Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Eating Piñones

So what turned up in the Santa Isabel supermarket last week? Piñones.

In spite of having only the vaguest knowledge of what they were or exactly what I would do with them I bought some (@ 900 CLP a kg./ $.75 a lb.).

Now, after a few hours on the internet and in the kitchen, I know a bit more. In spite of their name, which translates as “pine nut,” they are not the seeds of a pine tree, but of the pehuén or monkey-puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana), the national tree of Chile.

And subject of a poem by Pablo Neruda, Oda a la Araucanía Araucana.

                        Pehuén trees near the Chilean-Argentinean border east of Temuco.

Piñones are an important wild food of the Mapuche, and especially of the Pehuenche (Pehuén + che/people), the Mapuche who live in the Andes on both sides of the border with Argentina, whose name indicates the importance of this resource.

According to the Museum of Patagonia website article on “The Pehuenche, People of the araucarias:”
Collection of piñones takes place from March to May. The seed pods are knocked down with long poles or by climbing the tree clad in protective leather. The Pehuenches of the Chilean side of the Andes wait until the ripe piñones fall spontaneously; believing that to do otherwise is offensive to the spirit owners of the araucarias. The piñones can be eaten raw (if very ripe), toasted or boiled. Various types of flour for bread can be made, using a flat milling stone. The drink CHAVID is made by allowing the boiled piñones to ferment for three or four days in special containers of wood or pottery. To keep piñones they are threaded into long chains called MENKEÑ and allowed to dry. The storage pits DOLLINKO have a drainage system that allows storage of 400 to 500 kg. of clean piñones for 3 or 4 years. They put hot stones in the pit and above them the piñones topped with a lattice of canes and covered with earth. (My translation)

Pehuenche legend says that the pehuén is sacred and its seeds were once thought to be poison,

...and they venerated it, praying in is shade, offering gifts: meat, blood, smoke and even speaking to it, confessing their bad acts. Then, during a time of great scarcity and hunger, when children and old people were dying, the young men went far away searching for food, and they returned with empty hands, thinking that god did not hear the clamor of his people dying of hunger. But Nguenechén had not abandoned them, and when a young man was returning discouraged, he encountered an old man with a long white beard.
“What are you looking for,” he asked.
“Food for my tribal brothers who are dying of hunger; I have fond nothing.”
“And so many piñones on the ground under the pehuéns; aren’t they eatable?”
“The fruits of the sacred tree are poison, grandfather” answered the youth.
“Son, from now on you have them as food as a gift Nguenechén. Boiled so that they soften, or toasted by the fire, you have a delicious dish. Collect them well, store then underground, and you have food for the whole winter.”
Having said this, the old man disappeared.
From then on, there was no famine and great quantities of piñones were harvested and stored underground where they kept fresh for a long time.
Every day, upon waking, with a piñon or a branch of pehuén in hand, they pray looking at the sun: "To you we owe our life, and we beg of you, the great one, our father, that you don’t let the pehuenes die. They should increase as our descendants increase, whose lives belong to you as do the sacred trees.” [1]

Piñones are 1.5 to 2 inches long, and 200 to 300 make a kilogram. While no complete nutritional analysis is available, “seeds are composed of starch (64%), dietary fibre (25%), total sugar (7%) and very low concentrations of phenolic compounds, lipids, proteins and crude fibre.”[2] This makes them much lower in fats and proteins (and calories) than pine nuts and nutritionally similar to chestnuts.  (Note: some of the starch may not be easily digestible... don't eat them all the first day.)

They are also used in similar ways, roasted, boiled or milled into flower for breads and for porridge. Like chestnuts, piñones may be peeled raw (left) or after toasting or boiling. The shells are tough and a little leathery, and open more easily if cut with a knife.

I toasted mine in a dry skillet for about 30 minutes, then peeled them and tossed them with oil, salt and the Mapuche condiment merkén (powered smoked chili with ground coriander seeds). They are not crisp and crunchy, but firm, a little like an untoasted almond. Unseasoned, they are slightly bland but with an interesting nutlike flavor.

There are said to be as many recipes for piñones as there are Mapuches, but here are a couple that I want to try.

Mapuche Piñones soup (Southern Argentina) by Sandra Román/ MARIELAJ

100 gm piñones
½ onion
½ carrot
1 green onion
Chopped cilantro, to taste
Salt, pepper and merkén(or powdered chili) to taste
Pork fat, or lard
Cut the pork fat in small pieces and render, saving the cracklings. Dice the onions, green onion and carrot. Sauté the onions, green onion and carrot in the fat (or lard). Add the cracklings, the piñones, and the broth and season to taste. Simmer for about 15 minutes. Serve sprinkled with cilantro.
Piñon Croquets with Merkén
500 gm. piñones
½ onion
1 clove garlic
½ green pepper
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
½ cup of dry bread crumbs
2 eggs
2 tablespoons of merkén (or other mild to medium powered chili if unavailable)
Salt and pepper
Cook the piñones in salted water for 1 hour. Then peel them and grind into flour (I’d try a food processor.) Dice the onion, green pepper and garlic. Sauté the onion and garlic, then add the green pepper. Add the sautéed vegetables, the eggs, parsley, bread crumbs and the merkén to the ground piñones. Season with salt and pepper. Form croquets and fry in deep fat at 350°F.
For more on Mapuche foods see Mapuche Food:  Ethno Tourism/Ethno Gastronomy 
[1] Taringa! Intelegencia colectiva, Araucaria Araucana (Pehuen) on line at http://www.taringa.net/posts/info/1791412/ my translation
[2] Characterization of piñon seed (Araucaria araucana (Mol) K. Koch) and the isolated starch from the seed. Carolina Henríquez et al. Food Chemistry, Volume 107, Issue 2, 15 March 2008, Pages 592-601 on line at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T6R-4PGPVXF-3&_user=10&_rdoc=1&_fmt=&_orig=search&_sort=d&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=feaff329eb094947f8a7329f427c86d3


  1. I used them to make some really good pesto (with Chiloe garlic that was almost chili like in its spiciness).

  2. Good idea, especially with Chiloé garlic--something I want to learn more about someday.

  3. there is an Araucana tree across the street from where I live. It is approximately 120 feet tall , yes that's right! it must be close to 800 years old at least, the circumference of the trunk is about 30 feet ! Last week I notice a "tree Pruning" truck parked near it ans sure enough.. they had been hired to knock down the cones that the tree produces (it is a female ) every 30 years or so. To my disbelief, the cones that came crashing down (some intact) were easily 30 lbs !!! each ! I ran to Google my brain on my laptop and before you could say Mapuche ! I was asking the workers to give me all the fallen cones that were more less itact. That was a few days ago. Today I am nearly an expert on everything to do with Araucania Araucana and the Mapuche people of Chile, NOT TO MENTION, I have discovered several ways to prepare and enjoy (with reverence) the nut (piñon) inside the cones.. I have quite an arsenal of them which I am about to store for the Winter meals now. I am obsessed with the Piñon to say the least . I consider myself very very fortunate to have this awesome experience manifest just outside my house in the most unlikely place somewhere in California.. I am feeling protective of the tree already..so no questions as to it's whereabouts.

  4. Wonderful! Some wandering Mapuche must have planted it in, lets see…, AD 1300. Enjoy. :-) And thanks for the comment.

  5. I just wanted to thank you for the wonderful content on your blog! I'm currently spending a year living in Santiago, Chile, with my husband, and your blog has been so useful as I explore local markets and try new-to-me ingredients. I hope you won't mind that I linked to your blog in a recent post on my blog. Thanks again!

    Katie at http://faceswithaview.com/

  6. Hi,
    I would really be interested in buying Piñones, but I could not find any online shop, which sells the rare seeds. Does anyone know whether there is a possibility to get some.
    I would really like to cook with them.
    Best wishes

    1. I found this source on line: http://www.treeseedonline.com/store/p66/Monkey_Puzzle_(araucaria_araucana).html
      They are for planting, not eating. but of course you can eat them if you wish... and if you don't mind spending several $s or in this case £s.

      buen provecho

  7. Roxanne, do you still live near this tree? I'm with a bird rescue in Oregon and we just took in a Slender Billed Conure that eats these seeds in the wild. Trying to find a way to buy some for him.


  8. If Roxanne doesn't respond you can try the link in the comment above yours. Good luck.


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