Pistachios taste like Christmas.

My brother and I used to get hefty bags of pink-hued pistachios in our Christmas stockings, right above the mandarins. We cracked them open giddily like candy, not knowing or caring that the shells were dyed red to catch consumer eyes while hiding blemishes from now obsolete harvesting techniques.

Pink pistachios have faded back to their natural beige, no longer needing cheap dye tricks.

And while most of the nuts we find in Canada come from California, the United States is only the world's second largest pistachio producer. Iran is No. 1 when it comes to the gorgeous green nut (the colour of the edible part).

"The word `pistachio' comes from the Persian word pesteh," writes Najmieh Batmanglij in A Taste of Persia, "and one ancient nickname for the Persian people was `pistachio-eaters.'"

To Iran we go, then, with the help of Tavazo Corp., a family-run dried nut and fruit business.

Tavazo started in Tabriz, Iran, in 1950, moved to Tehran in the 1970s and expanded to Canada in 1997. It did wholesale for a few years before opening shops in Thornhill in 2002 and Richmond Hill in January.

Reza Tavazo welcomes me to the "garden of Tavazo" on Yonge St. in Richmond Hill. We wander the sunny, immaculate store, opening bins and sampling freely. This isn't special treatment – everyone tries before they buy. Handmade Iranian garbage cans stand at the ready for shells.

"My grandfather used to say, `Here is a garden. You can come in and pick the fruits and eat them,'" explains Tavazo, who's minding the store today with his father Khosrow "Kevin" Tavazo.

There are 14 bins of pistachios, divided by size, flavourings and the openness of their shells. These pistachios come from Iran's Kerman province and Rafsanjan region. (If supplies ever run low, they turn to California.)

Pistachios Jumbo 18/20 (roasted, salted), for instance, sell for $2.99/100 grams. "You can hold 18 or 20 in your fist," Tavazo explains. The plump nuts fetch a premium price because all their shells are open.

"People say, `What do you feed your trees that give you pistachios of this size?'" recounts Reza Tavazo. "That's how Iran pistachios are. They're huge."

Pistachios Round (roasted, salted) are just $1.99/100 grams, still tasty but smaller, shaped almost like hazelnuts, and cheaper because some shells are closed.

I'm drawn to Jumbo 20/22 (roasted, sour, $2.49/100 grams) tossed with lime juice and vinegar.

Pistachios Large 20/22 (roasted, heavily salted, $2.49/100 grams) are stained with dribbles of salt.

"I'm not a huge fan of salt, but once in awhile," says Tavazo. Agreed.

Along with myriad roasted and salted/unsalted pistachios, there are three sizes of raw pistachios in their shells, two kinds of shelled kernels and even slivered. Everything is roasted in the company's nearby warehouse in three traditional (not computer-based) roasters that can process 20 kilos (40 pounds) of nuts at a time.

Nuts are roasted on demand. Turnover is brisk. Even so, the shop takes steps to protect its bounty: four dehumidifiers hum quietly.

"Humidity is killer, it's the No. 1 thing that damages nuts," Tavazo says. (Keep your nuts somewhere cold and dry at home, preferably the fridge.)

Everything is displayed in orb-like, lidded, chrome-washed copper flower containers from Iran.

Of course one can't build a business on pistachios alone. There's Tavazo brand pastries, spices and pomegranate paste plus bins of sun-dried fruits (including five kinds of Iranian raisins) and seeds and nuts galore.

Iranians not only eat nuts (often daily), they routinely cook with dried fruits and nuts, and adore sourness in the flavour spectrum. This gets Tavazo rhapsodizing about fish and chicken stuffed with barberries, a tiny dried red fruit that packs a volatile sour punch.

But we end our nut tutorial on a sweet note as Tavazo delivers a cup of Earl Grey tea, served with a dried Persian lime slice in it, and a scoop of dried mulberries on the side.

Mulberries, he says, "give you a sweet mouth when you drink tea instead of adding sugar." The vitamin-rich dried fruit is pale brown and ugly to behold but crunchy, chewy, mildly sweet and an incredible taste/texture treat.

Suddenly, Tavazo is distracted by a commotion outside the front door.

"This guy's one of our best customers," he says, gesturing outside. "He's always here."

It's a black squirrel. He comes for a daily almond feast from the garden of Tavazo. What, no pistachios?

"I remember when I was a kid watching cartoons and those kind of animals, squirrels, like to eat walnuts and almonds," says Tavazo. "I never heard them say they want pistachios."





January 14, 2019 — Ramin Tavazo