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Southern Brazil Is Eating Endangered Pinecones

Picking up a bag of the seasonal treat known as pinhão is as familiar to Brazilians as stopping by a summertime peach tents in Georgia or huckleberry shacks in Montana. But deforestations is putting the trees that produce them at risk of...
July 23, 2014, 7:02pm
Photo via Flickr user Arcadiuš

The araucária tree of southern Brazil—Araucaria angustifolia for you science folk, Brazilian or Paraná pine for you commoners—is a beauty to behold. With branches curving outward and upwards, like a fruit bowl for the stars, this native pine tree is a symbol in the region, with its distinctive silhouette framing both sleek downtown buildings in Curitiba and sunsets on rolling farms alike.

And hanging from the limbs of this tree are what appear to be volleyball-sized Christmas ornaments. They are the seed balls, and thanks to the ingenuity of nature, when primed, they plummet down from the gangly trees with enough force to knock someone out, smashing the balls into bits, sending seeds flying around to begin a new cycle.

But not if the gauchos get to them first. Each year, while the US swelters under heavy summer days, down in the south of Brazil, folks—nicknamed gauchos in the very southernmost parts—strap on boots and go out in search of these broken pinecones.

Pinhão are the taste of winter that southerners have a hard time passing up.

Driving along the country roads that run through the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, and Paraná, you'll notice the little shacks that crop up each Brazilian winter, selling pinhão. Like summertime peach tents in Georgia or huckleberry shacks in Montana, these pinhão stands elicit backseat squeals from children and adults alike: They are the taste of winter that southerners have a hard time passing up.

I witnessed this reaction myself when driving with a gaucho friend in a rural part of Rio Grande do Sul, north of the capital of Porto Alegre. Spotting the stand, my friend pulled the car over and told me to slide down in my seat so that he could negotiate down the price without a wide-eyed, flapping, excited American by his side. As with perhaps all roadside stands in the world, one must haggle.

When he got back in the car and tossed a small plastic bag of pinecone seeds into my lap, I frowned and whispered intensely, "That's all you got?" We proceeded to have the same argument that I imagine partners in crime have in shady parking lots, until begrudgingly he got out and went back for more. We drove home with the winter wind in my hair and a smile on my face, and enough pinhão that it felt like I had a golden retriever in my lap.

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Photo via Flickr user Fernando Dell'Acqua

When we got back to my friend's house and spread our stash out on the counter, I couldn't help but wonder what the hell we were doing with thousands of pinecone seeds. Overly eager, I tried chewing on one, but—somehow to my surprise—it was like chewing on a pinecone. My friend threw about 40 of them into a pressure cooker full of water. Now it was a waiting game while the good stuff cooked. An antsy, long half-hour later, he drained them out and, while still hot, spread them on a silver tray with a little salt in the corner. They looked like cockroaches.

"Do like an artichoke," he commanded. I held onto the sturdy end of one and bit down with my teeth, pulling back and scraping along the bark until—a potato popped out! I swear, I'm not even making this up right now.

Inside the seedpod of the araucária tree is something between a nut and a potato, and it has the delicious flavor that combination connotes: It is essentially a roided-out pinenut (though not actually a pinenut, which come from the Pinus rather than Araucaria genus of trees). The closest thing I can compare the flavor of cooked pinhão to is roasted chestnuts, and perhaps, given the Pavlovian seasonal craving triggered by both, that comparison is right on.

Once out of their brown casings, they become the belle of the ball of southern Brazilian cuisine for the winter months. Like Bubba and his shrimp, the folks down here make just about everything from these pinhão seeds: cakes, risotto, stews, flan, you name it. And you better believe there's a pinhão festival each year. The flavors make their way up north through the rest of the country during the winter June parties, called festas juninas, which serve for many Brazilians as the only chance all year to taste fresh pinhão.

But even once a year is a blessing: This delight has been at risk of extinction. The araucária forests of the Atlantic Forest region of Brazil are down to just 3 percent of their original stretch, thanks to a doubly-doozy of deforestation for ranching and logging. (In 1963, the tree made up 92 percent of Brazil's wood exports.)

Historically, even the Kaingang indigenous people in this region found pinhão tasty. The poor Italian immigrants who flocked here for agricultural work and spent long days cutting down araucária to build their new homes survived the surprisingly chilly winters with the help of pinhão.

It may sound inverted, but by eating the seeds, you are actually supporting the survival of the remaining trees by incentivizing people to keep them standing.

But today, even seed collection threatens the forest: 3,400 tons of the seeds are collected for food each year, and some scientists fear the high quantity of seed collection is having a negative impact on the ecosystem by depriving the native fauna of their own tasty winter snack. As a result, new laws have been passed to restrict the seed collection period, forbidding seed collection before April 15.

At the same time, eating the seeds during the legal winter season can actually help save the forest. It may sound inverted, but by eating the seeds, you are actually supporting the survival of the remaining trees by incentivizing people to keep them standing (since it takes 14 years for the tree to give seeds), rather than cutting them down for wood. So, maybe don't negotiate that hard at those roadside stands.

You'll need to be near the south of Brazil to get pinhão, and you'll need to be there in the Brazilian winter (May through August). But if one day you look out a car window and see a striking, star-catching pine tree, get ready to pull over. Your feather-float of life may have just brought you to a fragile yet delicious place.