindling with the likely onset of frost. I pull the great, woody stems and bushy green foliage up by the roots and proceed to the plucking and pureeing stages of putting by pesto for the winter. There is nothing quite as satisfying as several quarts of the stuff ready to enliven a bleak midwinter. All you need are olive oil, basil leaves, hard cheese, and pine nuts. But this year, pine nuts are very hard to come by.
I first became away of a pine nut shortage when there were none to be had in the bulk food section of the local co-op and specialty markets. When the major chain stores stopped carrying them either, or had tiny 2 ounce bottles for $8, I realized something was dreadfully wrong. A friend who runs a wonderful liquor store and deli in Great Barrington was only able to purchase pine nuts wholesale if he bought 20 pounds (at $26/pound instead of $18). He set aside a pound for us, but in the meantime, I have been forced to use walnuts, or experiment with hazelnuts, in my pesto sauce.
What is going on? It turns out that virtually all the world's pine nut production, along with so many other labor intensive activities, is concentrated in China. Pignoliphiles bemoan the "second-rate taste" of these nuts over those from the Mediterranean, and there is even a phenomenon called pine mouth attributed to tainted Chinese pine nuts that may be suppressing demand from a market that constitutes 90% of the pine nut imports to the US.
At the moment not even the off-putting Chinese sort is making it to our market shelves in any great numbers. Meanwhile the European varieties have doubled in price, due perhaps to the strength of the Euro, or maybe to something environmentally out of balance that is affecting the wild pines. A crop failure? Unsustainable forestry practices in Russia and the Far East? Increased demand and poor production? Some kind of recall of tainted nuts from China? Climate change? Rumors abound.
The Chicago Tribute identifies the main causes as follows:
The reasons are several — poor crops, increased demand and the ever-popular climate change. And prospects for a turnaround aren't good.
The domestic version of pine nuts comes from the West and Southwest, produced by the pinyon pine. The vast majority of pine nuts, though, are imported from China. There have been problems in both locations.
"(China) had a pretty terrible crop last year," said David Braverman, one of the owners of nutsonline.com, a New Jersey business that has been dealing in nuts since 1929. "They lost a significant amount of the crop. And in addition, the demand in China was higher than it has ever been. So they cut their exports. A poor crop coupled with the high demand, and there was very little to go around."
The problem in the U.S. can be blamed on climate change, according to Dayer LeBaron, the CEO of wholesalepinenuts.com, a Utah-based family business that has been harvesting pine nuts since the late '50s....The result, LeBaron said, is that prices of domestically produced pine nuts have increased 200 percent in the last five years; imported nut prices have jumped between 800 and 1,000 percent....
In any case, there is more going on with pine nuts than just a paucity of perfect pesto. And I am going to have to learn to love it without them.