Indeed, if you apply the botanical definition – that is, a nut is a seed inside an indehiscent (not opening to release seeds) dry fruit with a hard pericarp (ripened ovary wall) – most things we believe to be nuts are not true nuts at all.
For example, pistachio nuts have fissures of dehiscence and so are not genuine nuts. Brazil nuts – which, by the way, come primarily from Bolivia these days, and not Brazil – are not bona fide nuts either because they are seeds in capsules. And the macadamia nut is actually a creamy white kernel, and therefore not strictly a nut either. Now you know where the term “you’re nuts” comes from: it is, in a nutshell, what happens when you try to crack the what’s-a-nut-and-what’s-not-a-nut code.
Botanical buffs – i.e. the real nutcases – will tell you that there are only a handful of nuts in the world. In their book, true nuts include walnuts, hazel nuts and chestnuts. For the purposes of this article however, we will nutpick no further. I thus allude, from henceforth and with impunity, to nuts in the culinary sense, which applies to any somewhat oily and edible kernel found in a shell.
Although peanuts – tons upon tons of these legumes (also known as groundnuts because they grow beneath the earth) are imported from China every month to help meet the demand that local farmers cannot fulfil – are SA’s bestselling nut in terms of volume, cashews are purportedly the country’s favourite nut.
“Certainly, with more and more people looking to substitute red meat with other sources of protein for health reasons, the nut market is growing,” says expert nutter, Adrian Booysen of Noordhoek-based processing and retail business, Slivers Biltong & Nuts. “And cashews, with their crumbly texture, and delicate sweet and buttery taste, are the first choice of many who can afford them. Not only are they eaten as snacks, but they are also increasingly popular ingredients in recipes for casseroles, salads and stir-fry. They make wonderfully rich butters too.”
Cashew trees are indigenous to Brazil but were thoroughly dispersed by Portuguese sailors during their wanderings in the 1500s. Although these days the world’s major cashew producers include India, Vietnam, Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania and Indonesia, the nuts are grown extensively in the warm-subtropical regions of Mozambique, along the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal and in the interior near Hoedspruit in Limpopo and Malelane in Mpumalanga. (Do not however, be tempted to stop and pick your own cashews if you find yourself on a nut farm. The cashew tree is related to poison ivy and poison oak. The shell surrounding the kernel contains toxic oil that will irritate your skin, and drive you nuts with burning and itching.)
Indeed, Limpopo and Mpumalanga compete for the title of ‘the nerve centre of nuts for SA’. During the past decade, about 1 000 farmers in these provinces – and a smaller bunch in KwaZulu-Natal – have planted more than 4-million trees to supply macadamia nuts to 12 cracking factories around the country. This has resulted in SA becoming the world’s third largest producer of macadamia nuts, after Hawaii and Australia. Even so, according to the Southern African Macadamia Grower’s Association – which represents most of the country’s macadamia nut growers, processors and marketers – in comparison to other tree nuts, macadamias are still in their infancy. The variety commands little more than 2% of the world tree nut industry but the association believes SA macadamias have a great future. With only 43% of the trees planted here having attained nut-bearing age, the country is recognised as the fastest developing macadamia growing region in the world.
Indigenous to Australia, macadamias have a delicate flavour and a crunchy texture. Like cashews, they are increasingly promoted for their nutritional value. Macadamia oil comprises chiefly monounsaturated fat, which, say nutritionists, make it a “good oil”. Virgin macadamia nut oil makes a delicious change from olive oil, and can be used for cooking, baking and in salad dressings. It is also superb in homemade mayonnaise.
Pecan nuts, which are native to North America, are also cultivated locally. Characterised by their firm, light brown kernels and well-developed nutty taste, these nuts are traditionally used for baking sweet foods. They also make an interesting addition to salads, stuffing, chicken or fish coating, and other savoury main or side dishes.
Pecans are grown successfully in areas with high summer temperatures and short winters with ample water. One of the country’s most successful pecan nut farms, Roux Pecans – which is located on the banks of the Orange River near Hopetown in the Northern Cape – recently became the country’s first European Union Certified Pecan Operation.
This is definitely a sign of the times for the nut industry, says Booysen: “The nut consumer is typically a bit of a health nut and a relatively well-informed individual. More and more people are asking for organically grown and processed nuts. Demand for organic nuts exceeds supply and I look forward to more local nut producers going the organic route.”
Pistachio nuts, which originated in Persia and grow wild on the Central Asian steppes, are under development as a new crop in SA. Most of the pistachios sold here at present are imported from China, which is among the top five pistachio producing countries with Iran, the US, Turkey and Syria. The nut – which has an unusual greenish hue due to naturally occurring and harmless chlorophyll ¬– is encapsulated in a shell that splits open slightly with a perceptible pop when it is ripe. Pistachio nuts feature regularly in eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. They are also popular in ice cream and biscotti, and make a tasty crust for grilled fish and chicken.
Like many other nuts, pistachios have been creatively used as ingredients for centuries. The Romans used them extensively in their culinary exploits, stuffing roast pork with them, scattering them in their drinks and grinding the nuts to provide thickening for other dishes.
During their days of plunder, the Roman legions included pine nuts among their essential provisions, using them in the preparation of meat, fish and vegetable dishes. Almonds were prized by the Egyptian pharaohs, who insisted they were included in bread baked for the royal table. Hazelnuts are one of mankind’s oldest agricultural crops and were used to treat headaches during medieval times because, unshelled, they resemble the brain.
For sure, nuts have been in kitchens (and medicine cabinets) since time immemorial. So perhaps the resurgence of the nut as an ‘ingredient du jour’ is just a case of the wheelnut turning. The real question is whether our ancestors bothered to distinguish the true-nuts from the not-nuts? Or whether they too, left that to the real nutcases.
3 egg yolks
Juice of half a lemon
1 1/3 cups macadamia mil
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the yolks and lemon juice in the bowl of a food processor. Turn the machine on and slowly drizzle in the oil until the mixture is thick and emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.
Asparagus and cashew nuts
500 g fresh asparagus, trimmed and cut into 5 cm pieces
2 Tbsp chopped toasted cashew nuts, unsalted
2 Tbsp chopped feta
1 Tbsp sesame oil
3 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp marjoram
1/4 tsp minced garlic
Steam the asparagus for about six minutes. Drain and combine with the other ingredients. Serve hot.
(First published in The Weekender.)