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October 16, 1986|BETSY BALSLEY | Times Food Editor

Most of us think of pistachio nuts as exotic, red-dyed snacks imported from Mediterranean countries at great expense. Long classed as gourmet (i.e. costly) tidbits, they have been too expensive to consider for use in foods that ordinarily call for more popularly priced and readily available nuts such as almonds, pecans or walnuts.

That premise seems due for a change, however, if California pistachio growers have their way.

A visit to the lower San Joaquin Valley, where the growing and processing of pistachio nuts is rapidly becoming big business, can be a real eye opener. Since 1977, when the first commercially grown California pistachios were harvested, California plantings have increased to the extent that in just 10 years the state has moved from also-ran to second in worldwide production of these delicate green-tinged nuts. (Iran is the largest producer of the nuts, and other countries such as Turkey, Syria, Greece and Italy provide most of the rest of the world production.)

At present, 50,000 acres of pistachios are under cultivation in California and 35,000 acres are in production. It takes from seven to 10 years

for a pistachio tree to mature and about 20 years for one to become fully productive. As the acreage planted in pistachios increases and the trees mature, consumer prices should fall to reflect the increased availability.

Currently, most of California's pistachio production is coming from Kern County west of Bakersfield. When water became available to the area through the State Water Project in the late 1960s, pistachios were among the experimental crops planted. And it soon became apparent that it was a good choice as a cash crop.

But because of the number of years it takes for a pistachio tree to produce sufficient nuts to harvest commercially, it was not until 1977 that the industry really began to come into its own. Since then, however, it's another story. American ingenuity and production methods have produced high-quality pistachios that have been welcomed by both consumers and the food industry.

A recent harvest-time visit to the Blackwell Corners area in the Central Valley indicated how extensive the production of this glamour nut is. Driving along the macadam road, one is impressed by the pistachio and almond orchards that extend for miles through the flat, scruffy terrain. To one unfamiliar with how pistachios grow, it's a surprise to see the bushy trees laden with grape-like clusters of peach-tinged yellow nuts. What not too long ago was barren, unproductive land populated only with occasional bowing oil pumps is likely to eventually be covered with grove after grove of orchards and vineyards.

Ron Khachigian, chairman of the California Pistachio Commission and senior vice president of Blackwell Land Co. Inc., which has extensive plantings of pistachios in Kern County, explained that California pistachio trees are cyclical in production, bearing heavily one year and producing a lighter crop the next. The bearing trees, all female, bloom in March and April and are wind-pollinated from male trees planted nearby. Blackwell plants one male tree for every 12 female trees; however, other growers may plant a single male tree for up to 30 female trees. Small pistachios form from the spring blossoms and expand during the growing season into sizable clusters by harvest time in the fall.

When ready to harvest, the inner hard shells of the nuts will split the leaf-like outer hulls and pop open to expose the kernels. That's the point at which huge harvesting machines roll down the long orchard rows to shake the nut clusters from the trees and send the nuts off to the processors.

Timing is crucial from the moment of harvest until the nuts have made it as far as dryer/silos, where they can be held for future processing. The delicate outer hulls must be removed within 24 hours or they will lower the value of the harvested nuts by staining the hard inner shells. Once this is done and the in-shell nuts are washed and run through a preliminary drying process to remove surface water, it is important that the moisture content of the nuts be reduced to a 6% to 8% level within the next 24 hours. After the initial processing, the nuts (which are still classed as raw nuts at this stage) can be held indefinitely until other processors who do the roasting and packaging are ready for them.

If you have ever wondered why some pistachios are dyed red, you are not alone. For years the myth has existed that Middle Eastern pistachio growers dyed the nut shells red to hide unattractive blemishes before exporting them abroad. But, according to the California Pistachio Commission, that idea is just a bit of erroneous legend that persists. Foreign imports are not dyed. Only in America are the nuts colored.

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