Demand for pine nuts is growing rapidly, too rapidly for supplies to catch up. But as long as consumers are wanting to buy the product, supermarkets, distributors and suppliers are pressured in turn to deliver the pine nuts at reasonable prices or risk losing business.
Meeting the demand is, however, not a simple case of picking and delivering. Pine nuts are low turnover crop, taking 25 years before a pine tree starts to produce seeds for consumption, with harvests every 2 years and good crop years coming in infrequent cycles of 5-10 years. You don’t always have it when you want it. Thus the availability of supplies have a huge impact on the prices of pine nuts (see Penny’s pine nut blog), driving an increased volume of import from the East.
There are many species of pine nuts, numerous species are edible (20-30) and several of them originate from China. They are all labeled as ‘pine nuts’ on the packaging, mentioning nothing more than the country of origin (that is not always reliable either). Due to the lack of information about the differences between species, it is very difficult for people involved in the pine nut food supply chain (retail – distributor – processing plant – harvestor) to control for species and quality, and efforts are largely limited to the sorting of seeds by sizes.
Currently (16/01/11), I have 48 bitter-causing samples from 7 countries and I have visually picked out 6 different species (not all of which I was able to identify). A 7th species of Pakistan origin was not found in the bitter-causing samples but is commonly available in supermarkets.
I have updated the Pine Nut Species page to include pictures of these 7 species together with their origins and measured physical characteristics of the samples I have on hand. Hope that it will help everyone to discern the pine nuts that they are eating. Feel free to share information but do remember to link back to this blog.