Pine nuts in foie gras league as poor harvests send prices up
French gourmets face a quandary these days: spend that last euro on foie gras or on a package of pine nuts.
The global harvest of the nuts – a key ingredient in classic Italian pesto sauce which graced prehistoric diets and was considered an aphrodisiac in ancient Rome – fell an estimated 47pc last year, boosting prices to their highest levels in more than a decade.
That's prompting manufacturers and households to substitute cheaper cashews or walnuts.
"Consumers will start treating them more like a luxury item, something of a tree-produced caviar," said Leonid Sharashkin, pine nut forestry adviser to Salem, Missouri-based Pinenut.com, which harvests and sells wild nuts and other crops.
The crop in China, the world's biggest shipper of pine nuts, fell 90pc last year, while yields dropped 63pc in the Mediterranean region, the International Nut & Dried Fruit Council estimates.
US import prices for shelled pine nuts were the highest in at least two decades in 2012, while German buyers in November paid the most for Chinese nuts since at least 1998, the latest trade data show.
French retailer Monoprix sells the nuts online, starting at €78.40 a kilogramme, more expensive than foie gras, 20-month-cured Parma ham or lumpfish eggs.
"Merchandise is still available but it depends on the price," said Michel Kok, who trades pine nuts at Rotterdam-based importer Catz International. "There's definitely less supply."
Logging, deforestation, fire and pests have reduced pine stands in China, Russia and the US. Yield swings mean good pine nut years alternate with bad ones.
Pine nuts have a long history. Remains have been found in the ruins of Pompeii. Large stone-pine forests were planted in Italy after papal decrees, including one in 1666 near Fregene, north of Rome, which still exists today.
The nuts are of "exceptional" nutritional value, rich in protein, unsaturated fats and amino acids essential to human growth, the UN says. (Bloomberg)