Peculiar pesto had a problematic pine nut


The pungent perfume at the produce aisle pulled me in, and I couldn’t resist the beautiful plant, abundant with fragrant green leaves. Basil.

My first thought was pesto sauce drizzled over ribbon egg noodles for dinner, and then I did a lightning inventory in my head for the necessary ingredients – olive oil, garlic, basil (of course), parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and my favorite, toasted pine nuts. My mouth was already watering from the thought of this divine northern Italian dish from Liguria near Genoa.

Ancient Romans concocted a cheese basil spread called moretum that was later adapted In Liguria to include garlic, hard cheese, olive oil and pine nuts. Pesto was prepared in a marble mortar and wooden pestle, the dried basil leaves crushed with garlic and coarse salt until finely chopped. Then the pine nuts were crushed into the mixture along with grated cheese and olive oil until a creamy paste was formed.

Loading up my cart, I added extra virgin olive oil, organic Parmesan cheese, garlic and pine nuts from the bin at a shocking sticker price of $38 a pound! I didn’t squawk about it since I only needed a small amount, and they were lightweights on the scale.

Why so costly? After being harvested from the pine tree, they have to be placed in a burlap bag and sun-dried for about 20 days until the cone opens. Then the seed needs to be painstakingly extracted from the cone – usually by hitting the cones while still in the sack several times until they shatter and the seeds burst free. Finally, the seeds have to be separated from the broken cone shards.

Pesto is as versatile as it is refreshing and delicious. It can be blended with warm or cold pastas, used as a dip, dressing or sandwich spread, drizzled over grilled chicken, rack of lamb, omelets or frittatas, or blended in risotto or other rice dishes.

My pesto was served traditional over pasta and it was superb. Three days later some peculiar phenomenon attacked my mouth. Everything I ate tasted aspirin-bitter. Day two, day three, day four, no relief. The sweetest piece of fruit or cake had a hideous, repugnant taste. I tried to play flavor detective to discern the cause of this rare condition that I had never experienced. Desperately grasping for answers – was it the new brand of green tea I had just bought? The combination and permutation of my supplements? The new toothpaste? Serendipitously, I ran into an old acquaintance who happened to be a holistic healer, and I told him my predicament. He asked if I had eaten any pine nuts recently. Bingo!

My friend explained to me that pine nuts could cause bitter taste disturbances for a couple of days after eating them, and this may last a week or more. There is no explanation for this oddity now called “pine mouth,” although health practitioners have hypothesized some possible causes: an allergic reaction to rancid or moldy nuts; the nuts may have been imported and treated with some chemical prior to packaging; or the pine trees were absorbing some toxin from the environment and passing it on to the nuts.

Whatever the cause, my mouth has gone on a pine nut moratorium, but I still haven’t banned pesto. Here’s an alternative recipe for pesto sans the pine nuts. And if you don’t suffer from “pine mouth,” feel free to use these high fiber, high protein delicacies in your pesto dishes.

Cashew Pesto

2 cups of fresh basil leaves

1 garlic clove

1/3 cup of toasted cashews (or walnuts)

2/3 cup of extra virgin olive oil

½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese

Coarse salt and cracked black pepper to taste

In a food processor or blender, add the basil, cashews, garlic, salt and pepper, and blend until it is minced. Slowly add the oil until the mixture forms a smooth, creamy texture. Place in a glass bowl and blend in the cheese. Cover and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

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