On a day of leisure seven centuries ago in China, the poet Lin Hong dropped in to see his friend Qiu Yanchen. In honor of his visit, two children came out to sing a song by Tao Yuanming (365-427 CE) and then Qiu Yanchen sat down with Lin Hong to enjoy pine pollen cakes and the local booze.
Lin Hong was so impressed by the experience that he recorded the occasion in his collection of recipes, Pure Offerings of Rural Households (Shanjia qinggong 山家清供). He gushes that the pine pollen cakes and alcohol made him feel enthusiastic about rural life, to the extent that even the delicacies camel hump and bear paw felt inferior! These fragrant cakes with a pure and sweet flavor, says Lin Hong, strengthen one’s complexion, benefit one’s willpower, and extend one’s years of life.
Eating Pine Pollen
Why eat pine pollen? Well, pine pollen contains phytoandrogens. These are plant hormones that play a similar role as testosterone. Some people, including Timothy Ferriss in his book The 4-Hour Chef, talk about these phytoandrogens serving as a precursor to testosterone in human consumption. Perhaps the pollen cakes that Lin Hong ate made him feel more manly?
I have my doubts about the efficacy of pine pollen to stimulate male hormones, but I have not looked into this topic in detail. Truffle scent is said to act as an aphrodisiac and I have seen evidence to suggest that it can produce a true physiological response, so why not pine pollen, too? Maybe.
In any case, that is not why I eat pine pollen. I simply love this seasonal delicacy. There is nothing else quite like it. Fresh pine pollen cakes are fragrant, sweet, and smooth. And because one cannot buy them, they are priceless. The smell of the pine branches in the warm sunlight is also priceless.
Yes, you can buy pine pollen from China, but it will not be the same as the fresh yellow pollen of spring. Chinese eat pollen as a nutritional supplement, processing it to make the nutrients more digestible. The result is a tan powder with deeper flavor and a touch of bitterness. This is fine if you simply want the nutrients or if you plan to mix pollen into a recipe, but to experience Lin Hong’s pine pollen cakes, fresh pollen is best.
These pollen cones are open and releasing pollen. Note how they are elongated, curvy, and pinkish. Unripe cones will be darker, more knobby, and firm to the touch.
Collecting Pine Pollen
In the sunny days of late spring, pine trees release their pollen. You may have noticed pollen cones forming on the end of branches, looking like miniature pine cones. If they are firm to the touch, they are still green. The trick is to catch that all-too-brief moment when they ripen and the pollen flows. If you have had a string of sunny days, be on the watch. Blink, and you may miss the moment.
Having spotted a stand of red pine in a quiet area while biking, I returned after a few sunny days and found that some pollen cones were open, while others remained hard to the touch. When some have just begun to loosen up and spill pollen, this is the perfect time. If one arrives too late, the cones will be wide open and empty, the breeze having taken the pollen.
A day with little or no wind is best for collecting. One can use a jar or a bag to collect. A friend of mine uses a glass jar, but I would be afraid of dropping it. This year, I used a ziplock bag, because that is what was handy. I am not fond of plastic, but being able to see what you are doing is helpful. I gently cover a cluster of pollen cones with the bag, keeping the bag underneath the cones, and then agitate the cluster by tapping the new growth above it. Be patient. You only get a little pollen per cluster of cones.
If there is a breeze, and there usually is, you need to minimize its reach into the bag. With no breeze, you should see pollen drop down into the bag. Sometimes it pours a stream of pollen. When there is a breeze, however, the air swirls and the pollen can be mostly carried off. This is why a large, open bag is not as good as a small bag that can be closed around a single cluster of pollen cones.
I used a small stepladder to get closer to the pollen cones on the lower branches. A little extra height is helpful, since most of the pollen cones are inaccessible from the ground. If only we could fly. Perhaps this yellow powder is the inspiration for fairy dust.
The Type of Pine
The type of pine matters. As far as I know, all pines produce pollen that can be safely eaten, but not all pines produce enough pollen to make collecting it worthwhile. In the Eastern U.S., the white pine is our dominant pine species. It has too little pollen to make collecting worthwhile. In my experience, species with longer needles tend to produce more pollen. I envy Californians their many long-needled pines!
If you do not have a suitable native pine in your area, you can often find ornamental pines with good pollen cones nearby. Avoid pines that are near sources of pollution, such as busy roads. The red pines from which I harvested pollen this year are behind some businesses, surrounded by lawn. Very little traffic passes by them.
Last year I went looking for pollen and found an area with pitch pine. Unfortunately, these pines were growing in mixed forest and were all very tall. Pines that have to compete with other forest trees for light will grow tall and lose their lower branches, making collection nearly impossible. To find shorter pines, look in areas with human disturbance: fields, power lines, backyards, school campuses, etc. Mountaintops are also a good place to look.
This closeup of pollen cones, which have just started to open, shows the pollen dropping onto lower surfaces, ready for a light breeze to waft it away.
Processing the Pollen
When you have collected a good amount of pollen, say a handful or two, you have enough to make some pollen cakes. With the red pines, this took me about an hour of collecting.
The bag of pollen will have lots of debris. Usually there are also some dusty spiders and beetles. One can set the bag down outside to allow the critters a chance to crawl out, or just remove them along with the debris.
Pass the pollen through a fine sieve. I use a tea sieve that fits the width of a wide-mouth canning jar. If the debris still contains insects, you might want to toss it outside. The jar should now contain pure yellow pollen and no large debris. A small amount of bark, looking like a dusting of black pepper, is fine.
Making the Pine Pollen Cakes
Lin Hong’s pine pollen cakes (songhuang bing 松黃餅) have just two ingredients: pollen and honey. His recipe calls for cooked honey, but I don’t know why raw honey would not work equally well. Perhaps the point is that the honey should be liquid, not crystalline. If your honey has crystallized, you do need to heat it until it is fully liquid again.
Pour the pollen into a mixing bowl with high sides. Add a spoonful of honey and slowly stir this in. Because the pollen is so light, you cannot stir too quickly without sending pollen flying. The idea is to gradually work the honey in, binding the pollen, but not adding so much honey that you end up with a sticky mess. If you add too much, you will struggle to form the cakes, which will be too liquid and sticky.
To get the right amount of honey, I thoroughly incorporate a spoonful at a time. First I mix with a spoon, until most of the wet honey has been incorporated. Little beads of wet honey will be hiding in the dry pollen, so after stirring with a spoon, I switch to kneading with my hand. Eventually, your mix should just hold together when squeezed. While mixing, it may still look granular and dry, yet already have enough honey for shaping. Test it often.
If you do add too much honey and do not have extra pollen, you can dry out your dough by stirring it over some gentle heat. Or leave it in the sun for a while. It will gradually stiffen as it dries out, becoming workable.
A closeup view of this year’s cakes. These were a little sticky. It’s okay to have them drier, with some cracks. Less honey makes them lighter, softer, and less sticky; more honey makes them denser and sweeter, but also stickier. Adjust according to preference.
Shaping the Cakes
The intended shape of the cakes is not entirely clear. Lin Hong says to shape them “like the Longxian cakes of old.” “Longxian 龍涎,” combining the characters “dragon” and “saliva,” means ambergris, the waxy substance from sperm whales that was once widely used in incense. I think he means that the pine pollen cakes should look like little incense cones.
To form the cakes, divide the dough into small pieces (cutting or pinching) and shape them by hand. Several years ago, my daughter and I collected enough pollen to make cakes four centimeters tall––a full mouthful. This is a luxury. Cakes of about two centimeters in height are adequate, especially when those eating them have never tasted them before.
These ones from about 2015 were massive and had too much honey, making them slouch. If they slouch like this, they will stick to the plate. Notice the jar of Chinese baijiu to accompany this set.
Serving the Cakes
To have the full experience, share these pine pollen cakes with a friend in a mountain setting. Wash them down with a little rice wine or baijiu (Chinese grain alcohol) while discussing Tao Yuanming’s poetry. Banish from the scene any material culture that is not handmade. Extra points if one of you has a beard.
Pine pollen cakes are also good on their own, or served with tea. This moment only comes once a year, so cherish it.