The Green Nut: A brief history of the Pistachio

The Pistachio nut has a rich and varied history - from the hanging gardens of Babylon, to the Roman Empire. We explore where pistachio nuts come from.
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Johnny Garmeson
Apr 9
3 mins
Apr 9
3 mins

‘Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift … some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds’ Genesis 43:11

Growing for over 9000 years, the pistachio has never lost its mystique or sense of nobility, appearing again and again in ancient texts such as the Bible as an indicator of respect. They are even believed to have grown in the Garden of Eden, and were one of the foods Adam and Eve took with them out into the world.

Having been eaten in the Middle East since time immemorial, these little green seeds are as much a symbol of the region as the Olive or the chickpea, yet it is their connection to royalty that really sets them apart. Once coveted by nobility in the ancient world, sent as gifts between Emperors and grown in the hanging gardens of Babylon - their status as the nut of the upper classes has made them the cause of desire, and conflict, for millennia.

One of the most famous myths around the Pistachio is that of the Queen of Sheba, the legendary monarch of Southern Arabia and Abyssinia (modern day Yemen and Ethiopia). 

With a name that is synonymous with wealth and luxury, it is unsurprising that she was a fan of the finer things the ancient middle east had to offer. Legend goes that the Queen of Sheba made a royal decree stating that pistachios were forbidden to all but the royal family, and that any commoner found growing a pistachio tree was to be punished for sullying the reputation of this exalted nut.

As much as the greedy Queen wanted to keep them to herself, pistachios managed to make their way out of the Middle East over time.

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When the Roman Empire conquered the Levant and parts of Persia, the Pistachio became the latest ingredient for Roman chefs to incorporate into their pantries. Emperor Vitellious introduced it to Roman society in the first century AD, and records show a host of new recipes appearing during this time as the demand for the nut soared.

The trade connections of the Roman Empire spread pistachios across the Mediterranean, where they found new fertile soils to grow in - for instance Sicily became a huge producer of pistachios and is still revered for the quality of their product to this day.

Pistachios even took on the name of the ‘Latin penny nut’ because of its introduction to many cultures with the expansion of Roman trade networks. 

Time passed and the Empire began to crumble, but the demand for these famous nuts did not, and with the advent of the silk road and spice trade, the pistachio could continue to spread far and wide. 

One of the reasons why they became so popular on the Silk Road was their incredible nutritional density, packing a large amount of protein, minerals and vitamins. Once dried, they were perfect for transporting from one end of the earth to the other!

It was for this reason that trade hubs such as the Venetian Republic kept close ties with the Arabic cultures in the East such as Syria and Iran where pistachios grew natively and were widely eaten.

However, Persian dishes such as Ranginak and Sholeh Zard often featured pistachios cooked into them, and it was actually the travelling merchants that started introducing the nut as a savoury snack as opposed to an ingredient.

Regardless of how you use them, pistachios are an ingredient with a history that is as long as history itself - from the hanging gardens of Babylon, to the Venetian court, these bright green nuts are much more than just a bar snack.

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