Italy loves pistachios and they are found either whole, crushed or used as a flavour in a wide variety of products such as gelato, pesto, ravioli, pastries, cream, sweets and cakes. It seems to pervade every aspect of Italian cuisine and well it might as it has been in the country for probably more than a thousand years. In fact until relatively recently pistachios were grown and exported from Sicily mainly in the Bronte region and around the world-famous Etna volcano.
This love affair with the noble nut, often draped in the colour of emperors, probably dates back to the time of the Phoenicians or perhaps the earliest Greek, way back in the annals of time. But once the Arabs took control of these nut trees, during the ninth century, production really increased and everyone developed a taste for these tasty treasures many of us still crave today.
Originally you would find Pistachios grown in India and throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and all along the eastern Mediterranean. Therefore it wasn’t too difficult to see why Sicily should have joined this exclusive club and become world famous for her own production.
Sicilian pistachios though are somewhat different to other varieties as they are slightly longer and a tad thinner than those found in Iran and Iraq. The Sicilian pistachios also undergo savage pruning every two years, a practice which is said to date back to the Arab Saracens who really improved nut production a thousand years ago. They had good reason to improve their harvest as pistachios have always been a mainstay of many sweet confections. When it is mixed with cane sugar it produces the perfect, sickly and delicious pastry treats we know and savour even now.
The volcanic soils around Etna have contributed to the Sicilian pistachio being slightly more robust than its Middle Eastern cousin, certainly the taste is much sharper. However, not that many people outside Italy know this fact as pistachios are not exported in great numbers. Neither the Italian government or the EU offers the kind of financial helping hand olive farmers receive. Therefore, as you can well imagine, this impacts considerably on the numbers of farmers who wish to grow and sell these nuts.
Added to financial constraints, they are often bedevilled with cultivation problems such as lack of water and the slightly temperamental qualities of Pistachio trees in general. It is generally considered that on the whole, almonds fare much better in the Sicilian climate and therefore are far more available bearing in mind the reputation pistachios have as being just that little bit more challenging and risky too. Sicilian drought conditions also contribute to the fact production has fallen.
Still that doesn’t stop them appearing all over the country in one form or another. Pistachios make a lively substitute for pine nuts in a pesto, for example and are used to give texture to rice dishes and also go well as a snack when toasted while sitting in an Italian bar watching a sunset.
They have health properties too and offer an effective source of protein, thiamine and Vitamin B6 but that can be willingly destroyed when mixed up with eggs and cream to form a regal Italian ice cream.
If you want to learn more about Italian ingredients and really understand process and passion then why not undertake a Flavours Cooking holiday in 2013 and come home enthused. Check out the results of two Flavours aficionados and their Taste of Sicily book they produced on the back of their inspirational experience.