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’em – pdf)
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 😯 Other Native American methods include pouring water onto ground acorns in a sand ‘colander’:
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…