Although California is a relative newcomer to commercial pistachio production, the nut took to the state's climate and topography with a vengeance.
Since 1976, when the state's first commercial harvest took place, pistachio acreage has grown to 62,000 acres, making California the second largest producer in the world with close to 500 million pounds of nuts harvested in 1991.
Pistachios, actually a relative of the mango and the cashew, are native to the Middle East. The first nuts to reach American shores from the area were dyed red by importers to camouflage defects in the shell, leading to the mistaken belief that the nutshells were naturally bubble gum pink in color.
Pistachio groves are found mainly in central and northern areas of the state. In their natural state, the small, tan-colored shells hang in delicate, grape-like clusters from graceful, leafy trees.
At the Vista farmer's market, Nicholas Hareson of M&N Pistachio Farm dispenses free samples to passers-by. He tells them that his pistachios, which grow at an altitude of 2,000 feet in the high desert east of Barstow, are better-tasting than the nuts grown farther north.
"No one can figure out why our pistachios have such a distinct flavor. It could be the altitude, it could be my well water," he said. From now through Thanksgiving, shoppers will be able to buy pistachios direct from this grower at the Vista market.
The Haresons harvest their pistachios manually, by shaking each tree and gathering the nuts on a large green tarpaulin. Some nuts are sold fresh off the tree, mainly by special order. But most of the production goes to a pistachio processor, who roasts and salts the nuts according to Hareson's specifications. The Haresons anticipate harvesting up to a ton of pistachios this year.
Closer to home, pistachio aficionados can find gift boxes of pistachios and dried fruit at Hadley's Orchards in Carlsbad.
"Pistachio ranks among our top 10 items," said Ron Stern, Hadley's director of operations. "We contract with our own growers and we carry pistachios year-round. If they're grown in California, that's where we buy it. If not, we try to go to the best source in the world."
You won't find the pink-shelled pistachios at Hadley's, either. "We only sell the natural pistachio," Stern said.
At Trader Joe's in Oceanside, "everything we have is current harvest," said Pat St. John, director of sales promotion. All the pistachios at the store are undyed and are grown in the San Joaquin Valley, St. John said.
The store contracts with growers and then has the nuts packed according to their specifications. The "world's largest pistachios," one of Trader Joe's specialties, is the largest size that can be had commercially, St. John said. For that, a contracted packer puts a special screen on the sorting machine and sorts out the largest nuts.
Pistachios, billed by the industry as "the health nut," are low in cholesterol and saturated fat.
M&N Pistachio Farm, Hemet, CA 92344. (619) 254-2049 or (714) 927-3609. Pistachios $4 a pound at Vista farmer's market.
Fiddyment Farms, 5000 Fiddyment Road, Roseville, CA. 95747. (916) 771-0800. Call or write for brochure.
Hadley's, 6115 Paseo del Norte, Carlsbad, CA. 92009. Open 7 days, 8 a.m.-9 p.m. 438-1260. Pistachios: $3.59 a pound. Gift boxes available.
Trader Joe's, E. Vista Way, Oceanside, CA. 433-9994. Open daily 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Raw pistachios in random weight bags, $2.79. Roasted halves and pieces, $3.29 a pound. Large, in-shell pistachios, $3.49 for 1-pound tub.