The growing popularity of pesto in recent years means pine nuts are now a common food in the UK. Pine nuts are also used in many Mediterranean dishes, such as eastern Mediterranean dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), Lebanese kibbeh (raw meat and bulgur wheat) and Syrian kofta mabrouma (minced lamb and pine nuts) – see Laura Mason’s wonderful book Pine for many other recipes.
Nuts from any type of pine tree can be eaten, but traditionally it is the nuts from Stone or Umbrella pines (Pinus pinea L.) which are eaten in the Mediterranean. The stone pine is not a domesticated tree. So every year from October to March, pine cones are harvested from wild forests. The cones are left outside to ripen in the sun, before being beaten to remove the nuts. To cope with the huge demand, machines are now used to shake off the pine cones and to crush them to extract the nuts. Due to the huge global demands for them, many of the pine nuts sold in supermarkets come from other pines grown in China, such as the Chinese white pine.
Pine nuts were a common ingredient in the Apician recipes. Some of these are sweet dishes such as almond and semolina pudding (Apicius 2.2.10) or pine nut and honey pudding (Apicius 7.11.5). But pine nuts were also used in patinas (thick omelettes), faggots, sauces for meat and fish, and even stuffed kidneys. How about trying out this recipe for poached eggs with pine-nut sauce, over at Pass the Garum.
Finding archaeological evidence to show who was eating nutty foods like these in the Roman period is unfortunately not straight forward. The kernels are so soft, that they rarely survive charring. However, the pine nut shell does preserve well. So well in fact, that individual nutshells and whole cones have been recovered from many sites in the Roman world. The problem is, many of these finds are not from the typical domestic context – refuse pits, hearths, dumps of broken pottery and kitchen debris, but from offering pits in temples, cremations and alongside other “ritually deposited” items in wells.
To start off with the definite food finds, charred pine nuts have been found from military forts and major towns like Colchester and London in Roman Britain. A few rural dwellers in southern Britain were also eating pine nuts, such as those living on the Isle of Thanet, the small town at Springhead (both in Kent) and at Fullerton Villa in Hampshire. Pine nutshells are found at the same range of sites in north-western Europe. Over in Italy, pine nuts have been found amongst other food refuse (fig pips, grape pips, cereal grains) at Regio VI, Insula 1, Pompeii.
Turning to the ritual finds, the most obvious examples are from temples. Intact stone pine cones were found in the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, the Carrawburgh Mithraeum on Hadrians Wall and the London Mithraeum. More often, broken up and charred remains of pine cones are found, such as at the Triangular Temple in Verulamium and the Temple of Isis in Mainz. These probably came from pine cones being used as incense or offerings to the gods. Pine nuts have also been identified from cremation burials, both in northern Italy and London.
Other finds of stone pine cones are more difficult to assign as “food” or “ritual” remains, and of course we know that there was no clear separation between these categories. For instance, at a Military annex at Orton’s Pasture in Staffordshire, broken up nutshells and bracts were found in a pit, which initially looked like the left overs from a tasty pine nut snack. However, the only pits to contain pine nuts (and also dates) were in one area of the enclosure, close to where an altar was deposited. Another example is an intact pine cone that was found in a waterhole at the edge of an enclosure at a rural farmstead outside Cirencester (Claydon Pike), but with very few artefacts to indicate how the pine cone got there. In contrast, amongst some Early Roman buildings at 1 Poultry (The City, London), several pine cones were found in and around a water tank, alongside other food waste (coriander seeds, grapes pips), but also a Venus figurine. Maybe this material was from ritualistic activities in the Walbrook valley?
The special significance of stone pine cones is revealed through a wealth of material culture. The most obvious example is this Roman tombstone found near a fort in Cumbria. The tombstone was for a soldier’s daughter, and shows a women reclining on a dining couch. A pine cone is in the top right hand corner, as a symbol of rebirth. Replica pine cones made from terracotta have also been found at some sites in Roman Britain, such as at Roman villas at Rapsley (Surrey) and Witcombe (Gloucestershire). Pine cones also appear as steelyard weights, and on fountains.
Beyond food and ritual offerings, literary evidence gives us another use of pine nuts – as aphrodisiacs. Galen suggested that taking a combination of almonds, honey and pine nut on three consecutive evenings would have the desired effect. The demand for pine cones, for ritual offerings, food and other uses, meant that they were traded across the empire. A first century BC shipwreck off of Toulon, southern France, contained 61 pine cones. At the other end of the empire, pine cones have been found at quarry settlements in the Eastern Desert of Egypt.
Next time you have pasta and pesto, take a moment to think about how pine nuts were used in the past.
Grocock, C.W. and Grainger, S. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with an Introduction and an English Translation of the Latin Recipe Text. Tonnes: Prospect.
Lodwick, L. 2015. Identifying ritual deposition of plant remains: a case study of Stone Pine cones in Roman Britain, pp. 54-69. In Brindle, T., Allen, M., Durham, E. and Smith, A. TRAC 2014: Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Mason, L. 2013. Pine. London: Reaktion Books.
Mutke, S. et al. 2012. Mediterranean Stone Pine: botany and horticulture. Horticultural Review 39: 153-201.