NUTS AND SEEDS
Nuts are generally defined as fruit with a hard, tough shell surrounding an edible kernel. But that definition doesn’t distinguish them from legumes, like beans or peas, that bear fruit in pods; peanuts, for example, are legumes. Nor does it distinguish them from seeds, defined as grains or ovules capable of germinating and producing a new plant; almonds, which are related to stone fruits, are seeds similar to the pit of an apricot.
However they’re defined, nuts are among our oldest foods; archaeologists have found ample evidence of nut consumption by primitive peoples worldwide. “Nutting stones”, used to crack open quantities of hard nuts and estimated to date back 4000 to 8000 years, have been found in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The stones contain depressions into which nuts would be placed then hit with another stone, aptly called a “hammer stone.” The shelled nuts were eaten whole or ground into flour or butters. The shells fueled fires.
The oldest walnut remains were discovered in Iraq, and are believed to be from 50,000 BC. Ancient Greeks and Romans were fond of walnuts, and they were traded so regularly by the British in the Mediterranean that they became known as the “English walnut”, a name that continues today. Walnuts were brought to California by Spanish Franciscans in the 18th century, and California now produces much of the world’s supply.
Pecans, native only to North America, were in evidence at archaeological excavations in Texas that date from 6,100 BC. Macadamia nuts originated in the rainforests of Queensland, Australia, and were brought to Hawaii in the 19th century. Hawaii now grows most of the world’s macadamias.
Almonds, thought to be among the earliest cultivated foods, have been found in excavations in both Cyprus and Greece and were viewed as a symbol of fertility by the ancient Romans. They may be Middle Eastern in origin, were once valued for trade on the Silk Road, and are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible. Marzipan, a sweet paste candy made with ground almonds, returned home from the Holy Lands with Crusaders in the 11th and 13th centuries, and almonds are now found in cooking throughout Europe.
A Chinese manuscript from 2838 BC includes hazelnuts among the five sacred nourishments bestowed upon mankind by God. Hazelnuts are sometimes called filberts because, in Europe, they usually ripen by St. Philibert’s Day, August 29. They were introduced to America by a shipment of seeds in 1629.
Cashews are native to Brazil, but have been widely cultivated in India and Africa since the 16th century. They are always sold without their shells because the shells contain a toxic skin irritant. Brazil nuts are native to the Amazon basin, where they grow in large pods which can weigh 4 to 6 pounds; they fall with enough force to kill a hapless human on the ground. They were introduced to Europeans by Dutch traders in the late 17th century.
The peanut, really a member of the pea family, originated in the Andean lowlands of Bolivia and Peru in South America. Spanish and Portuguese traders introduced them to Africa, Europe, and Macao (and thus China), and the slave trade returned them to the Caribbean and the United States. Initially regarded as food only for the poor, by the turn of the 20th century peanut oil, roasted peanuts and, above all, newly invented peanut butter were in high demand (Peanut butter was developed in 1890 by a doctor in St. Louis as food for his patients with bad teeth). Today peanuts are the most widely used nut internationally, for oil, stews, snacks, and as peanut butter.
Nuts and seeds have a high fat content and, as a result, become rancid if subjected to heat, humidity or light. Keep unshelled, raw nuts for six months to a year in a cool, dry place. Store shelled nuts for three to four months at room temperature in an airtight container, for up to six months in the refrigerator, or for a year in the freezer. When shopping, look for clean shells with no cracks (except for pistachios, which are semi-open). Pistachios, by the way, used to appear in our markets dyed red or green to disguise blemishes. Nowadays most of our pistachios are grown in California, and the dyes are unnecessary.