Of Oaks and Acorns
Few trees, both in the New and the Old world, are as magnificent as the mighty oak. It is a tree in the genus Quercus, which is the Latin word for oak, of which there are several hundred species. The tree is native to the northern hemisphere, and includes deciduous and evergreen species, extending from cool temperate to tropical latitudes.
The oak was the sacred tree of Zeus, king of the gods, in the Greek mythology. In the oracle of Zeus the sacred oak was at the center of the precinct, and the priests would divine the pronouncements of the god by interpreting the rustling of the leaves. In the Celtic polytheism, the name of the oak tree was the root of the word for "druid".
The fruit of the oak tree is a nut called an acorn, which is borne in a cup; each acorn contains one, or rarely two or three, seeds, and takes between six and eighteen months to mature, depending on the species. Few people realize that the acorn is, has been since recorded history, and surely for millennia before that, a valuable food staple. A large fully grown oak tree can produce up to half a ton of acorns per season—and this is an enormous yield for its footprint—of course, the plant's development is as much in the vertical plane as it is in the horizontal!
Traditionally, hogs were fattened by herding them to feed in woodland, and this practice was widespread all over Europe. In Spain, the famous "Pata Negra", or jamón ibérico de bellota raw ham is still produced from a particular breed of black hogs which are allowed to roam in woodlands and feed on acorns. The meat is particularly flavorsome and these prize hams are exported all over the world as a luxury product.
Native Americans harvested acorns, which were traditionally nearly as important a food as corn or beans. The Apache, Cherokee, Ojibwa and Pima routinely used acorns as a staple food. These Indian gatherers taught early settlers how to harvest and use acorns in their cooking; even today, many Indians gather acorns.
Acorns are highly nutritious, containing proteins, starches, sugars and many valuable trace substances. The tannin content also has health benefits, once it has been reduced to low levels by leaching it. Acorns are rich in complex carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins while they are lower in fat than most other nuts—they are also a good source of fiber. Acorns have been found to be one of the best foods for naturally controlling blood sugar levels. They have a low sugar content, but leave a sweetish aftertaste: they are excellent in stews, breads, polenta or grits based mushes, and are great for brewing beer. A coffee substitute of pleasant taste may be made by toasting the leached meat of the acorn.
Unfortunately, many acorns taste bitter. This is because they contain tannin, a bitter substance in oaks which is used to tan leather. The tannin is toxic in high quantities and must be reduced to trace amounts: fortunately this is not hard to do. Acorn meat can range from very bitter to quite mild. You must taste the acorns by chewing the meat in order to ascertain their degree of bitterness. Once shelled, the acorns may be ground in a food grinder and soaked in boiling hot water—as many times as necessary—until the tannins have been sufficiently leached out.
The best way I have found for leaching the tannin out of the ground acorn meat is to put the ground meat into a large strainer which I lower into a pot of already boiling water. As the water boils it will become discolored. When the water is dark brown, after ten minutes or so of boiling, lift the strainer out of the pot and plunge it into a second pot of boiling water. Continue this process, switching between one pot and the other, until the acorn meat no longer tastes bitter. Three or four water changes will usually be sufficient. Don't throw away the brown water: it is a tannin solution that has a variety of uses.
When switching the acorns from one pot of water to another, make sure the clean water is boiling before adding the acorns. Switching the acorns from boiling water to cold water seems to lock in the bitterness—also starting with cold water, which is then brought to the boil, seems to lock in the bitterness: go figure! However, you can, if you have a good stream with clean water conveniently located, place the ground acorn meat into a net bag and allow the running water to leach out the tannins. That seems to work, but it is a slow process, taking well over a week—you also lose the tannin solution which is a valuable by-product of your acorn processing.
The acceptable degree of residual bitterness will depend on the intended use. The wet meal can be used right away in a bread recipe, or dried and stored as you would store flour. It will keep as long as wholemeal flour, in dry conditions. The leached acorn meal may be dried in an oven, on hot stones around a fire, or by spreading out on a clean white cloth in the sun. If you plan on processing acorns routinely, you may wish to invest in a small inexpensive centrifuge, which will greatly simplify the drying process.
The brown tannin solution is antiviral and antiseptic. It can be used as a skin wash for rashes, skin irritations, burns, poison ivy, cuts, etc. It can be gargled for sore throats or taken as a medicinal decoction for diarrhea and dysentery, or used externally on hemorrhoids. I add a decent amount of sea salt or kosher salt to the solution and bottle in sterilized bottles when still very hot. Store in a cool place. If mold forms on top after a time, the solution can be reboiled after carefully removing the mold and stored again. Hygiene, salt and the natural preservative nature of tannins will usually keep the solution sterile.
Concentrated tannin solution can be used as a dye for clothing. It will fade with time and washings, but it is easily refreshed by dyeing anew. The solution is also a useful laundry detergent when added to wash water. This is suitable for dark clothes or wherever the slight tan staining is not objectionable. Clothes laundered with this solution will have a lovely fresh smell. Very concentrated tannin solution also makes a good dye and preservative for woodwork of all kinds—from furniture to buildings.
Acorns from the Red Oak group have a lot of tannin in them that must be leached out to make them edible. Although the leaf shapes of the trees in the Red Oak category vary somewhat, the end of the leaf lobes on all of these oaks are pointed. All oaks in the White Oak group have leaves with the ends of the lobes rounded. Acorns from the White Oak group need little or no processing. They have a low tannin content, and are naturally sweet. Terrain and growing conditions will also influence tannin content.
An additional benefit from incorporating acorns—and all wild foods—into your diet comes from the gathering. Acorns, although they "fall from trees", must be picked and processed before eating. This requires walking and bending repeatedly to pick them from the ground on which they are lying. All of this is good healthy exercise, and is by definition carried out in the fresh air. This is one more reason why many "primitive" foods are so healthy. They require exercise just to put them on the table, not just a short trip to the supermarket or to the fast food joint.
To make a polenta style cornmeal and acorn mush, bring four cups of salted water to a boil and sprinkle a cup of acorn meal into the boiling water, stirring briskly with a wire or twig whisk. Then add just under a cup of coarse stoneground cornmeal grits. Add just enough cornmeal to make a thick, bubbling batch in which a wooden spoon will stand up fairly well. Place the saucepan in a larger pan holding two inches or more of boiling water, or use a double boiler, if you have one. Simmer the mush until quite thick—this will take about 45 minutes—stirring occasionally to keep it from becoming lumpy.
Cornmeal and acorn mush is very good for breakfast on a cold morning. It can be served with milk and a dollop of wild fruit jam or a pat of homemade goat's butter. It is also great as the basis of a main course for lunch or dinner. You can add a meat stew or crispy bacon bits and grated cheese on top, for a tasty, nutritious and filling dish which is particularly good in cold weather. An okra stew enriched with chickpeas and livened up with tomato paste and dried chillies is also excellent served on the acorn mush.
After I have shot a wild boar and butchered it for hams, bacon and sausages, I am in the habit of making a big cauldron of ragout with the offcuts of meat and the liver, heart and kidneys of the animal. The ragout is flavoured with wine, homemade tomato paste, wild mushrooms, and truffles if I should be so lucky—which by the grace of God I occasionally am. The acorn polenta is poured out onto a large oak slab set in the center of the table and the ragout piled on top. Plentiful grated Pecorino cheese is strewn over the dish and everyone tucks in with great communality. Acorn mush is very filling and will really "stick to your ribs": it is a great winter warmer.
A number of beer styles may be brewed using acorns together with other cereals, such as barley, corn, wheat or rye. Chestnut meal can also be added, as is done in Corsica and Sardinia—and very good it is too! I have successfully brewed a good beer using acorns and chestnuts, with no added cereals: I guess it would be ideal for anyone suffering from intolerance to gluten.
Living largely off the land may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is very satisfying and fulfilling—especially now that we can have a reasonable internet connection even in relative wilderness! The intimate contact with Nature and with the Seasons is a balm to the soul and fills your heart with joy.
I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has experience with the use of acorns as a food—from whatever tradition. I am particularly keen to learn more about Native American uses, legends and techniques. I have used acorns for food and have made a number of good beers using acorns and chestnuts as a main ingredient. These can both be gathered in the wild, and the gathering is a great chance to commune with an atavic lifestyle which is particularly regenerating to the psyche.