‘It’s a gamble but we’re not crazy’: French growers turn to pistachios

Pistachios are a staple of the vaunted French aperitif, but the nuts come from thousands of miles away -- a situation a handful of farmers in the southern Provence region hope to change.

'It's a gamble but we're not crazy': French growers turn to pistachios
An employee of the Provencal confectionery of Roy Rene holds pistachios in their hand, in Aix-en-Provence. Photo: Gerard Julien|AFP
Although wild uncultivated pistachios can be found across the hills hugging the Mediterranean Sea in southern France, remnants of trees brought over from Syria by the Romans, it is vineyards and fruit orchards that dominate the rugged landscape.
But now, weather conditions that can increasingly include long dry spells could herald the return of drought-resistant pistachio trees in the coming years.
“It's a gamble but we're not crazy, we've got both feet on the ground,” said Jean-Louis Joseph, co-founder of an association which aims to promote the homegrown nuts.
This year, he planted 600 pistachio trees amid the grape vines, olive trees and truffle oaks on his plots in the Luberon region, their young trunks protected from deer by electric fencing.
He chose two varieties, one from Greece and another called the Kerman Pistachio which originated in Iran, a major pistachio producer.
The Kerman, a high-yielding variety, is also used extensively in California and other US states, the world's other top source of the nuts. 
It will take at least five years for Joseph to harvest his first organic crop, but already the young trees are producing their distinctive bright red flowers.
“Oh, I'm sure it'll work. The trees are beautiful, all the ones I bought have taken root, we did everything right,” Joseph told AFP.
He said that his research had turned up records of Crusaders having brought back pistachio trees, and of local pistachio vendors at Provence markets in the 19th century.
But while pistachio farming persisted in Spain and Italy, it eventually died out in France.
Dessert demands
Only around 10 hectares (25 acres) of pistachios are currently planted in France, a figure Joseph's association hopes will double by next year.
It makes for a very small part of the 770,000 hectares of Pistacia vera, the nut's scientific name, that are planted worldwide, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.
Beyond the snacking market, Joseph and his colleagues also hope to sell their French nuts to cosmetics groups who use pistachio oil, while also winning over pastry chefs and ice cream brands.
They have already lined up one major buyer: Olivier Baussan, founder of the L'Occitane en Provence chain of cosmetics and beauty products and owner of the Confiserie du Roy Rene confectionary business.
His Confiserie factory in the city of Aix-en-Provence goes through five tonnes of American and Spanish pistachios every year to turn out 50 million marzipan-inspired calisson sweets, a local speciality. Baussan has pledged to buy the first French pistachio crops. 
“I thought we would find them easily in Provence but that's not the case at all,” Baussan told AFP, at his factory. “The current prices we see for American pistachios would be a very, very good prices for local farmers,” he added.
Olivier Baussan, founder of the L'Occitane en Provence chain, has agreed to buy the first crop. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP
Renowned pastry chef Pierre Herme would also be interested in sourcing French pistachios, according to a spokeswoman, who said he currently works with Iranian nuts.
Tough trees
Pistachio trees could prove a welcome crop complement for Provence farmers, who have seen longer and drier summers in recent years, which most scientists attribute to climate change.
The hardy trees need only minimal irrigation and can withstand periods of high heat or extreme cold, “which are going to be back-to-back,” said Joseph, whose association is still small but has drawn around 300 people at recent meetings.
He said that he's had several periods of four to five months without rain in the last few years, “something that hardly ever happened before.”
Pistachios could also thrive on the rocky slopes where mainstays like apricots or cherries aren't viable, providing a lifeline for farmers in more challenging weather conditions.
Officials say that one-fourth of farms across the southeastern Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region have disappeared over the past decade.
“You're better off planting pistachios instead of selling your land to a property developer,” said Georgia Lambertin, head of the agriculture board for the Vaucluse department.

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French hunter kills bear that bit him

A 70-year-old hunter killed a bear in southwest France Saturday after it attacked and seriously wounded him, local officials said.

A brown bear is pictured in the semi-wildlife animal park of Les Angles, southwestern France.
Brown bears had nearly disappeared in France until the country began a reintroduction programme, importing them from Slovenia. AFP PHOTO / RAYMOND ROIG

The female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, bit him as he was hunting in the Seix region of Ariege, a source close to the case said.

Rescued by the local gendarmerie, he was transported to the intensive care unit of a hospital in Toulouse with a wound to his leg at the level of his femoral artery, officials at the prefecture in Ariege said.

One source close to the case said he was in a serious condition.

The hunter told local officials he had been out with a group of other hunters on the trail of a boar, when the female bear, who was travelling with her cubs, attacked him.

After being wounded, the hunter shot the bear twice, killing it.

The local gendarme unit was called out to rescue him at around 3:30 pm (1430 GMT). They discovered the body of the bear a few metres from where they had found the hunter.

An investigation has been opened into the incident, the prefecture in Ariege said.

One local official told AFP on Saturday: “This is really what we feared.”

“Today, you can really see that cohabitation is complicated,” said Christine Tequi, president of the Ariege department council.

The brown bear had nearly disappeared in this part of the world when France began a programme of reintroducing them, importing them from Slovenia.

Today, there are around sixty of them in the Pyrenees range, leading to increasing tensions with local farmers, because of the threat they pose to their livestock.

In 2020, three bears were illegally killed in the Pyrenees: two of them in Spain and one in France. The French government has committed to replacing any bear killed by a man.

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