Posts Tagged ‘acorns’

Off you go, my beauties!

February 17, 2012

Here’s a … Something I threw together last night at around half past two in the morning, having spent the afternoon on a clandestine oak-planting mission. I really enjoyed getting into the perspective of these seedlings (which sprouted from acorns I harvested in the Autumn, potted in compost and placed on a South-facing windowsill, watering about once a week, or when the soil looked dry) – looking at the variables like light availability, soil quality, plant competitors, space to grow into etc. which differed considerably from site to site. I felt a bit like a parent checking out the local schools for my growing children and feeling the trepidation about all the hazards they might face as they did their best to establish themselves in the places I had chosen – a heavy burden of responsibility! I started to see the powerful hostility towards plants that grow without a permit (as it were) from the human occupiers of the landscape, so evident in the manicured gardens and close-cut lawns and even the parks, where every species and specimen has been pre-approved and allotted a certain space, the bounds of which it is not allowed to cross. I learned new respect for the hardships faced by all the wild, self-willed creatures that live over here – the guile and cunning they must employ every day simply to survive, the formidable challenge of finding a way to pry into hardened human hearts, fighting to turn individuals to their side so that they will spare the chancers they find and maybe even speak on their behalf to bring a measure of security to their lives.

It’s crazy how little space you can find in densely populated suburban developments where you can say with some confidence that a sapling won’t get strimmed, mowed, pulled up or cut down before it can reach maturity. I only found a few places, mainly around abandoned buildings, informal dumping sites and other areas that had obviously been ‘neglected’ (by humans) for many years. I’m also spreading the word to people who might actively want an oak tree somewhere on their property, and have a plan to offer seedlings to places with ‘oak’ in their names but no evidence of trees nearby. It’ll be interesting to see if any of it takes root (har har). Already I’m getting a nice feeling of connection and groundedness thinking of the places where ‘my’ seedlings are growing, fantasising about what their future might hold, making plans to visit and help with their upkeep, watering, weeding etc… Anyway, here ya go:

*****

Usually, as I go out and about on my way, I find myself looking at the empty spaces in the sky, trying to force fickle memory to conjure the vibrant beings that once filled them with explosions of greens and browns, roughs and smooths, thicknesses whiplike to sturdy and massive, all stretching outward, upward to fill a void of need; to fulfill a desire of plenty. But fighting to remember I am stumped, and it is so easy to let go and adjust to a newly impoverished reality.

Today, instead of reading loss and pain in these gaps I saw potential, promise. I began to look with the sight of the seedlings, buzzing away excitedly, snug by my side. They want a broken canopy and the greater strength of sunlight that follows, feeding their growth (amassing sap, sucker, bark, branch, cambium and heartwood) up into the space they’re destined to fill. Such an awesome power contained in so small a body: the power to suck and blow, to draw up and transpire, to push down and roar up with the greatest strength I’ve seen on this Earth… The trees could reclaim the empty skies and heal these sickly desert-neighbourhoods so quickly. We can help them at first (if still convinced that we know best) but really all we need to do is stand back and let them hurl their bodies into the forms and patterns of their own choosing.

Speed and health, my little ones! I want someday to swing up into your rugged, green-staining arms and stoop to gather the tender fruits around your thickening trunks before old age finally topples me and I must lie down to merge alike with the bugs, the shrooms and the deep richness of the soil.

Loose Ends 2011

January 12, 2012

Here are some of the things I intended to write about last year, but which got heavily procrastinated and failed to make it past the event horizon. Until now…

1) – Holm Oaks. Also called Holly or Evergreen Oaks because they hold onto their tough, waxy leaves all through the year. A few weeks after writing about them in a comment on my Balanophagy post I was walking up a road I’d not been on for a while and bumped into this huge sucker:

He had lovely wrinkly-grey bark and was the largest of three, apparently of the same species, providing a hefty barrier to the road on the right and completely shading out the small houses on the left. A quick hunt around on the floor confirmed my suspicion – a thick layer of half-rotted leafmould, practically nothing growing and lots of small, pointy, shiny brown acorns:

Jackpot! I bent down and gathered a couple of pockets’ worth, earning the usual suspicious glances from people walking past. I noticed that many more of the nuts showed signs of nibbling by small mammals than I’ve found with regular acorns, perhaps confirming the lower tannin content I’d heard about. A quick taste test revealed only a slight astringency at the end, coupled with a lingering starchy sweetness which was in a different league to any other acorns I’d nibbled on. I’ve since noticed several more trees on my winter walkabouts – they’re much easier to spot when all the other trees have dropped their leaves.

Unfortunately it took longer to process a decent amount of the acorns, using the usual method of cracking, 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 complain…

Overnight soaking improved the raw flavour of the second batch (I had to do it because most of them had dried to stone-hardness by the time I got round to them), but I think I overdid the roasting in the end. The first lot came out better, approaching Ken Fern’s description of ‘a soft, floury texture and a sweet flavour that is rather like sweet chestnuts’ (Plants For A Future, p.36). I’ve put them into morning porridge, meat stews, lentil dishes and even a couple of fry-ups, and they seem to keep rather well in their glass jam jar – better than the regular acorns I kept in a paper bag which had to get washed and re-roasted to kill the mould that was growing on several of them.

2) – Linden Leaf Stew. As promised I finally got round to making a Creole-style ‘gumbo’ dish using the Lime leaves I dried and powdered previously. I loosely followed this recipe, frying ground beef and chunks of chicken with onions, carrots, garlic, spinach, misc. herbs and spices, then pouring boiling water over the top, adding the lime leaves, salt’n’pepper, some baking soda and, even though the idea seemed pretty strange to me, a dollop of peanut butter.

This then stewed away for about half an hour and eventually got served with plain rice:

Incredibly rich and flavourful, I was the only one who managed to finish their plate. Unfortunately I have to report that the meal gave me pretty terrible gas for the rest of the night 8O . Hopefully that was due to the baking soda and not the lime leaves or anything else essential to the recipe…

3) – Cattail Rhizomes. Ooh boy, this wasn’t successful! I maybe gave a false impression of abundance with my picture of two plastic bags full of rhizomes gathered from a local pond during a conservation task back in September. In reality my harvest wasn’t as substantial as it looked because the root material is very spongy with only a thin solid core going through the middle.

Well, I washed, scrubbed and cut them into manageable segments, keeping the tender young shoot separate. Then I tried boiling and roasting them like you would with potatoes, as recommended by several sources. The yellow outer skin remained tough and indigestible, but it was possible to tease out the inner fibres with my teeth and basically suck the pure starch off them – not the most satisfying culinary experience!

Then I spent a good long time peeling the outer skins off and chopping the white centers into smaller chunks. At first I tried drying these in the oven and whizzing in the food processor as a short-cut for flour, but the fibres just lumped together on the blade and didn’t show any signs of breaking up into smaller particles.

Then I decided to try and separate the starch by soaking them in tepid water, squashing by hand, boiling (after which they were vaguely edible in a chewy, fibrous kind of way), mashing and more squashing into several bowls of starch-water, which I then allowed to settle before pouring the water off the dirty white sludge at the bottom.

This then got poured into trays, dried out in the sun and the oven, then finally ground in my coffee grinder. I was NOT impressed by the amount of flour I ended up with.

So either people are talking bollocks when they say, for instance, that ‘Yields of 8 tonnes of flour per hectare have been recorded’ (Plants For a Future, p.135) or one way or another I’m not doin’ it right. Maybe I went for them at the wrong time of year, or perhaps I needed to go for the main root matter at the base of the stem rather than the creeping rhizomes. Either way I’m thoroughly sick of the plant by now, so probably won’t be revisiting it (at least for its roots) for a good long while. Sorry Cattails!

4) – Angelica & Sweet Cicely. Dug up a bunch of these on a gardening job and decided to save them. Both got washed, scrubbed and fine-sliced in the food processor (a grating attempt on the Cicely didn’t work too well). Angelica got tinctured in vodka and also dried in the oven for tea

…while Cicely got dried in the same way and simply ground to a fine powder, the idea being to use it as some kind of sweetener, as well as for a nice aniseedy tea.

Both gave the house a really strong aromatic smell (somewhat like gin!) during the various processing stages.

5) – Rosehips. Went out and made my usual harvest and my usual laborious attempts at making jam (too runny this time).

My main thought recently was about wildcrafting. Reading Kat Anderson’s Tending The Wild over the summer and going on a gardening course that touched on the principles & practices of pruning for trees, shrubs, hedges and, yes, roses made me start thinking about actively managing wild plants for an increased harvest, rather than passively taking what they had to offer come fruiting season. Perhaps I should be bringing secateurs/loppers or a pruning saw with me along with the hooked stick (useful for pulling down long rambling rose stems) and plastic bag? I would like to get my eye in with cultivated roses first, but maybe next year I’ll start on the wild specimens. I’m guessing it would be the same approach as pruning for an abundance of flowers, except you would leave them on through the winter as they swelled up to form the hips. A mindful approach would do miles better than insensitive hedge-trimmers cutting them back to the same height each time.

Still need to figure out how to make flour from the seeds…

6) – Sloe Gin. My camera ran out of battery so I couldn’t take a picture of my harvesting technique. Basically I find a nice overhanging branch with bare ground or relatively short grass underneath (sometimes I bring a tarp or just lay out my jacket), then I thwack at it with a stick until most of the berries have fallen and finally just pick them up from where they’ve landed. This year I seemed to have the timing right, as the berries tasted almost sweet right off the bush, with just a hint of the normally face-shrivelling astringency after a couple of frosts had caused the tannins to retreat back into the body of the plant (I’ve heard the recommended practice of simulating frosts by putting the picked berries in the freezer doesn’t work because the tannins have nowhere to go to. Also it’s a pain handling frozen fruit, especially if you have to pick bits of iced mud, grass and wood off them.) Last year’s batch of sloe gin was too acidic for my taste, so this year I wanted to put more sugar in, as well as trying some nice warming spices – ginger, ground cloves & cinnamon. I used an old fondue fork to stab 3-4 holes into each berry and thus ease percolation of the juices and the supposedly almond-like flavour of the inner seed. One 75cl bottle of cheap gin became two 75cl bottles half full of sloes with the spices and sugar stirred into the gin and then poured over the top. I had just enough berries to plop in and raise the level of the liquid to the top of both bottles.

(It may have been a mistake to use dark brown sugar, as for the moment it looks rather like poo-water… (!) Hopefully that will change as the dark purple-redness of the berries seeps out in the coming weeks & months.)

Also, on a tip-off from R, I re-used last year’s sloes to make sloe cider with my last bottle of home-brew from 2010. Should have quite a kick to it!

7) Acorn germination! I planted nine fatties from tree d) of the Autumn harvests.

Still don’t know where I’m going to plant them…

That about covers it for plant happenings. Otherwise I’ve got posts brewing on food vs. population, cultivation & the production imperative, disturbance revisited, plus various summer reports and perhaps even the long-awaited ‘Coming Down From the Mountain #2′. Plenty of time & no rush to get into all of that :)

Enjoy the predicted cold snap in the next couple of days. It might be the only winter we get this year!

Acorns & Good Times Bread

November 17, 2011

As promised, I here present Ian’s step-by-step guide for processing acorns. If you like, watch this Ray Mears video to get yourself in the mood (starts at 3:36; continues in pt.2 from 8:34):

Step 1 – Gathering. Find a tree! Not all Oaks will crop heavily (and if it’s not a ‘mast’ year you might struggle to find a single acorn). As previously discussed your best bet will be to find a specimen with lots of space around it and a canopy open to the sun, especially on the South facing side. Stand-alone trees or those on the edge of woodland normally produce more nuts than those in the middle of the deep, dark forest. Some of the best I found this year – a) in front of H’s driveway:

b) a young fella on the common, branches still low enough for me to climb up into him and do a ‘shakedown':

c) a gaggle on a golf course:

d) street-corner guardians:

(I think these were all English/Pedunculate/Common Oaks, Quercus Robur, though I’m not sure I could differentiate this from Britain’s other native Sessile Oak, Q. petraea. Not that this would matter particularly as, while more bitter than their managed American or S. European cousins, the acorns of both species are equally edible after processing.) You should be able to find at least one tree that drops a good quantity of large, sound acorns. As you can see from the above pictures, it’s useful if the ground is reasonably clear, but also soft enough to not damage the nuts after their fall from a great height. Tarmac makes things easy, but a lot of the acorns from tree a) and other ‘street trees’ I gathered from had extensive ‘bruising’ where the nutmeat had hardened and blackened at the point of trauma and along fracture lines. This got progressively worse the longer I kept them before processing, I assume because the black colour is caused by oxidisation which is limited when the whole nut still has its thin inner skin surrounding it. I’m not sure if the hardened/blackened acorns are unusable (I spent quite a while cutting out the ‘bad’ bits just in case) but I found they were also the most likely to spoil and/or go mouldy.

Gathering was speediest throwing handfuls onto a tarp or jacket before funneling into a plastic bag, but just placing them in the bag directly worked out fine too. I did try raking directly into bags, leaf-litter, twigs & all, but this just meant I had to pick out the good nuts back at home anyway. It doesn’t matter if the acorns have been lying under the tree for quite a while – the hard outer shells are designed to last them through the winter before weathering finally wears them down enough for the sprouts to push through in the spring. They also protect against insects, moulds, bacteria etc. but not small mammals who sometimes take a nibble (or, if you’re lucky, large ones who eat them whole). A little ‘rain leaching’ might give you a head start for Step 5 too! However watch out for little holes in the acorns – these are the work of the acorn weevil which uses sharp mandibles to chomp into and lay eggs in the acorn when it’s still young & tender. A little white grub then gorges on the nutmeat for the next couple of months before chewing its way out and trying to find somewhere safe to pupate. Sometimes you’ll catch these little blighters in the act – probably giving them the fright of their lives! – inside acorns you previously thought were sound. Unfortunately they don’t leave much for you, but they make a good snack for the birds (or maybe they’d be tasty if you fried them up directly?) Otherwise I tend to only go for the dark brown glossy nuts, just because they somehow look more ‘healthy’ to me, even though they dry to the same light tan colour after a couple of weeks in storage. I also avoid cracked or damaged shells as these won’t keep so well. Here’s a load I picked up just yesterday afternoon from around tree d). It took me around twenty minutes to gather just under 8kg:

Step 2 – Storage.

Keep in a warm, dry place, preferably in open-sided containers that allow the air in to circulate. If the nuts were particularly sodden when you picked them up, maybe give them a head start against any cheeky moulds by putting them in a low oven or up against a radiator for a spell. If you want to make acorns your staple food you might have to take this part a bit more seriously:

My family and I have been known to gather tons of acorn. In the past my Great Aunt Mary had a room in her house where we would deposit all of the acorn we gathered. This was a 10’x12′ room, with a four foot board across the doorway. This room was always full of acorn. As children we used to fight for the right to jump into the acorn and stir them up. Anyone bigger than a child would crack the hulls. This had to be done twice a week so that moisture didn’t build up and that the acorn dried properly. Traditionally our people stored acorn in ‘Chukas’, acorn graineries made of cedar and California laurel. These are cylinder in shape and raised above the ground on stakes about three feet. Lacking a spare room for my acorn, I store mine in gunny sacks and hang the filled bags from the rafters in my garage. My sisters living on the rez, use the huge army surplus bins my parents bought. They keep them covered and stir them twice a week. No matter how you store your acorn it is essential that you add a generous amount of California laurel with the nuts. Laurel or bay leaf is a natural insect repellent and keeps the bugs away from the acorn. [...] We let the acorn dry or season at least for a year, this assures that the nuts are well dried. (Kimberly R. Stevenot, Northern Sierra Miwok – link)

Step 3 – Shelling. This is a pain if you try to do it straight away with fresh acorns. If you let them dry for a bit the nutmeats shrink away from the outer skin, allowing you to open big cracks along the length with a quick hammer-blow to the head, which then makes it easy to prise the innards out whole with a knife. Here’s a picture of my set-up, along with my favourite anvil:

This part of the process takes up the most time. I like sitting down in the evening and listening to music, watching online documentaries or crappy comedy shows on the TV while I do this. It gets nice & hypnotic after a while… Mind your fingers!

Step 4 – Grinding. I ‘cheat’ and use a food processor for this stage. The idea is to increase the overall surface area in preparation for Step 5, which will go faster in relation to how fine you grind the acorns. I like to leave them in rough milimetre cubes, as I’ll be fine-grinding them later anyway and hopefully would like to keep some of the nutrients in there in the meantime. Of course, I’d prefer to do this part ‘aboriginally’ but on my own it feels too much like hard work. Apparently acorn-based ‘balanocultures’ used social technology to lighten the load:

At the edge of the village a group of women sit together grinding acorns. Holding the mortars between their outstretched legs, they sway back and forth, raising the pestles and letting them fall again. The women are singing together, and the pestles rise and fall in unison. As heavy as the pestles are, they are lifted easily – not so much by muscular effort, but (it seems to the women) by the powerful rhythm of the acorn-grinding songs. The singing of the women and the synchronized thumping of a dozen stone pestles create a familiar background noise – a noise that has been heard by the people of this village every day for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. (Malcolm Margolin, quoted in Suellen Ocean’s Acorns And Eat’empdf)

If you want you can keep the nuts whole, as the ancient Europeans appear to have done (ibid.), although this will leave you with a different foodstuff at the end.

Step 5 – Leaching.

Soak the acorn meal in cold-tepid water to leach out the tannins, using a thin-weave material to keep the solids separate (I used an old pillowcase). Change twice a day until the water stops turning a deep brown and/or the acorns lose their bitterness. This can take from 3 days to over a week. You can speed up the process by using boiling water which you pour off repeatedly, but cooking denatures the starches/sugars, and you’ll also lose much of the oil content, so I prefer not to. Other methods vary from dunking the meal in a stream as Ray Mears does in the above video, burying caches of whole acorns in boggy ground, cooking in a ‘lye’ made from the wood ash of deciduous trees or with iron-rich soils/clays, and even putting them in the (cleaned) cistern of a flush toilet 8O Other Native American methods include pouring water onto ground acorns in a sand ‘colander':

(source)

And this one, which I probably won’t be trying:

The aboriginal people of the Columbia River valley used urine to cure acorns. The settlers of European origin in that region gave the dish the name Chinook Olives. About a bushel of acorns were placed in a hole dug near the entrance of a house. The acorns were then covered with a thin layer of grass and then 6” of earth. Every member of the family regarded this hole as the special place of deposit for his urine, which was on no occasion to be diverted from this legitimate receptacle. In this hole the acorns are allowed to remain four or five months before they are considered fit for use… the product is regarded by them as the greatest of all delicacies. (‘Indigenous Acorn Facts‘)

If you want you can leach the acorns whole, just pouring the water off and re-filling. This will take a lot longer, though (unless you use boiling water). Mine started to bubble and smell slightly ‘fermented’ after about five days, so I finished them off with a slow roast in the oven:

They are tooth-breakingly hard by the end, but cook up to an acceptable squishy texture in porridge (and – I’m guessing – in stews, soups, etc.)

Step 6 – Drying, re-grinding. If you want to keep the acorn matter for a long time and don’t want to use it immediately as a ‘mush’ or in a soup etc. then you’ll need to dry your acorn grounds. If you get freakishly lucky with the Autumn weather you can leave this job to the sun, but mostly I have to put them in a low oven for a couple of hours to speed up the process.

They will tend to clump up during this stage, no matter how finely you ground them originally, so if you want a flour (as opposed to ‘grits’) you’ll have to grind them again. Tip: you can often find old-style manual coffee grinders in charity shops.

Leave out someplace warm & dry for another day or so to evaporate the last bits of moisture, then store in glass jars or paper bags. Some people say the fat/oil content will make the flour go off after a couple of months, but I still have some left over from my first experiments over two years ago, and it still looks and tastes just as good as it did back then. Maybe the final heating in the oven stabilises it somehow?

Step 7 – Eat! Most people say to treat it like corn/maize flour, for example mixing it 50:50 with regular flour to make breads, muffins, pancakes, tortillas…etc. It doesn’t contain gluten so will need to be mixed with something else that does, or with a different ‘sticking agent’ (e.g. egg). It’s a lot denser than wheat flour, so if you’re using it to make bread you’ll need much more yeast to make it rise – my one attempt at a 50:50 loaf two years ago, while deliciously rich & nutty, did not rise at all.

This year I’ve had some success with a recipe for ‘Hard Times Bread’ from The Wildfoods Cookbook by Joy Spoczynska, which she ‘unearthed’ from ‘an eighteenth century cookbook’ that traced the recipe back to ‘early pioneers in America’. She says they turned to it ‘when wheat flour was difficult to obtain or cost more than the pioneers could afford’. I’m guessing they adapted this from the Indians.

Naturally I want to change the name to break the association with famine and last resort measures to stay alive, and present this instead as a desirable alternative to the Staff of Death Bread made from farmed grains. Sure, it takes less effort for us affluent first-worlders to work a wage-job and buy a sack of flour from the supermarket, but this embeds us in an exploitative system whereby someone else, human or non-human (including the chemical remains of long dead non-humans) has been enslaved to do all the work in our stead. It’s easy, from our ‘privileged’ position, to forget just how hard it is to get something resembling food from the annual grains. Try to bake your lawn, or just watch this guy go about his business (sorry about the background music – mute and try this as an alternative):

Then have a look at this and ask yourself where the astronomical quantities of energy have come from to build, operate and maintain all those machines:

Suddenly, simply letting trees grow and crop in the Autumn for you to harvest and process through the above steps doesn’t seem so inefficient or energy-intensive, does it? Yes, you’ll find it hard work if you never had to take care of your own subsistence needs before, but I bet even ‘Seed to Loaf’ Steve would back me up in saying that we miss out on basic feelings of satisfaction from leaving this most fundamental biological activity for other people to sweat over. Also, as the wise people say: No security without food security. In other words if you depend on getting flour (or any other staple food) from the supermarket, that means they’ve got you by the balls/ovaries – you’ll comply to the demands of whoever controls the price of wheat because you have to eat. Unless you have another option…

So without further ado, here’s my adjusted recipe for ‘Good Times Bread’ – I’ve halved the original quantities:

Ingredients: 250g acorn flour, 50g maize flour, 2 tbsp butter, 1 egg, 1 tsp salt, 150ml buttermilk (or regular milk mixed with 1 tsp lemon juice or vinegar and allowed to sit for 5 minutes), 1/2 tsp baking soda (sodium bi-carbonate)

Step 1 – Sift the flours, salt and baking soda together, beat the egg and melt the butter in a frying pan (preferably cast iron) or griddle.

Step 2 – Gradually mix in the buttermilk, followed by the butter and lastly, the egg. Knead until ‘of a fairly soft dropping consistency, like a very stiff batter, but not sloppy’ (Spoczynska, p173).

Step 3 – Squish into balls and flatten on a level surface to desired size & thickness. Then add a bit more butter to the pan and cook on a medium-high flame, flipping to the other side after a couple of minutes when it turns slightly golden-brown.

Et voila. More than enough for a hearty breakfast to keep you going through the day:

These, unsurprisingly, had a delicious roast-nuttiness to them and the texture of a heavy scone. The salt made them a bit too savoury for jam, though – a later experiment with added brown sugar, chopped walnuts and dates went down a treat. I’m not sure how long they keep, but I was putting these in the toaster and they were still tasty after three days.

Aboriginally, I would be inclined to roast them by the fire on a flat stone like these guys:

For more inspiration and recipes, check out these sites:

Finally, submit your own acorn experiments to Butterpoweredbike’s ‘foraging recipe challenge’ on the Hunger and Thirst blog (thanks Annie!) Looks like there’s some great stuff up there already – I don’t think my ‘back to basics’ approach stands much of a chance of winning though…

So that’s about all I’ve got for now. Hopefully this didn’t come too late to fire you up in time for this year’s harvest. If you’re visiting SE England, I’ve still got plenty of acorns you can come help me process :) Email address buried in the comments on the ‘About’ page…


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