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Monday, December 29, 2008

My Greek Pistachio Story - Fystikia (Φυστίκια)

Pistachios are quite popular in Greece. They are used in all manner of recipes, and Greeks also enjoy eating them roasted with salt (as pictured below) or raw. In point of fact, there is hardly a Greek home during this holiday period which will not have a bowl of roasted and salted pistachios sitting out on a table for guests to nibble on. Pistachios are used in Greek baklava; they are made into brittles, added to cakes, cookies, and any number of baked goods and bonne bouches.

Roasted & salted pistachios from Aegina. Click to enlarge image.

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the pistachio seed has been a part of Greek food culture since at least the 2nd Century B.C., and likely much earlier. The English word pistachio is derived from the ancient Greek word pistákion (πιστάκιον). The ancients credited the origins of the pistachio tree to Arabia and Syria.

Today, the island of Aegina and the region around Megara are the traditional epicentres of pistachio cultivation in Greece; with more recent production also taking place in Phthiotis, Boeotia and the Aegean island of Euboea (Evia). The pistachios of Aegina are considered the best and have attained preeminence in Greek marketplaces and in popular preference; they are referred to as fystiki Aeginis (pronounced: fee-STEE-kee ay-YEE-nees). However, I have found that the Megarian pistachios are equally good and they do not command the same premium in price, even though Megara is quite close to Aegina. Greece is the largest producer of pistachios in Europe and the sixth largest exporter of pistachios to the world; the bulk of global pistachio cultivation takes place in Iran.

Pistachio spoon sweet from Aegina. Click to enlarge image.

The first pistachio I ever tasted was immature and raw, just like the ones used to make the spoon sweet pictured above. I remember my grandmother was irrigating one of our plots in the lower plain of the village and I had gone along for "company". At ten years of age, I was a rather willful child and in constant need of curiosities to occupy my attention.

So, as I was not off flipping rocks in the nearby river to find and collect crabs in my grandfather’s cap (my favorite village pastime), I was nosing about her feet and right in my grandma’s way no matter which way she turned. At some point, the old woman hastily plucked a branch of what looked like a bunch of unripe grapes from a small tree and handed them to me, instructing me to eat them and be still.

Now, I cannot say that I was immediately taken with the flavour as it was actually rather “green and somewhat piny” (which is the best way I can describe it), but there was something to the texture which made it amenable to my young palate; also, I liked the way I had to pop the inner seed from its immature outer shell and right into my mouth, just as my grandmother had shown me how to do it.

To this day, I have a thing for pistachios in any form. Though, I have to admit, my all-time favourite pistachio preparation remains the spoon sweet which is a specialty of the island of Aegina. Earlier this evening, my wife and I consumed the last two spoonfuls of my zealously guarded hoard of the stuff. We still have some of the roasted variety from Aegina to carry us through to the New Year, but they will not last much beyond the next couple days. Thus, all good things come to an end, in order to make room for more good things to replace them in the future.

Cleaning out the cupboards, pantry, and fridge for the New Year, I leave you with that for now.

Pánta Kalá! (Always Be Well),

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand™
Greek Food Recipes and Reflections
Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Peter G said...

Very true Sam! All the Greek households I know have got them out during the holiday period. I'm intrigued by that spoon sweet. I've never seen it before. Thanks for another informative post. All the best to you and your family for 2009!

Gabi said...

Hey Sam!

So you've lived in Greece for quite a while before moving to Canada??
We call those "Fistic" - I wonder why - heh.
Silly question: would you consume pistachios with... beer??

Cheers and happy 2009!!!


Ivy said...

I didn't know that Megara produced pistachios until you commented on one of my recipes. Although we have a big production they are quite expensive.

Me said...

Wow, I never saw agreen raw pistachio out of the shell before. Can they be bought here in N. America? I am a big fan of pistachios as well. Great with salmon too and pesto!

Anushruti said...

Nice write up on pistachios. Never imagined they would be this popular in Greece.

drakos504 said...

im a bit skeptic on the history...pistachios did not get to greece until the 1700-1800's, imported from the Ottoman Empire, they arent a native food to Greece..

Thats why they are called fistika (turkish: antep fistik) today. theyre a product of the Ottoman period. You can read the history of them on pistachio packages in Greece, especially Aigina became within the 1800's a major pistachio farm.

Sam Sotiropoulos said...

@Peter G - Yes indeed. Same to you and yours.

@Gabi Yes I would consume them with beer, and lots of it! Thanks and same wishes for you and yours!

@Ivy Yes, they are quite popular indeed.

@Me Yes, they are available in some Greek bakeries/specialty shops. You just may find them in Montreal, perhaps on Parc?

@Anushruti Indeed! They are wildly popular among Greeks.

@drakos504 Thank you for the opportunity to clarify any misunderstanding! Which part are you skeptical about? That the word pistachio derives from the Greek? In point of fact, you will find that the ancient Greeks used two words for pistachios, one was βιστακιον and the other ψιττακια. I am sure you will agree with me that going from βιστακιον (bistakion) to "pistachio" is hardly a great leap? As for the date of cultivation and whether the pistachio is native to Greece or not, I make no claim in either respect. In fact, I do point out that the ancients credited the origins of the pistachio tree to Arabia and Syria. After all, whenever the pistachio did arrive in Greece, it is quite certain that Greeks knew the plant/nut well enough to have a name for it (indeed, two names). So, it is pretty clear that Greek food cultre encompassed the pistachio, even if only as a rarity, since at least the 2nd Century BC, and likely earlier. Have I satisfied your skepticism?

Anonymous said...

I've seen pistachio trees growing in Oaxaca Mexico, where we now live. They're beautiful and productive and I'm anxious to grow my own edible, delectable pistachios, among other tropical fruits (I'm a Canadian Prairie Girl). But my Mexican friends can't tell me what to do with them, for instance, how to roast and salt them to make them like "store-bought". Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

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