Beechnut Butter

I’m pretty much crazy about peanut butter. Give me a packet of biscuits and I will have munched two thirds of the way through it before realising, but I’ll feel bad – physically rotten as well as guilty – afterwards. I crave something in peanut butter though. Maybe the fats and oils (typically 50% by weight), maybe the sheer whoosh of carbs and protein, maybe just something in the taste. I don’t know, but I feel satisfied, sated after bingeing out on it, like it has provided me with something missing from the rest of my diet.* Back in my bread-eating days (nearly two months behind me now) I would think nothing of tearing through three or four slices covered in ‘fat with fat’ – butter & peanut butter – topped with maybe a few salad leaves.

Mmmm…

Anyway, looking at the ingredients list on the £3 jar of organic stuff I sometimes treat myself to – ‘Peanuts (97%), Palm Oil (3%), Salt’ – I asked myself how hard it would really be to make my own. A quick internet search provided the answer: not very. Basically the process goes something like this:

  • Shell nuts
  • Roast briefly (eg: 10 minutes in a hot oven)
  • Rub off skins
  • Blitz in blender with a steel blade for a few minutes until paste-like
  • Add small quantity of oil if too dry – ie: not spreadable
  • Add sugar/honey & salt to desired taste
  • Add whole nuts for a few seconds at the end if you like it crunchy
  • Spoon into jars & store in refrigerator (to avoid oil separation or rancidity issues)

Then I thought of all the wild nuts currently drying out in the kitchen and a light went off. Walnuts, Acorns, Hazelnuts, Beechnuts – why wouldn’t the same process work on these? So here are the results after following the same recipe to create my own ‘Beechnut Butter':

Step 1 – Gather nuts:

This is one of the first times I’ve ever been grateful for a tarmac surface! Good back-stretching exercise too, if you squat down on your haunches rather than bending down from the waist. Aboriginally I would be inclined to cut back or burn the undergrowth under my favourite trees to facilitate gathering. Tip: Some of the kernels will be empty. You can test them with a quick squeeze between thumb & forefinger, but soon enough you learn to judge by sight the most obviously ‘fat’ specimens, which often come in a glossier & slightly darker shade of brown.

Step 2 – Shell nuts. This is the longest, most mundane stage. I find it best to use a small knife to prize the nutmeat out of the 3-corner shell after having peeled one side off. A good evening activity – let the mind concentrate on something else (film, music, tv, conversation…) and the fingers settle in on their own rhythm. I estimate about 3 hours on good-sized nuts like the ones pictured above for the equivalent of one jar. This teaches you some respect for the amount of energy that goes into a lot of the food products we take for granted. I guess it also shows you why the beechnut, while just as tasty as any of the more famous nuts, hasn’t made it into the modern diet – difficult to imagine a machine that could shell these beasties en masse! (I assume the cooking oil they made from beechnuts during WW2† just required them to be squeezed through a typical press, leaving all the solids behind.) I actually found working with the nuts quite nice, once I got into it. A slow, steady accumulation of something with real value, leading to a warm satisfaction at the end. A bit like how I imagine knitting must feel like…

Step 3 – After washing the ‘fluff’ off in a colander, roast the kernels:

Your kitchen will smell pretty great after this, and the nuts themselves move to whole new level of tastiness. Apparently roasting lowers the levels of Trimethylamine (the PFAF page calls this a ‘deleterious principle’ and suggest that because of this ‘[t]he seed should not be eaten in large [read: ‘epic’? – ed.] quantities’). Shame, I do like a bit of that Trimethylamine…

Step 4 – Rub the skins off:

Slightly tedious picking out the ‘clean’ nuts individually after rubbing them together in one big mass. Not sure if this step is really necessary, although eating them whole at this stage (delicious BTW!) does seem to dry my mouth out more when the skins are left on. Will have to experiment with how this manifests in the butter…

Step 5 – Blend ‘continuously for 2 to 3 minutes or until the mixture forms a ball’ (wikihow, ibid.):

The second image shows the nearly finished ‘goop’ after adding extra nuts for crunchiness and a small glug of walnut oil (perhaps a little too much in retrospect), as the mixture seemed a little dry on its own. I didn’t add any salt or sugar, as my tastebuds liked it just fine on its own. Small warning: the overall bulk goes down a fair bit during this stage, which you might find rather dispiriting after all your hard work! The smashed-up nuts smell pretty amazing though… Seems like you could duplicate this process with a mortar & pestle, albeit at greater length, if you wanted to further indulge your inner puritanical primitivist ;)

Step 6 – Spoon and tamp down in a jamjar, refrigerate and enjoy:

I’ve received thumbs up from everyone who has sampled this, most comparing the flavour to peanut butter or tahini. I find it starts out with the vegetable-like taste of the latter, with a delicious roast-nuttiness kicking in after the 3rd or 4th mouthful. I don’t know if I’ll have the patience to do many batches of this through the season, though. It does rather represent a lot of work for not much reward, in my estimation, and perhaps you would get a better ‘return on investment’ with some of the other nuts (I’m looking forward to trying this out with leached acorns, for instance). That said, I don’t suppose there’s any pressure to process the entire beechnut harvest in one go and I imagine they would keep quite well in their shells somewhere dry and out-of-the-way, waiting for an evening when I felt like doing another load. As long as I didn’t nibble them all away as a snackfood in the meantime!

——————–

* – and after reading Lierre Keith’s awesome book,  The Vegetarian Myth (chapter 1 online here) I don’t feel guilty about the fat either. She quotes a story from Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions about newly liberated POWs treated to a welcome-home feast:

The buffet was laden with roasts, vegetables, assorted breads, pies, salads, enticing deserts and fresh fruits, the likes of which they had not seen for several years. What did these men grab first? The butters, margarines, salad oils and creams. They were after fats. They consumed nothing else until the bare fats were gone. (Fallon, p.139)

Recognising the ‘physical compulsion for fat, “the primordial craving for the substance”‘ from her decades-long experience as a vegan, Keith comments:

You put your head down and you don’t come up for air until the food—the fat—is gone. In that moment it’s better than air. It’s everything you could want, and the relief radiating from each mouthful tells you it’s true: there’s nothing better, nothing else, but this.

My vegan time is punctuated by those moments. “Binges” we called them, or “lapses,” thus identifying them as a moral weakness, a political slippage, not a starved body, a shriveled brain, overriding a mind’s ideological demands. (The Vegetarian Myth, p.178)

† – British wild foodie extraordinaire Marcus Harrison dug up this fascinating tidbit:

Back at the beginning of the eighteenth century a British gentleman believed we could pay off the national debt by extracting the oil from the nut. He worked out that there were enough bushels of unused beech masts in a 50 square mile area around London to make our own oil and stop importing from France or Germany. At that stage beech mast oil was a commodity. It was used for lighting and also as cooking oil. It was thought to have a better keeping quality than olive oil.

Advertisement: See ‘Wild Food Mentor‘ for loads more foraging info, including historical snippets like this from Harrison’s extensive research (***declaration of interest*** – as an ‘affiliate‘ I get 30% of the sign-up price if you become a member after following this link)

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16 Responses to “Beechnut Butter”

  1. Ian M Says:

    Just came across this from the ‘Forests in Permaculture‘ section in Bill Mollison’s 1981 Permaculture Design Course:

    The Dark Ages were ages of forest culture. The information that remains about those times suggests that the trees were highly valued, highly selected, had high yields. You paid for the use of land based on the richness of the tree crop. From the forest, they derived all their bread, all their butter. The butter was made out of beechnuts — highly selected beechnuts. There are still casks and casks of beechnut butter in Europe, buried in the peat, still in good condition. All the bread and cakes in Tuscany and Sardinia and a few other places are still made from chestnuts. Corsican muffins are made of chestnuts, not wheat flour. All the bread was made from the trees, and all the butter was made from the trees. There are your basics.

    I’ve no idea how this ‘beechnut butter’ compares to the above attempt or, if not, how people went about making it. Pretty intriguing, altogether. Anybody got any clues? Thanks to Sophia for putting all this up on her site. Looks like a goldmine!

  2. annie Says:

    Thank you for writing this fascinating piece. We have two old beech trees in our garden and i definitely want to try your method. I’d only heard of beech nuts as a kind of famine food, to be dried and then ground laboriously for flour.

  3. Ian M Says:

    Hi Annie – glad to be of service :) Hopefully you’ve still got time to make a harvest this year. Unfortunately they don’t produce a crop every Autumn.

    best,
    Ian

  4. annie Says:

    Disappointing!!! All the hulls (???) are empty– I will have to wait until next year. But will follow your blog to see what other fun things you get up to. I feel like this year i have been behind on every foraging intention, but i did manage to harvest and dry some nettle seeds and am sprouting LEO dried peas for inside salad… And cooking with sumac, and wondering how i could gather/ make my own…

  5. Ian M Says:

    Ah, yes you get that with some trees / some years. There might be some pruning techniques that ensure a harvest every year (California Indians did that with their Oaks apparently), but that would require climbing way up into the canopy – fun stuff if you’ve got the stomach for it! More research needed…

    Sprouting is another thing I’ve been meaning to get into. What does LEO stand for?

    Do you mean the sumac that people grow in their gardens sometimes? If so, Becky Lerner had a post about it a while back which you might find interesting. Whatcha been doing with it?

    I

  6. annie Says:

    Hi Ian. Leo is an old fashioned brand of dried, dead-seeming marrowfat peas. They are sprouting on our windowsill, fun to watch.

    Thank you for that link to Rebecca Lerner! I love it. She mentions Steve Brill– he was my first experience with wild foods ever, in Central Park NYC probably 20 years ago? Yes, that sumac, that in middle eastern cooking represents a sour, i would say rose-hip/ lemony/ hibiscus kind of bright flavour, with thyme is z’aatar. I used it to flavour sauteed beetgreens in a pastry i made. I am interested in expanding my repertoire of spices/ herbs for nutrition and also in lacto-fermenting, something i am really into. I also try to learn about seaweeds everytime i go to the beach, for gathering and for cooking.

    Here’s something nice I think you will like: http://goingferal.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/wild-fermented-crabapples/

  7. leavergirl Says:

    Hmm… a wonderful experiment! How are beechnuts to just munch on, raw? Overall, though, it seems like having an oil press would be the best use of these tasty kernels, while stashing a few for nut butter in the middle of the winter.

    Btw, Ian, my post on a radical take on agriculture is up. Ya made me do it… :)

    http://leavingbabylon.wordpress.com

  8. Ian M Says:

    @Annie: thanks for that – interesting to hear about your experiments. Will have to try the crabapple fermentation next year, I think, as the ones around here are getting pretty old by now. I just finished a big batch of spiced jam/puree/butter with them & what I’ve recently identified as Japanese Quince (it’s been growing in the garden here for at least 20 years and I only just found out you can eat the fruits!)

    @leavergirl: nice to see you again :) The nuts are fine & tasty to eat raw, although they dry your mouth out after a while especially if you don’t manage to rub all of the inner ‘fluff’ off. Yeah, pressing for oil would be interesting to try. If only I wasn’t pathologically allergic to waste…

    I like the look of the ag post at first glance. Will return at some point soon and leave my 2c. Funny, I’ve been doing some research on acorns (big post coming up – stock up while you can and I’ll show you what to do with them!) and it only took about half an hour before I found some people arguing that the ag revolution only began because folks turned their backs on Oaks and the other trees which sustained them, throwing their lot in with the annual grains instead. Apparently you can get comparable yields and somewhat better nutrition from acorns without impacting so heavily on the ecosystem. But then it’s easier to chop down a forest of 100+-year-old trees to plant grain than it is to do the reverse… Nice story, but evidence is rather scant from what I’ve seen so far.

    ‘ta for now
    Ian

  9. leavergirl Says:

    No waste, Ian: you just use the oil-pressings leftovers for mulch or compost. :-)

    Hm… there is something about the tree hypothesis… must look into it. I am kinda amused by your contention that it’s easier to chop down a forest and plant grains than the other way around… not to my mind… chopping down a forest and planting grains over and over is nasty hard work, while planting acorns and letting them grow into a forest is astoundingly easy. :-) Reminds me of that wonderful story The Man who Planted Trees.

  10. Ian M Says:

    Yeah, or maybe for pig or chicken feed – PFAF say ‘The seed residue [after oil pressing] is poisonous’, presumably just to humans… I want to maximise the return on my investment, doncherknow (!)

    re: my ‘contention’ – haha, yes in the long view replacing managed trees with annual crops doesn’t make sense from an efficiency standpoint. Even if the latter produce more food calories, what other uses can you get out of them compared to the myriad uses of trees? Ever tried building a house out of corn? … I was imagining a ‘parable of the tribes’ scenario of short-term competition between two tribes. If things get nasty the farmers can destroy the sylviculturists’ trees and they’re stumped (literally!) for an essential staple for about 50 years. If the sylviculturists burn the farmers’ wheat fields, they’re only in trouble for one growing season. Thus the farmers have the upper hand.

    Will talk about this later though, hopefully with (**shock**) some evidence to back it up. :)

    cheers,
    Ian

  11. a Says:

    http://hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.com/2011/11/wild-things-in-november-acorn.html

    Just came across this and thought of you.

  12. Loose Ends 2011 « Frequently Found Growing On Disturbed Ground Says:

    […] peeling, rubbing off the inner skin and roasting for around half an hour, but then I’d done Beechnuts earlier in the season, so couldn’t really […]

  13. Beech Nuts | Kitchen Counter Culture Says:

    […] http://ondisturbedground.wordpress.com/2011/10/08/beechnut-butter/ […]

  14. lizard100 Says:

    Brilliant! We have some cob nuts and often make nut butter but never used our own nuts. How daft is that!

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