Red Pistachio Nuts? … No, it’s not an April Fool’s Joke

April 1st, 2014 Sections: Economy, Plants
Red Pistachio nuts ... an April Fool's joke?

Red Pistachio nuts … an April Fool’s joke?

Yesterday, I saw a post on a trivia site that sent me checking the system date on my computer … I felt sure it had to be an April Fool’s joke.

I had already fallen foul of one such premature prank on youtube over the weekend … and Maxim had already tried to pull one on me last week saying that school had been “cancelled on Tuesday” and it was only when I started to ask questions that he came clean and said, “Ian, what’s the date on Tuesday.”

Sure enough the date was 31st March … but all the same I decided to check it out: It said that “Pistachio nuts used to be dyed red … “.  Now, I know that Pistachio flavoured ice cream is usually a pale, lime green colour, but the nuts themselves are usually white or cream … so, what I wondered, was going on.

Pistachio nuts, (Pistacia vera), are member of the Cashew family and are  a desert plant native to Central Asia … they grow in Kyrgyzstan, both in the wild and are also cultivated and harvested as an agricultural crop.

The harvest is not large – the figures are confusing and vary from source to source but according to one, in 2011, (the latest statistics that I could find), the Food and Agriculture Organization, (FAO), reported a crop of almost 900 metric tonnes from almost 60,000 hectares, (one source said just 23,000 – of which 19,500 were “wild” and 3,500 cultivated), worth about USD2.9 million and on their own website they say that Kyrgyzstan exported over 1oo tonnes worth some USD74,000.  That’s not much compared to the world’s major producers, (Iran – with almost half a million tonnes, the United States – with over a quarter of a million tonnes grown primarily in California, Turkey – 150,000 tonnes, China – the world’s largest consumer – about 80,000 tonnes but producing just 24,000, Syria – from where Pistachios were introduced to Imperial Rome with almost 60,000 tonnes and Greece with 10,000 tonnes).

The consumption of Pistachios has a long history which can be dated back almost 9000 years, to some seeds found by archaeological excavations in northeastern Iraq.  They are even mentioned in the Bible when the Patriarch Jacob tells his sons to gather gifts to take to the Viceroy in Egypt during the seven years of famine – little suspecting that the official was in fact his long lost son, Joseph, (in Genesis 43:11).

Having been cultivated in the Middle East / Western Asia, they were introduced to Rome by a Consul in Syria at about the time of Jesus and Pliny the Elder referred to it as being “well known among us” in his Natural History written about 30 years later.   It spread throughout the Mediterranean and in the middle of the nineteenth century was introduced to America.

The Pistachio tree can grow to 10 meters tall.  Individual trees have a gender and it is recommended that a commercial plantation should comprise of 5% male trees and 95% female – which produce the elongated seeds which we consume.  Although we call it a nut, technically, so I am told, it is not a nut but a fruit with a hard, white, exterior shell – which partially splits open when the fruit ripens.  A single tree will typically produce about 50kg, (or 50,000 seeds), over two years – the harvest follows a  biennial cycle; heavier in one year and lighter in the next.

It’s basically a desert plant but responds well to irrigation, although they don’t thrive in humid conditions and like a well drained soil.  The Pistachio tree can survive in temperatures between -10° and 48° Celsius.  They tend to be found at altitudes of between 500 and 2000 meters above sea level.  All of this is typical of the conditions prevalent in the Ferghana valley where the trees grow naturally in the “Royal Woods”, the Walnut Forests, of Djalal Abad.    In particular, the 300 hectare Jylgyndy Forest Reserve, (located in the Nooken District of the Djalal Abad oblast – on the norther slopes of the Ferghana valley), was established in 1975 specifically to protect the native habitat of Pistacia vera groves.

When cultivated, the trees are planted in orchards and can take up to about ten years to mature, reaching peak productivity after about twenty years.  There is a certain amount of labour required because the plants need to be pruned to facilitate harvesting, grafting female branches onto male trees, reshaping the canopy to improve light penetration and air circulation … and not forgetting pest control.

However, according to the FAO, because much of the crop is harvested from natural forests rather than orchards, the utilization of the crop is not as efficient or effective as it might be.  In the past,  there has been a lack of market orientation in the harvesting of the nuts, and not all the varieties found in the country are valued as commercial crops.  There is not sufficient management, (cutting and pruning), of the trees, so the density of trees is too high in places, (more than 400 plants per hectare), as well as having a unbalanced ration between male and female trees.  All this results in a relatively low yield by international levels.

On the other hands, it is recognized as  potentially an increasingly valuable crop with rising world demand and a potential for export which would help provide a useful source of income for farmers and help improve their standard of living.

There has already been several internationally funded projects aimed at supporting the improvement and development of the forests and biodiversity of the ecosystem as well as related aspects of agriculture in the Djalal Abad and Batken regions.  About ten years ago, for example, there was a Small Grants Project financed by the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP), aimed at the rehabilitation of pistachio and almond bushes in the vicinity of Sulukta in the Batken region of Southern Kyrgyzstan

The fruits can either be eaten whole, either raw or roasted, and they are often used as a flavouring in ice cream and sweets such as Turkish baklava.

There are some claims as to the health benefits of eating pistachio nuts …

For example, they are an excellent source of many nutrients essential for good health, (including potassium, phosphorous, calcium, protein, vitamins, minerals and amino acids). Although nuts contain on average twice the fat content of animal products, the type of fat is very different. They have a higher proportion of unsaturated fat as well as the antioxidant vitamin E and dietary fiber, which can help to reduce cholesterol levels and has been associated with a reduction of the risk of bowel cancer.  The one I found the most convincing, however, was that it helps to fool the body into eating less … a result of having to crack open the shells before being able to eat the tasty morsel inside.  One commentary suggests that they “satisfy hunger pangs quickly … and on fewer calories”

On the other hand … they contain a relatively high level of “palmatic fatty acid” which is associated with an increase in appetite … and cardiovascular disease!


For the record: although the seeds and the shells are typically white, in the past they were often dyed red (or green) in order to camouflage the blemishes incurred when the fruit was picked from the tree, which used to be done by hand … but now that mechanical techniques are used, this measure is no longer applied.  That’s probably just as well … because the dye used to stain the hands of the consumer as they cracked the shells open.


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