Pining Away With Martha!- Pine Nut Cookies! -236 eggs, 179 1/2 cups of sugar, 180 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 224 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 36 recipes to go!

September 3, 2011

Martha's Pine Nut Cookies

André's Pine Nut Cookies

A friend and colleague was celebrating his workplace anniversary and his wife asked if I’d prepare a cookie for the occasion. I was, of course, happy to oblige. Any excuse to make cookies is all the excuse I need. I had purchased pine nuts the week before in anticipation of baking up a batch of Italian Pine Nut Cookies. Pine Nuts are a common ingredient in sweet and savory dishes from Italy. These cookies are about as Italian as a cookie gets. Pine nuts are ground into a flour-like consistency and combined with almond paste, egg, flour, confectioner’s sugar, vanilla extract and baking powder and then rolled into balls and coated with more pine nuts and then baked into a crisp, hard cookie perfect for dipping in tea or coffee. They have a wonderfully sharp flavor of almond with a slight floral note from the pine nuts. The hard, biscotti-like texture is a surprise, though. Many of the folks who enjoyed these commented that they were very crisp, a polite way of calling out that they were hard as rocks. It didn’t matter. I was and am spinning towards the end of this endeavor and with the pine nut cookies out of the way, I was one step closer. I returned home with an empty container, pleased that I had said goodbye to these cookies only to have these cookies say hello two days later.

I’ve been working out lately. Every day, to be precise. I have been pushing myself very hard, chasing those elusive endorphins I’ve read so much about. Sixty-minutes on a treadmill, fifteen-to-twenty laps in the pool, lifting weights, doing crunches till my entire body aches. I’ve been at this for almost two months now and though the weight loss has been minimal (it’s coming off slowly), I have enjoyed the extra energy it’s given me and the frequent sharp pangs in my arms and legs are shrugged off as a testament to my age and years of complacency. That said, two days after enjoying the pine nut cookies, after an exhaustive workout, while walking home I developed a taste in my mouth. It was an awful, bitter, metallic taste. I thought to myself, well, André, you’ve done it now. You worked out so hard you’ve broken your taste buds. By the time I got home the taste was pretty awful. It was as though I had eaten a raw onion and my mouth was still in shock. I grabbed a piece of lettuce from the fridge and chewed thinking it would cleanse my palette. It tasted awful, like it was rancid. I spit it out into the waste bin. I cut a lemon and put a wedge in between my teeth. Again, the taste was horrible. I spit it out. Mouthwash! I gargled and the taste became even worse. I’d never experienced anything like this.

I then did something against my better judgement. I consulted the internet with my symptoms hoping to find a diagnosis. Years ago I learned not to consult the internet in such matters as just about every symptom had the bleakest of prognosis. Your nose itches? It’s ebola and you should start bleeding from your eyes soon. You have stomach cramps? Then you, my friend, are harboring large and unfriendly parasites that are devouring you from the inside. I stopped asking Jeeves because, well, Jeeves is a total pessimist and was turning me into a nervous hypochondriac.  No more Dr. Internet for me, thank you.

But the taste was awful. Maybe I did something while working out that caused this. Perhaps I sweated out the part of my soul that enjoys tasting things. I finally gave in and typed “bitter, metallic taste symptoms” in the search bar. What popped up surprised the hell out of me. Page after page with two words in the headline- Pine Nuts!

I began to read story after story in disbelief. Along the way I learned a new word, dysgeusia. It’s the medical term for loss of or distortion of one’s ability to taste. As it turns out there’s a new syndrome that’s popped up in the last few years called Pine Mouth Syndrome. Sounds delightful, doesn’t it?

Pine nuts have been used along the Mediterranean for centuries in pestos and pastries, salads and salsas, meats and marinaras generation after generation. Pine nuts had always been grown and imported from the forests surrounding coastal villages in Italy, Greece, France and Spain. In the past ten years, to meet the increasing demands for these tasty little nuts, China has begun exporting them. Cultivating and harvesting pine nuts is a painstakingly difficult process, hence the high cost for these delicacies. The problem is that China grows these trees in many different locations with the harvests being combined and shipped off to produce importers around the world. The pine nuts have a tendency to be a bit smaller than the European varieties but are comparable in taste with one exception. There is a variety of pine nut that grows in China that looks and tastes like other pine nuts but was never meant for human consumption as it contains a neurotoxin that causes dysguesia.

As soon as I read this, I ran into the kitchen to examine the packaging from the pine nuts I’d used. It read in bold red letters, “Product of China”. I read further. Pine mouth symptoms can last from one-to-five weeks!  I then thought about all those colleagues who ate these cookies. Oh my God! I’ve poisoned my co-workers, I thought to myself. I immediately shot an email off to my friend’s wife to see if she or her husband were having any symptoms. They hadn’t experienced any. Phew!

I read further that Pine Mouth doesn’t affect everyone. Some lucky folks, like myself are predisposed to developing symptoms. The next day I contacted the brand importer in Los Angeles to tell them my story. “Are you familiar with Pine Mouth Syndrome?” I asked the customer service representative. He chuckled and said he knew all about it and how very sorry his company was that I developed symptoms. He also explained that his company no longer imports pine nuts from China and had contacted all their distribution points to remove them from the shelves at their discretion. You see, the FDA is the only consumer protection group that can require such a recall and they only started investigating Chinese pine nuts in 2009. Most retailers have opted to keep their high-price-point Chinese pine nuts on the shelves with little-to-no concern for their consumers and will not take them down until the FDA makes them do so.  The customer service rep offered to send me a few bags of Italian imported pine nuts as an act of contrition.

I contacted the local FDA office where a nice lady took my information and asked me a zillion questions from a form the FDA is using to determine how hazardous Chinese pine nuts may be. She assured me that these were not linked to any symptoms more serious than dysgeusia but I should be prepared to not be able to taste anything for a couple of weeks.

It’s been two weeks since I baked those cookies. No one else has come forward with any symptoms. The folks who ate the cookies enjoyed them toasted and then baked. I, however, had been munching on them raw while I baked. Maybe that’s why the symptoms manifested. I have gotten most of my ability to taste back. There’s still a slight bitterness to everything but it’s quickly dissipating.

Moral of the story?

Don’t buy Chinese pine nuts.

To be honest, this whole story has left a bad taste in my mouth.

To read more about Pine Mouth Syndrome click HERE.


One Response to “Pining Away With Martha!- Pine Nut Cookies! -236 eggs, 179 1/2 cups of sugar, 180 3/4 sticks of Butter, and 224 1/4 cups of flour used so far- 36 recipes to go!”

  1. Russ Says:

    I still think you could partner with China and create a weight-loss pill from these nuts. Just think about it.

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