Italians pound them into pesto and toss them through pastas, other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures add them to sauces, stuff them in pastries and sprinkle them over dips, and they’re a popular ingredient in Korean sweets. Pine nuts are prized for their rich, buttery flavour, but the hand that gives can also take away - they can cause a mysterious condition known as “pine mouth”, which causes everything you eat to taste horribly metallic, although thankfully only for a few weeks. So here's the low down on pine mouth, why pine nuts cost so much and how to store these expensive little nuggets to keep them fresh and fantastic.
They grow in pine cones
It’s so embarrassingly obvious, yet many of us won’t have thought beyond the fact that they come in a small, very expensive packet. Pine nuts are actually the seeds of pine cones, and not a true nut. There are around 100 different species of pine that produce edible seeds, but a few key varieties native to the northern hemisphere are used for commercial production.
Pinenuts, sesame seeds and honey feature in this Korean fried sweet: get the recipe for yakgwa here.
They’re expensive for a reason
Pine nuts come with an eye-watering price tag because they take a long time to grow, harvesting them is labour intensive and demand is high.
A plantation requires a lot of land and the trees can take many years to bear cones. The cones themselves then take another three years to reach maturity. Once they’re ready to go, you’ve got to harvest them from now-gigantic trees, dry them in the sun, then prise out the tiny seeds and hull them. And after all that, each cone only provides a measly 50g of nuts. Paying $9 a bag feels painless in comparison.
They’re not currently produced on a commercial scale in Australia, so most of our pine nuts come from forests in the Mediterranean or Asia - meaning there are transportation costs to factor in as well.
Global appetite for the nuts currently outstrips supply. In Italy, a shortage last year had shops reportedly attaching anti-theft devices to packets of pine nuts, and crime rings turning their attention from banks to pine nut factories.
For sustainability reasons perhaps we should try to keep our pesto addictions in check - though mere cost already regulates consumption for most of us.
Store them in the fridge
The high oil content of pine nuts that makes them particularly delicious also makes them easily susceptible to becoming rancid. They’re best stored at cool temperatures in opaque containers that keep out light, heat and moisture. Because they have very little water content, they also freeze well in airtight containers.
This dish is made with fresh herbs, which bring out the delicate flavour of zucchini. Ula Bilinski, featured in our podcast, created this recipe, as she loves to use fresh, seasonal vegetables.
Beware of pine mouth
Most people hear of ‘pine mouth’ syndrome for the first time in a panicked Google search, because everything they put into their mouth, even water, suddenly tastes horrible.
Pine mouth remains a mystery to scientists in many ways, but its taste disturbance effect is well documented. Unlike eating a rancid pine nut, you won’t notice anything unusual at the time, but within 12 to 48 hours, everything will begin to taste metallic. For up to a fortnight, everything you eat and drink will taste so awful that you won’t want to eat at all. Luckily, our taste buds regenerate themselves every 10 to 14 days, and that’s how long the affliction will last.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand say there are no known health implications of pine mouth. It doesn’t seem to matter whether you have them raw or cooked, and it can randomly strike people who eat pine nuts all the time.
There was a spike in cases a few years back (although the number of cases reported in Australia remains quite small), and the New South Wales Food Authority says it may be caused by eating the nuts from pinus armandii, a particular species of pine found in China. These nuts are not classified as edible, but find their way into the market.
Exactly how it alters our tastebuds is still being studied, but given there are no long-term health implications, it seems a fair bet most of us will think it's better to risk giving up taste for a few weeks than never eating another pine nut.
Find our collection of recipes using pine nuts here.
According to the Ligurians of Italy’s north-west the basil that grows around the coast of Liguria is the best in the world thanks to the area’s unique geography. The capital, Genoa, is the birthplace of basil pesto after all, and it is rare to find a Genoan without a plot of basil, or some growing on the windowsill. This lasagna is a perfect way to make the most of a summertime abundance of the herb – the meat is replaced with a fragrant basil pesto. You will need a pasta machine for this recipe.
This recipe is for the Lebanese version of a meat pie, but these fragrant pastries don’t require tomato sauce. You can freeze uncooked sambousik wrapped in plastic wrap for up to one month. Stand frozen at room temperature for 10 minutes before frying.
Hotteok is a popular Korean street food eaten during the winter months. The yeasted dough is filled with sugar, cinnamon and nuts, flattened and cooked until crisp. Sujeonggwa is a traditional, cold fruit punch scented with ginger, cinnamon and persimmon.