On our first day on the island of Aegina, we started it off with a tour of the pistachio corporative. The head pistachio farmer welcomed us into his facility where they store, roast, and package the pistachios. Being led on a tour through the facility, getting to see all the equipment and receiving an explanation of the step-by-step process of a pistachio’s journey from a tree to the consumer, was equal to being on a real life episode of the Food Network television show Unwrapped and this was the Greek edition.
At the end of summer, in the blazing August sun, it is time for the pistachios to be harvested. On Aegina, the cooperative collects pistachios from different groves all over the island, offering farmers a fair rate for their crop. Then they are placed in a cooler to dry out for storage. When they receive orders, either local or from anywhere in Greece, they are pulled from storage and go through a processing cycle to dry them out and then package them and ship them off. In the first step of the processing cycle, the nuts go through a cement spinner type of machine that tosses the nuts in citric acid and salt for taste and preservation. There are no chemical additives or other flavorings used.
Next, they go through much larger machine where the nuts are dried out to create the perfect texture. I am not exaggerating when I say other pistachios that I have eaten do not compare to these delicious nuts. The crunchy texture and buttery taste come from the high quality and freshness of the product, which is achievable because it’s a local product with minimal processing. The farmer informed us if we ever had a chewy pistachio that means the nut is stale but that would not be something that would happen with Greek pistachios from Aegina.
On Aegina, the main crop used to be grapes for making wine, but in 1860 they started to grow pistachios because they were a higher profit crop. They removed the grape vines and replaced them with pistachio trees. The rest is history. The pistachio industry plays an important role for the farming community and for the whole island of Aegina. Much of the food consumed on the island is local and seasonal because importing out of season produce is costly and is not environmentally friendly. This sounds inconvenient but there are benefits, such as less processing and transportation required. Also, the farmers have more integrity regarding the food they are farming, knowing it will be feeding members of their own community. A drawback is, if there is a poor season, crops won’t be plentiful and then there might not be enough food available for local consumption or to sell commercially in other parts of Greece. This can be economically harmful to the farmers, store owners, and consumers. The latter happened this past season for the pistachio trees on Aegina. The farmer said it might be attributed to the mild winter that preceded, but it resulted in a small harvest, which was not even half the amount usually produced. Normally, in January, there would still be pistachios in storage, available for big orders, but the week before we arrived they had just roasted the last batch for an order and there were no more nuts left.
Many of the small shops on the Aegina waterfront sold the local pistachios, and also, to our surprise we found it in a nut butter and of course in the bakeries sprinkled on cookies or in delicious baklava.
If you find yourself in a Mediterranean market and see a package of pistachios from Greece, I highly recommend you pick up a pack. You will not be disappointed.