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.
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.
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