History of the Pistachio

Monday, October 19th, 2020

Enroute to America

The original homelands of the pistachio were Asia Minor (now Turkey), Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and a bit north to the Caucasus in southern Russia and Afghanistan. Archeologists found evidence of pistachios in a dig site at Jerome, near northeastern Iraq, from as early as 6750 BC. The hanging gardens of Babylon were said to have contained pistachio trees during the reign of King Merodach-Baladan about 700 BC.

Pistachios are one of only two nuts mentioned in the Old Testament, that is thought to have been assembled in the 5th Century BC.

“Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.” Genesis 43:11

Pistachios are believed to have been one of the foods Adam brought to earth and grew in the Garden of Eden.

Pistachios on the move

Legend has it that the Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios an exclusively royal food, going so far as to forbid commoners from growing the nut for personal use. Nebuchadnezzar, the ancient king of Babylon, had pistachio trees planted in his fabled hanging gardens. And in the first century A.D., the Emperor Vitellius debuted this prized nut in his capital city of Rome. Apices, Rome’s Julia Child of the period, mentions pistachios in his classical cookbook but did not include any of the recipes in which he used them. The nuts traveled from Syria to Italy in the first century AD and spread throughout the Mediterranean from there. The Persians used the pistachio abundantly, not only for desserts, but also in ground-up form to thicken and enhance sauces. The Arabs learned a few culinary secrets from the Persians and included pistachios in their dessert delicacies such as Baklava, a rich treat made from buttered phyllo dough alternately layered with nuts and bathed in sweet syrup after baking. They were vital travel items for early explorers and traders. This was probably due to the pistachio’s exceptional nutritional value and extensive storage life. They were frequently carried by travelers across the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the West.

Alongside the Crusades, the Levant trade in the Middle Ages was also widespread. The Venetian Republic had close trade ties with Syria, one of the main cultivation areas for the pistachio. The goods reached northern and central Italy via the sea trade routes. North of the Alps, the pistachio remained unknown for a long time. Upon reaching central Europe, it was called the “Latin Penny Nut” because of its introduction from the Italian sales route, over the Alpine passes.

By the time pistachios were imported into Europe on a regular basis, they were quite expensive and not everyone could afford them. However, despite their high cost, merchants of France had an ample supply for anyone willing to splurge on the green wonders. While the pistachio was used early on, in various ways for cooking in Italy, north of the Alps it was used primarily as an expensive addition to baked goods. Only after World War II did the pistachio image gradually change from an expensive baking additive to a popular snack.

Making the move to America

During the 1880s, imported pistachios were popular in the USA, especially with Middle Eastern immigrants. California encountered the pistachio in 1854 when Charles Mason, a seed distributor for experimental plantings, brought the pistachio to this country. Several years later, in 1875, a few small pistachio trees imported from France were planted in Sonoma, California. In the early 1900’s Chico, California, became the home of the first experimental Plant Production Station. Funded by the USDA, this station brought in a variety of pistachio trees. The pistachio received further distribution through vending machines installed in underground train stations, bars, restaurants, and other common locations. “A dozen for a nickel” soon developed into a familiar slogan.

The search for the Perfect Pistachio for America

It was recognized that California’s Central Valley—due to its fertile soil, hot, dry climate, and moderately cold winters—offered the ideal growing conditions for the nut. In 1929, American botanist, William E. Whitehouse, journeyed to Persia (modern day Iran) to collect pistachios. This pursuit ended in 1930, when he returned to the USA with a collection of approximately 20 pounds (10 kilograms) of individually selected nuts.

Within a year, the first test plots had been planted. However, pistachio trees take seven to ten years to mature, so it was almost a decade before Whitehouse knew what he had gathered.

Of all the nuts Whitehouse collected, only one proved useful. Unfortunately, he never saw the tree from which it originated. He had picked the nut out of a pile of drying nuts in the orchards of the Agah family, who were prominent pistachio growers at Rafsanjan, in Iran’s central plateau. Whitehouse named the tree “Kerman” after the famous carpet-making city near Rafsanjan. Scientists propagated and strengthened the Kerman by budding it to heartier rootstock varieties.

After many years of experimenting, the concept of the American pistachio industry was becoming a reality. Word of the new crop spread, and plantings emerged throughout California in the 1960s and later in Arizona and New Mexico. Yet, many facets of the new crop remained a challenge to these adventurous Americans. Pistachios are wind pollinated, as opposed to bee pollinated. Just one male tree is required to pollinate up to 30 female trees.

Commercial cultivation of American pistachios

The story of the U.S. pistachio industry has been one with unparalleled success. From its first commercial crop of 1.5 million pounds (680 tons), in 1976 to the record 2016 crop of over 900 million pounds (408,233 metric tons), success has built upon success. This increase in total crop has been mirrored by increasing production per acre, from 1,468 pounds per acre, in 1982, to over 3,806 pounds per acre in 2010. Consequently, the industry has gone from barely providing for the domestic market to exporting much of its production to countries all over the world.

The American pistachio industry today

Today, the states of California, Arizona and New Mexico represent 100 percent of the U.S. commercial pistachio production. California comprises 99 percent of the total, with over 312,000 acres planted throughout 22 counties. There are 950 producers in the United States, and the annual “farm gate value” of pistachios represents more than $1.6 billion to the California economy and more than $16 million to the states of Arizona and New Mexico.

Triva tidbit:

Historically, the cracking of pistachio nuts was considered a good omen, specifically for romantic relationships. This led to couples meeting under pistachio trees waiting for the sound of nuts cracking to ensure a successful and happy relationship.

Heart of the Desert is a working pistachio ranch and vineyard with four retail establishments in New Mexico. They are best known for their farm fresh pistachios and Award-Winning New Mexico wines. Each store offers wine and pistachio tastings. They offer worldwide shipping and produce attractive gourmet baskets that make great corporate and family gifts. The main store, on the ranch in Alamogordo, offers farm tours that showcases how pistachios are grown and processed as well as a stunning Tuscany themed patio that overlooks the groves and is available for weddings, private parties or enjoying a relaxing glass of wine.