How I Learned to Embrace the Slow Food Zen of Harvesting Pine Nuts

Native Americans harvested them, why can’t I? My Hipcamp, Walnut Grove Camp is surrounded by mountains full of ghost pines which bear huge pine cones. These cones are stuffed with large edible pine nuts which very few people bother to gather. (And you wouldn’t believe how many folks are surprised to learn that pine nuts actually come from pine cones. “Why didn’t I figure that out?” they ask me when I show them the cones.)

The trees are there, the nuts are delicious, and they are larger and fresher than the pine nuts bought in a store. Pine nuts are expensive! So why don’t more people use this abundant and free resource?

Pine nuts were “the other nut” used by Native Americans of Northern California. They supplemented the main diet of acorns. When I teach ethnobotany and history to elementary school students, I show them the large spiky cones and let them shake out the nuts. We make beads from the nuts and string them in a manner done by Native Americans who used the nuts to decorate aprons and skirts, and to make necklaces. These necklaces can still be purchased today, interspersed with beads or abalone shells.

A basket of pine huts harvested by Camilla near Walnut Grove Camp

I tell the children that the nuts can be eaten…if you can figure out a way to get at the meat without smashing it to smithereens first. We all laugh when I describe my attempts to do this using various tools. “It’s all about leverage,” I explain. “But I’ve never figured out the appropriate lever.” This is a good science connection because elementary students learn about simple machines such as levers. The shells on these pine nuts are very hard, unlike pinyon pine nuts which are the type sold commercially and harvested in the eastern Sierras. If you do manage to crack ghost pine shells, you usually end up with nut paste and bits of shell. To get at the nut meat, I’ve tried hammers (too powerful), hand nutcrackers (too weak), teeth (too hard on teeth), pliers (too weak).

Like any foraging addict, I collected many piles of pine nuts over the years, until I finally forbade myself to gather any more because it was obvious I would never learn the technique. Still, one day I couldn’t stop my hand from shaking the nuts out of one more cone while on a hike along Cache Creek. I stared at the luscious fulsome nuts and shook my head at my foolish weakness. Then I noticed a fist-sized rock nearby. I picked it up and put a nut atop a flat stone from the river; then tried cracking the nut with a light wrist action of the smaller rock. The nut cracked open neatly revealing a whole creamy nut. I had discovered the method. Leverage on a small scale using naturally available materials. Instead of finger, jaw or arm leverage, it was all in the wrist.

I still have that fist-sized rock and the flat stone I found in the river. Of course, cracking each nut individually takes a long time. I researched and eventually purchased an electric “universal nutcracker” from an inventor in Oregon. I have decided, however, that the two stones probably work better, resulting in more whole nuts and less time separating shells from the nut meat. It’s kinda crazy, I know, but I believe there is a zen in sitting somewhere beautiful (the riverside is wonderful!) and giving myself the pleasure of harvesting my own edible crop.

Finding the pine cones is another delightful excuse to go hiking and exploring the nearby forest. The cones are heavy, spiky, and often covered with sap. These are all reasons why the only competition I have is squirrels. I joke to neighbors that I often have to pull the cones out of their grasping claws. No worry, there are so many cones that there is more than enough for us to share. Squirrels or jays often harvest the nuts before the cones even drop where I can reach them.

I use the nuts in all sorts of recipes: sprinkled on oatmeal or oat bars, or over buttered polenta. They are perfect in pesto from my own basil. None of these recipes require many nuts. I serve them in breakfasts which I serve to Hipcampers or guests at my B & B, Rumsey House.

Hipcamp Host, Camilla Barry has been an avid natural history, ethnobotany, and classroom science teacher for over 30 years, teaching students and training other teachers through organizations such as National Science Teachers Association and National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. In 2003, she founded the nonprofit Classrooms Across Cultures, through which she taught many hundreds of teachers in Afghanistan and was commissioned by the Afghan Ministry of Education to write the first hands-on science textbook for that country. She gave a TED talk on that subject at Amherst. Now she spends most of her time at her B&B Rumsey House and Hipcamp site Walnut Grove, where she shares her interests in the local natural history with guests.

Photos by Kristina Frost. Main photo by Sarah Vaughn.

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