The Pistachio: History and Luxury in Antiquity
Some posts are inspired by the work of the Global Plants Initiative (GPI), some are explorations of the intersections of plant science and history, and some are inspired by what the author happens to be eating at the time. This post falls into that last category. Today, as I crack open a few pistachio shells, we explore the placement of the pistachio, Pistacia vera, at the crossroads of ancient history. I had no idea it was such a valued, even opulent, commodity. First the plant itself.
Pistacia: Some botanical background
Information: Trees or shrubs with resinous bark, dioecious. Leaves alternate, pinnate, rarely simple or 3-foliolate. Flowers in axillary paniculate or subspicate inflorescences, without a perianth but surrounded by 1–3 small bracts and up to 7 tepal-like bracteoles. Male flowers with 3–5(–8) stamens inserted on disk, filaments very short, anthers basifixed. Female flowers with 1-celled ovary; style short, (2–)3-lobed. Drupes globose or ovoid, compressed.
Range: Some 12 species, mainly in the Mediterranean region to western Asia, but also in south-east Asia, China, the Atlantic Islands, Mexico and southern USA.
Notes: The flowers of Pistacia are unusual in that they lack a true perianth, and are surrounded by bracts and bracteoles. The genus has sometimes been placed in a family of its own, Pistaciaceae.
The nut of the pistachio is considered a culinary nut and not a botanical one (I honestly didn’t know there was a distinction before writing this) and each tree produces roughly 50,000 nuts every two years (Boniface, Nugent, 2005). The shells are stained red or green depending on commercial preference, but they are naturally a beige color. Since they are a member of the Anacardiaceae family (poison ivy, sumac, mango, and cashew), pistachios contain urushiol, an irritant that can cause allergic reactions (Mabberley, 1993).
The health benefits of pistachios are considerable and include significantly reducing levels of LDL cholesterol while increasing antioxidant levels. Additionally, a studied showed that 32–63 grams per day of pistachio nut can significantly elevate plasma levels of lutein, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and gamma-tocopherol, which all sound scientific enough to be important for your body (Kay et al, 2010). Pistachios have also been used as a folk remedy historically from anything from toothaches to liver problems.
History of the Pistachio and the Roots of Luxury
The pistachio has a long, long history of human cultivation and consumption being native to the Middle East. Archeological evidence in Turkey suggests that humans were enjoying pistachios as early as 7,000 B.C. Since they are quite durable in hot climates, they spread through the Mediterranean and quickly became a valued commodity.
There are many instances of mentions of pistachios in the annals of history so perhaps it best to just mention a few of the highlights.
It makes sense to start where everything starts, at least from a Biblical perspective. The pistachio is one of two nuts mentioned in the Bible. The pistachio is mentioned in the Book of Genesis:
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry down to the man a present, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds.
The Queen of Sheba decreed pistachios an exclusively royal food, going so far as to forbid commoners from growing the nut for personal use. One wonders whether Sheba brought the pistachio with her to Jerusalem to impress Solomon along with the other gifts of spices, gold, and precious stones. Something must have worked as Solomon is reputedly supposed to have fathered her child (Menelik) and forever connected the two kingdoms in history (and perhaps the Ark of the Covenant).
In ancient Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar had pistachio trees planted in the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon (which I have written about before from a plants perspective). The enzymes of pistachios have been found in the remains of embalmed Egyptian nobility (most likely as an ingredient in the embalming fluid itself) (Kaup et al, 2001)
It seemed to have entered the Roman world via Iraq to Syria being mistakenly identified as being native to Syria by none other than Pliny in his Natural History. His mention that the pistachio is “well known among us” leads us to believe that the nut was well established in Roman consumption by that time. He also states that the nut was introduced into Rome by the Roman consul in Syria (around 35CE) by Lucius Vitellius the Elder (and simultaneously into modern-day Spain by Flaccus Pompeius). There is every indication that the pistachio was well regarded in Roman society throughout antiquity, being introduced in Rome itself by the Emperor Vitellius in the 1st century.
Once it spread to Rome, it spread throughout the Roman Empire (including Hispaniola) and this is where (due to the inhospitable climates of Germania and northern Gaul) it became an exclusive luxury. There is indication in the archaeobotanical evidence (yes, that is really a thing) of the remains of pistachios in various Roman settlements throughout Central Europe. This evidence was gathered from the remains of officer’s latrines in Roman settlements throughout conquered territories indicating an initial reliance on a traditional Roman diet (including the highly portable pistachio) and then a switch to a more localized diet (Bakels, Jacomet, 2003). Hence, items like rice, chickpeas, pomengranate, garlic, almonds, pine nuts, and pistachios, all valued items, took on luxury status in the farther reaches of the Empire.
Additionally, along with almonds, pistachios were frequently carried by travelers across the ancient Silk Road that connected China with the West. And it has fascinated us ever since, as made evident by the letter from Calvert to Joseph Dalton Hooker from Alexandria, Egypt, 1869, describing his hopes of sending pistachio seeds (amongst others). By the way, the Directors’ Correspondence Collection from Kew, where this letter is taken from, is a real gem.
As for the pistachio, quite a length of travel for a highly portable food source.