Sweet, earthy, and local: grape & pine nut tart

A tale of petroglyphs, pine nuts, and patience

On a sunny mid-November day, Nelson and I set off to explore the petroglyphs at Volcanic Tablelands, a few miles north of Bishop. Recorded in 1882, this area is one of the earliest such recorded sites in the western U.S., with petroglyphs that date back 1,000 to over 10,000 years. Nobody knows for sure. (For more info on, and spectacular photos of, Western rock art, click here). In addition to the engravings etched into the soft volcanic tuff, we noticed mortar holes used for grinding pinyon pine nuts, an important staple food (and medicine) of the hunter-gatherer predecessors of the Paiute-Shoshone peoples. Pine nuts are still harvested by the local Paiute tribe, and come fall, the intense and fragrant aroma of fresh pine nuts permeates local grocery stores. The pine nut has great significance to the Paiute, and tribes across the border in Nevada have an annual pinenut blessing and festival that includes ceremony, dance and song.

After a leisurely afternoon exploring various petroglyph sites, Nelson and I continued our drive through red rock canyons and dusty roads lined with pines, among them the singleleaf pinyon pine (Pinus monophylla), which grows between 6,000-9,000 feet. Many pine cones were scattered on the ground, testament to the fact that the local birds and squirrels had gotten there before us, leaving few cones with intact seeds (pine “nuts” are actually seeds). The relative paucity of seeds, combined with the fact that singleleaf pinyon cones are extremely sticky, led me to revise my original plan of gathering the ¾ cup of seeds called for in my reci

pe. Not to worry. I figured I’d save time by buying fresh pine nuts at the store. Little did I know that my pine nut odyssey was just getting started.

Fresh pine nuts are a bit different from their commercially processed cousins. While most commercial pine nuts come from the Colorado pinyon pine, the nuts sold in green mesh bags at our grocery store are from the surrounding area, making it a very local food. Fresh seeds are still encased in a hard, tight shell, whose removal requires a combination of brute force, time and patience. I first placed the nuts in a plastic bag and loosened the shells from the seed by rolling a rolling pin over the bag. The next step was to separate the shell from the seed by hand, as the rolling pin only cracked the shell and did not fully remove the seed. Finally, I removed the papery skins surrounding the seed (similar to peanut skins) by rolling each seed between my thumb and index finger. As the seed is soft and oily due to a high fat content (23%), the skin is inclined to stay stuck to the seed, and separating the two can be tricky.

After hours of shelling pine nuts and only about ½ cup of fleshy, white seeds to show for my efforts, I called on Nelson for reinforcement. He came up with his own method, which involved cracking each shell with pliers and extracting each seed by hand. I then removed the skins (experimenting with a garlic peeler, with mixed results), and in another few hours we had finished the last 3 tablespoons. Finally, we could move on to the recipe: Glazed Grape Tart in a Cornmeal Pignolia Crust from More Great Good Dairy-Free Desserts Naturally, by Fran Costigan. I learned it two years ago at Fran’s Vegan Baking Bootcamp, an intense and delicious weeklong adventure. The recipe was a surprise– it didn’t initially sound appealing, but I devoured it and have thought of it many times since.

In a nutshell (no pun intended), the tart is composed of three elements: a crust made of cornmeal and ground pine nuts, a layer of jam (I used raspberry but apricot is good too), and a filling of grapes and pine nuts in a fruity glaze. The filling is completely raw, and the crust is gluten-free. For the record, singleleaf pinyon nuts have exceptional nutritional value, are high in protein (nearly 10%) and vitamins, and contain all 20 amino acids. Not bad for a dessert.

I still have a cup of leftover unshelled pine nuts in the fridge, but I suspect I won’t be shelling them anytime soon. I also won’t be complaining about the high price of shelled nuts, which jumped from $8 to $36 per pound in the past year. All things considered, even the high price seems like a bargain. There is a lot of history and hard work in that modest seed, and while many things have changed in the world in the thousands of years of the seed’s consumption, its value has held up over time.