Classic pesto is an emulsion of basil, pignoli, or pine nuts, olive oil, and Pecorino cheese. Opinions differ as to whether the olive oil can be augmented (or adulterated) with butter for added creaminess, whether the sharpness of the sheep-milk cheese ought to be moderated (or cut) with a mellower cow- milk cheese, like Parmesan, and whether there ought to be parsley and garlic in the blend. Nobody worth listening to disputes the necessity of the pine nuts for the best pesto.
Pesto is called “pesto,” not “blendo,” because it was traditionally made by hand in a mortar and pestle. Like most people these days, my wife, Julia, makes pesto in a food processor, and I eat it without complaint. I’ve been known to gripe about cleaning all the various paddles, blades and rubber rings that fall out of the food processor, but Julia doesn’t take me seriously. She knows my objections to electric blenders are irrational.
We don’t use my favorite kitchen utensils. Those would be the Indian grinding stones I’ve unearthed over the years while working on different farms. I also have a modern, machine-ground stone mortar and pestle that was a gift from some Mexican farm workers I lived and worked with twenty five years ago on a ranch in Marin county, and I do use that occasionally.
These men weren’t legal to drive, and the farm was an hour from the city, so I bought them bulk tortillas, dry beans, and chiles when I delivered the farm’s produce to San Francisco. They cooked over an open fire, and we all gathered around the coals to share dinner. For lack of a comal, which is a flat griddle for cooking tortillas, they toasted their tortillas in an old hubcap laid on top of the coals.
When the guys finally made it to la pulga, or flea market, in Santa Rosa, they bought a proper comal, they bought me a mortar and pestle, or molcajete y mano. “Here’s a new one,” they said, laughing. They found my fascination with the old, dirty grinding bowls and pestles we dug up in the field amusing.
The meals we shared weren’t much more than tortillas, beans, and barbecued chicken backs, with home-made salsa in the molcajete to spice things up. The food was always simple, but sharing dinner with them was never a grind.
Recently, I had an opportunity to take a trip to an area called The Indians, tucked away on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains in southern Monterey County. The region is characterized by massive sandstone formations that jut from the earth. I found numerous bedrock mortar holes left in the sandstone by the Salinan Indians.
This area is called The Indians because it was a last redoubt of the Salinan tribe. Following Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain, the mission system collapsed. The Indian acolytes who’d been at Mission San Antonio, near Jolon, fled back into mountains around 1835, and took refuge in the sandstone rocks. The oak trees nearby gave the Salinans acorns for meal, and pine trees were a source of rich pine nuts. Pine nuts contain up to 31% protein- more than any other nut- and unless they’ve been shelled, they keep well without going rancid.
The Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea, is the standard commercial source for pignoli, and it’s been cultivated for its nuts for more than 6000 years. The pine the Salinan Indians depended on is Pinus sabiniana, also called Gray pine, Ghost pine, or Digger pine. These pines are sparsely cloaked in gray-green needles, and they cast scant shade. They can survive on only 10 inches of rain a year. Gray pines are usually multi-branched, and they lean at crazy, drunken angles out of the brushy stony slopes that support them.
The American settlers didn’t value Pinus sabiniana because its wood is coarse, twisted, and prone to splitting, and they didn’t value the Native Californians. Salinan Indians survived by foraging for wild foods. They dug in the earth for edible roots, and they dug into rotten logs for edible grubs. To the forty-niners, who dug into earth for gold and cut down the straight, tall Ponderosa pines for lumber to reinforce their mine shafts, the Indians were “diggers,” and the “useless” pines that supported them were “Digger pines.”
Since “Digger pine” is a pejorative- think nigger with a “d”- scientists discourage the use of this derogatory common name in favor of the colorless “Gray pine.” I prefer the equally unscientific name Ghost pine, because it evokes a spirit of times past.
On my trip I took some photos of the bedrock mortars, and I gathered a handful of pine nuts to take home I’ll make my kids crack the tough shells to help build their character, and they’ll think I’m nuts. But to make a perfectly balanced pesto, there’s nothing like the resinous sweetness of pine nuts to serve as such a perfect foil for the unctuous richness of the olive oil and the spicy fragrance of the basil. Besides, pine nuts have always had a significance that went beyond flavor.
The pineal gland is buried at the geographical center of the cranium. It was named by the ancients from the Latin pinea, meaning pine nut, which it presumably resembles. The pineal gland is a tiny organ of mysterious function, identified by various authorities as the “third eye,” or the “sixth chakra.” Pine nuts are shaped like human eyes, so their identification with a gland that promises “inner vision” makes “magical sense.” I don’t know if it’s magic, but when I eat pine nuts, they help me taste the past.
Andy’s Photo essay