Archive for the ‘Breads’ Category

Bread, not gold: the wealth of chestnut trees

October 25, 2018

‘A dozen chestnut trees and as many goats are enough for a Corsican family not to starve. Secure in this regard, nothing can then persuade the Corsican father to work, except to buy a rifle.’ – Journal d’agriculture pratique, de jardinage et d’économie domestique, Volume 1, p.161 (link)

‘Voulez-vous réduire les Corses? Coupez les châtaigniers!’ – Maréchal Horace Sébastiani, born and raised in Corsica (link)

Gnarled old givers, inhabitants, holders of space, land, stories of people and place, twisted ancient ropes tensioning soil to sky, mooring each to the other’s port, preventing Disembarkation of both until the decay finally frays and rips through you, the release and crumbling to death and dust, to be replaced by… what?

I hear the stories people tell about you, read the histories, anecdotes, adverts, but ultimately feel these as so many self-centered idiocies. The real story can be read here & now, written in bark, sapwood, heartwood, root, branch, twig, leaf and the living (lived in) landscape in which it was established and continues to grow.

I’ve been working your orchards for about a month now, here in the uplands of the Ardèche region in southern France. Cutting the leafy suckers at your base, piling them for hungry sheep, struggling on the drought-browned grasses (‘faire de la feuille’ in the old terminology) or for the tractor to chop through in the yearly effort to clear the ground for the next stage: Putting nets down – bottom of the slope upwards so the overlaps facilitate harvest collections, a rock or large branch in corners holding the tension against the wind, rolled against the steeper slopes to catch runaway burrs, wrapped around trunks like sticky cobwebs patchworking an efficiency on the dusty ground…

I look down towards the task at hand and inwardly to the energy-conserving logics I’m internalising, managing the stresses and strains of my labour as I’ve been taught. How often have I taken the time to look up, to stop and appreciate you? Not often. And of course my over-educated middle class brain then wants to examine the ethics of the activity. This was the recently read passage going around my mind:

So close was the relationship of trees to human society that their treatment, like that of horses or children, fluctuated according to changing educational fashion. In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries infants were swaddled; and it was widely held that most children would need to be beaten and repressed. Timber trees, correspondingly, were to be pollarded (i.e. beheaded), lopped or shredded (by cutting off the side branches). […] There were utilitarian reasons for many of these practices, but they were also seen as a kind of moral discipline: ‘The luxuriancy and vigour of most healthful trees,’ declared John Laurence in 1726, ‘is like the extravagant sallies of youth, who are apt to live too fast, if not kept within due bounds and restrained by seasonable corrections.’ Regular pruning kept ‘all in order, which would otherwise be perfect anarchy and confusion’.

In the eighteenth century, when educational theories became less repressive, the cultivation of trees moved from regimentation to spontaneity. There was a reaction against ‘mutilating’ trees or carving them into ‘unnatural’ shapes. […] This was the spirit which would, in due course, lead to the abandonment of swaddling clothes for infants, wigs for men and, for a time, corsets for women, on the grounds that they were unnatural and unspontaneous. (Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World p.220-1)

The vexing, faintly ridiculous question that emerged: “So how do I justify this intervention and suppression of the tree’s spontaneous, wild nature, constantly trying to re-assert itself from below the graft point? Isn’t it a bit hypocritical for one who rails against the heavy-handed forms of ‘cultivation’ imposed upon himself to be doing this kind of thing?” I come up with no satisfactory answers…

B said she loved you, thought you beautiful and felt it a tragedy that you were dying off at such a frightening rate (drought, disease, neglect). The emotions came to me as an almost foreign invitation, so long have I been immersed in the Manly headspace of economics and utility (Necessary because otherwise Things won’t get Done) but I know that other part of me is still down there somewhere and I’m grateful for the opportunity to feed and drip water down to it again. Some day another shoot will spring forth and I will have to decide what to do with it: mercilessly cut it back to the ground, leave it to grow as it pleases, or culture it, prune, train, graft, encourage, urge the best form for Production.

*****

That’s how you came to be here, occupying these spaces for centuries, maybe millennia. The pollen record goes way back to ice age refugia and nuts show up in Mesolithic middens stretching back 10,000 years or more, but your species is much older (I heard fossilised leaves and fruits of a close ancestor were dated back to 85 million years ago) and ours too – surely the relationship predates the earliest records. In any case researchers have found you and walnut over-represented in pollen cores by a lake in the Euganean Hills of northeast Italy in the early stages of the Neolithic some 6,300 years ago, associated with the arrival of wheat, flax, hemp, plantain, buttercup and others along with levels of charcoal indicating a ‘huge increase in regional fire activity’ suggesting that ‘the two trees were advantaged or perhaps even introduced for agricultural purposes’ (Kaltenrieder, p.690).

More recently Native Americans were known to regularly burn the understory of chestnut groves, even of wild forests between villages or encampments:

[E]vidence suggests that Native Americans purposely promoted mast and fruit trees through planting and cultivation. 21 mast and fruit trees and 16 berry-producing shrub species were potentially cultivated by Native Americans in the eastern USA. Indians actively manipulated oak-hickory-chestnut forests with fire to provide more abundant food resources. This included (1) increased browse quality and quantity for deer and for concentrating the herd in managed areas, (2) increased mast quality and quantity for winter-spring subsistence, and (3) a reduction of forest-floor litter to facilitate mobility and mast collection. Native Americans favoured nut trees and other food plants and were probably responsible for increasing them in the pre-European forest. This included the planting of chestnut, Canada plum (Prunus nigra) and Kentucky coffee tree near Indian villages. Thinning forests, clearing underbrush, removing competing tree species and periodic understory burning by Native Americans resulted in more-open forests, with presumably less competition, trees with larger crowns, more rapid recycling of nutrients and higher soil nutrient levels. This would in turn have favoured light-demanding trees and stimulated mast and fruit production in a wide variety of species. – (Abrams, p.1132)

Just look at the size they got to before the estimated 4 billion trees were nearly completely wiped out by a chestnut blight introduced in 1904, possibly ‘the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forests in all of history’:

‘In January 1910, the American Lumberman published this photo of giant chestnut trees in western North Carolina, to show how their size compares to that of the average man.’ – source

Back in Europe it was the ancient Greeks and Romans who mastered grafting and spread plantations (perhaps just for timber and coppice) although literary sources viewed the nuts with suspicion, Diphilus complaining that while ‘that they are nourishing and well-flavoured’, they are ‘hard to assimilate because they remain for a long time in the stomach’, his recommendation being to boil them so that they ‘inflate less’ and ‘nourish more’ (Conedera, p.167). The culprits are the complex di- and tri-saccharide sugars which, as with many vegetables, break down in the intestines producing gas with only one escape route. I can testify that the effects can be lasting and potent (!) though my digestive system did seem to adapt after a while of regularly including chestnuts in my diet.

In any case the trees provided a reliable enough source of carbohydrates to encourage the emergence of the ‘Chestnut Civilisations’ from around the 11th and 12th centuries in upland regions of southern Europe that were unsuitable for grains or other field crops – the Cévennes, Ardèche, Limousin (Massif Central), Northern Appenines in Italy, Corsica – people taking the nut for their staple, building hundreds of miles of terrace walls to hold the soil on the slopes and manage water flow, entire buildings (‘clède‘ or ‘sécadou’) dedicated to drying the nuts over a slow-burning fire on the ground floor, women and children joining the men out harvesting by hand, gathering round the hearths in the long winter evenings to peel the nuts ready to go into next morning’s potage or to be stored in underground pits (a solution no longer possible because of the appearance of new moulds decaying the nuts earlier than previously). And to the animals went the leaves, burrs (‘they had a daily course of acupuncture!’ according to G) and leftover nuts, especially good for fattening pigs. The culture, ‘civilised’ or not, supported large populations, probably because, apart from the largest ‘marrons’ – a luxury food, with the regular ‘châtaignes’ being considered a lower class of food, perhaps only suitable for animals, despite being exactly the same substance – the foodstuff failed to be appropriated as a mass market commodity, mainly due to a short shelf-life and unsuitability for long distance transport (there was a close call when Napoleon had to decide where France was going to get its sugar from during the continental blockade of the early 19th century, but he chose beets instead). Most of the written records from the time bitterly denounce this lack of ‘innovation’, ‘development’, the ‘poverty’ and ‘repli sur soi’ (approximately: ‘folding in on oneself’), and extreme prejudices arise about ‘laziness’, ‘backwardness’, even ‘rebelliousness’ among dull-minded peasants apparently too stupid or stubbornly conservative to see the benefits of agricultural ‘improvements’ or full engagement in the market economy.

Of course the prejudice is there to serve a purpose, prescribing a move towards wheat, potatoes, mulberries (for silk) – anything to increase tax revenues and dependence on monetary income:

‘But if the chestnut tree is of great importance to the inhabitants of the mountains, where cereals & most other crops cannot grow, if it ensures their subsistence for at least six to eight months of the year, & by its sale gives them just enough money to buy the other items they need, it has a harmful influence on their morale, by not stimulating the development of their industry since it requires no other care of cultivation, after planting & pruning, than harvesting its fruits, & even making their bodies heavy, as any man who eats only chestnuts for one day can believe. In addition, cooking, peeling & eating them uses a lot of time every day that is lost for productive work. To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work. At least all those of the countries where I have stayed have shown me only laziness, ignorance & poverty. Friends of public prosperity must therefore desire that these inhabitants mix the cultivation of potatoes with that of chestnut trees, & that they engage in some kind of industry to provide them with the means to buy wheat, wine & other products, instead of emigrating, as they usually do, or going to earn something elsewhere.‘ – Bosc & Baudrillart, (p.272)

Even as late as 1966 the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, having a dig at the communism he had renounced ten years earlier, referred to ‘une terre sans pain, carencée, membre de cette Internationale de la misère et du châtaigner’ (‘land without bread, deficient, a member of this Internationale of poverty and chestnut trees’ – Ladurie p.213) which prevailed in the Cévennes between the renaissance and the reformation. Martin Nadaud, peasant boy from the Creuse region of the Massif Central and later member of parliament in the Second Republic after the 1848 revolution, remembered how the stonemasons spoke to him when he arrived with his father to work with them in Paris, aged 14: ‘Eh petit Mufle, tu avais donc plus de châtaignes te mettre sous la dent que tu viens manger notre pain?’ (‘Hey little oaf, you had no more chestnuts to eat so you come and eat our bread?’ – Bruneton-Governatori, p.1176)

And the prejudice succeeded, up to a point, combining with other material factors. The decline was well in motion as early as the mid-late 18th century. Depopulation, development, incorporation of men into transient labour economies (although, as the above quotes suggest this had also gone hand in hand with the former subsistence practices – the long off-seasons leaving time for travel and wage labour in the lowlands). ‘L’arbre à pain’ gave way to ‘l’arbre d’or’ – the name given to the mulberry tree for the money that could be made from the silk worms that fed on its leaves (Parado, p.1) – and then the incredible wrecking ball of the leather-tanning industry which encouraged the cutting down of centuries-old orchards after it was discovered that the tannins in the bark and wood of the tree could provide a black dye for silk. Five factories for tannin extraction were opened in the Ardèche region from 1890 and it became seven times more profitable to fell the trees than to take the nuts to market. Around a million trees were cut down over the course of fifty years, with 20,000 hectares or about 1/3 of total area lost from the high of 60,000 hectares under cultivation in 1870.

Imagine the mind-set required to go along with that, cutting down trees that had fed your family for generations, even keeping you alive while others starved to death in the famines after the wheat harvests failed. Do we put it down to greed, opportunism, short-sightedness or just to a lack of sentimentality and simple cost/benefit analysis during a tough time when it looked like the best option? One way or another, it seems, commerce penetrates, transport facilitates, nationalism and duty to ‘la patrie’ dull and harden outlooks, turn inhabitants into coldhearted quislings, enabling the exploitation of the land that was their home on behalf of the abstract, alienated interests of city, industry, capital…

Ink disease, blight (not as damaging as in the US due to ‘hypovirulent’ resistance) and war provided the last heavy blows in the 20th century. There wasn’t the energy or manpower anymore for replanting or even maintenance: I’ve seen the memorial stones, so many men and boys taken and killed, especially in the first world war, and the low employment rates meant that soldiers were drawn in higher proportions from the highland regions. After that the inevitable drift towards the towns and cities. Final, complete dependence on jobs, money, and the commodification which we all know well. Or destitution, homelessness, addictions… The familiar pattern repeated around the world when village economies are destroyed and the people forced to move away from their homelands.

*****

But the trees are still here. Even ‘exploitations’ continue to succeed, albeit using modern methods – machines and petrol instead of unpaid human labour to supply a product for modern marketplaces. An ‘AOP’ designation, premium status sought for organic produce, some protection for producers and recognition of the historic landscape. The culture isn’t the same – isolated farmers and their small family groups (my time with G and B was quite lonely, the bus service being inadequate and the work schedule of feeding and watering the animals demanding a 7 day / week presence), the occasional festival, markets, people brought together in the roles of traders and consumers. But the trees are still here. The varieties too, 65 of them named in the Ardèche region alone: Aguyane, Précoce des Vans, Pourette, Sardonne, Bouche Rouge, Comballe, Garinche, Bouche de Clos, Merle, with many more names known only to local people or forgotten entirely. Newer disease-resistant hybrids in the South-West, requiring irrigation and pest control; older varieties to the East favoured for their resilience and superior flavour even if they don’t produce every year. The die-off, neglect, rural flight and other factors continue to result in an overall decline, and few new trees are planted because of the long time it takes for any return on the investment and the uncertainty that any trees will survive that long. But … the trees are still here.

And so are the possibilities if we look for them. Romanticising the ‘castanéiculture’ and other old peasant ways of life is a pitfall and visions of an easy life fade when you think about picking, sorting and peeling nuts by the thousand (their skins could be thrashed off in bulk with sticks after drying at least), or sawing off dead branches with hand tools swaying in the wind 4m off the ground to provide your firewood. But if you’re looking for future-proof food production with no need for artificial fertilisers, pesticides, GMOs or all the energy that has to go into ploughing, sowing, weeding, harvesting & processing field monocrops, then arboriculture of this kind has a lot to recommend it. It also generates many opportunities for ‘closing the loop’ in permaculture parlance, as in the above example where sheep are drawn to the base of the trees for shade and to eat the suckers, preparing the ground for harvesting while fertilising the soil with their manure. The wood of course has multiple uses too, from use of the suckers in basketry to larger pieces of timber in furniture building, tool handles, construction, charcoal manufacture etc. Even the leaves found a use as a stuffing for pillows and blankets. Further in the future, dare I suggest, the trees might provide the support for a truly indigenous way of life beyond the coming failures of the oil economy and the growth-addicted globalised capitalism and chemical-dependent agriculture it has made possible. Because there’s nothing wrong with living hand to mouth like every other species on this planet, providing for your own needs mainly from the fruits of the land around you, at whatever level of cultivation is appropriate.

I walked through a few orchards which hadn’t been touched for maybe 40 years, judging by the size of the suckers and self-sown pine, ash, sycamore, hazel and others beginning to overstand the chestnuts (which can’t reach up as well as the others and suffer from reduced light). It was quite eerie seeing the thickness of the old trunks emerging behind the bristly riot of new growth; the occasional terrace wall showing through mosses and lichens. B assured me it would still be possible to bring them back into cultivation, as she and G have devoted huge amounts of time and effort to doing over the decades they’ve been here, but it’s a daunting task, getting harder with every year that passes. ‘Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours’ as the saying goes (or went) in the Cévennes, with slight variations in the other chestnut regions. Any calculations of return on investment have to look way into the future and there’s no guarantee you’ll ever see a reward. Trees stand up to drought better than annual grains, but two or three hot, dry summers in a row and even 150 years of root growth isn’t enough to keep them alive, so climate change will add to the uncertainty just as with everything else.

Wildfires too will grow in frequency and intensity in untended orchards and forests, just as they have done in the drier regions of the US in large part due to the discontinuation of regular burning and other cultivation practices by the native peoples there (although see this brilliant article that shows burning regimes being reinstated). I saw the ‘Canadairs’ go overhead a number of times during the drought in the summer, a situation which might be avoided by greater cultivation of orchards and possibly small scale burns of leaf litter as the peasants used to do. I think these land use traditions point to a potential middle way through the polarised debate between ecological rewilding (with humans excluded) at one extreme and the ‘working landscape’ which farmers have traditionally demanded (with wildlife excluded) at the other. Trees can be grown in an irrigated, chemically treated monocrop but there’s nothing to say there has to be the same outright hostility to wildlife expressed in their cultivation as in, say, livestock rearing. Wolves don’t eat chestnuts! And if you’re getting annoyed at the wild boar munching all the best nuts maybe it’s time to have a word with the local hunters and see if they want to take advantage of the lure your orchards provide – again reinventing the wheel of indigenous land management, as shown in the Abrams quote above.

North American forests were noted for their exceptional abundance and diversity of plant and animal species upon first contact by Europeans, and while their populations may have been in a boom phase after waves of diseases had wiped out their human predators it seems clear that native management practices actively fostered this diversity over the course of tens of thousands of years, whereas the introduced European farming practices decimated them in a handful of generations. Probably something similar was true of pre-agricultural forests in Europe and the hunter-gatherer or horticulturalist peoples who inhabited them. Do we see an echo of their subsistence methods in the chestnut-based cultures? Either way the act of working with the process of ecological succession towards the closed-canopy forest cover that these temperate lands spontaneously generate is bound to provide better habitat for a multitude of wild species than pastured or arable land could ever do. Incidentally I think this is the basis for accusations of ‘laziness’ and the sneer behind the word ‘cueillette’ (gathering) – the hard work necessary to fight succession in farming (especially for the annual grain species) has been elevated into a virtue and people born into this way of thinking would rather extirpate less toilsome lifeways than consider their own practices as a giant waste of energy. How about instead of a ‘working landscape’ (that appears to be working itself to death for no good reason) we try to move towards a ‘living landscape’, with human beings as just another species in the web of self-perpetuating diversity?

Old gnarly ones, I came to you mind full of sour thoughts about modern living. I too was cultivated in my early days with a purpose (to be a good citizen, employee, consumer etc), then abandoned to fend for myself, it no longer being considered worth the effort. It was a relief at first to grow as I pleased but then there was the absence, uncertainty and lack of purpose that has lingered for years. What was I planted for? To feed only a few wild creatures (as honourable as that might be) until I wither away and die, to be replaced by rougher, less demanding types (as honourable as they might be) or overtaken by my own wilder growths? Now I’m thinking that the answer to Bad cultivation isn’t No cultivation; the answer to a crappy, exploitive relationship isn’t No relationship – it’s Better cultivation and a Better relationship with different, mutual purposes and goals. I looked to you and heard my own preoccupation: “How am I going to justify my continued existence?” But the question generates different answers depending on who you’re asking. If you ask the disembodied collective urge of the civilised economy (as people did on your behalf, with never a secure assurance no matter how much you gave) then you’ll get the familiar list of Hardnesses – “Find a way to make it Pay”, with no criticism or challenge to the one handing out the currency and the cannibalistic values it embodies. But if you ask the living world, and that is surely the essential underlying question we all need to be asking, then you’ll get very different answers, perhaps summed up by the exhortation: “Stay alive, and keep those around you living too, until this madness ends.”

A new question: How can I be of Service?

Translations tweaked from www.DeepL.com/Translator

The author invited various trees to comment on the subject matter for this post but did not receive any clear reply as of the time of writing, although this may be due to lack of receptivity on his part.

*****

Bibliography (papers behind paywalls can be accessed by typing the DOI number into http://sci-hub.tw/ )

Abrams et al: ‘Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA’ (link)
Bosc & Baudrillard: ‘Dictionnaire de la culture des arbres et de l’amenagements des forets’ (link)
Ariane Bruneton-Governatori: ‘Alimentation et idéologie: le cas de la châtaigne’ (link)
Conedera et al: ‘The cultivation of Castanea sativa (Mill.) in Europe, from its origin to its diffusion on a continental scale’ (link)
Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux: ‘Chestnuts’ in the ‘Cambridge World History of Food, Vol.1’ (link)
Kaltenrider et al: ‘Vegetation and fire history of the Euganean Hills (Colli Euganei) as recorded by Lateglacial and Holocene sedimentary series from Lago della Costa (northeastern Italy)’ (link)
Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie: ‘Les paysans de Languedoc, Volume 1’ (link)
Claude Parado: ‘Le châtaignier: l’arbre à pain, providence de nos ancêtres’ (link)

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 😯 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…

Dock seed and other badass weeds

September 7, 2010

Okay, let’s talk really disturbed ground. There’s a patch of ground just the other side of the local park which until recently played host to a small group of rescued horses. Here they are looking cold during the snows last winter:

They were pretty despondent and unresponsive generally, and despite the entertainment of a sign instructing passersby not to feed them as they were on ‘a stricked diet’ I think their effect on the land was pretty negative over all (not that I blame them for it). Over the course of about half a year they stripped the ground of all greenery and trampled it to bare dirt.

Yet, a couple of months after they were moved on, have a look:

At this stage you can see:

  • Ragwort (the clump of yellow flowers in the top center-right) – apparently toxic to livestock but good for cinnabar moths (who borrow its toxic properties to render themselves inedible too) and other insects. The fact that farmers don’t like it may be reflected in its alternative names: ‘Stinking Nanny/Ninny/Willy, Staggerwort, Dog Standard, Cankerwort, Stammerwort and Mare’s Fart’ (Wikipedia). I think it looks pretty, and noticed it growing everywhere over the summer months – it seemed especially fond of roadsides… No known uses that I’m immediately interested in following up.
  • Fat Hen (the flower/seed-whitened stalks waving in the center-right foreground) – I’m fairly confident in this identification, but I’ve been wrong before with this plant. Also known as White Goosefoot, relative of Quinoa and used extensively as a food plant in the past (and currently in Asia and Africa). Expect to see a post about making flour from the seeds later on when they’ve fully ripened. I’ve read that in central Europe ‘up to 50 per cent of all weed seeds present in the soil are those of fat hen’ (The Illustrated Guide to Edible Plants – Dagmar Lánská). Wikipedia provide the intriguing information that ‘[i]t is one of the more robust and competitive weeds, capable of producing crop losses of up to 13% in corn, 25% in soybeans, and 48% in sugar beets at an average plant distribution’ and furthermore that ‘[i]t is difficult to control with chemical means’. Did I tell you about seed bombs already?

Earlier and elsewhere nearby there was stacks of Yarrow, some Clover and the ubiquitous Plantains and Nettles low over the ground, most of which still remain alongside thistles, pretty white-flowering Bindweed, some tall grasses whose names I don’t know, Hogweed (whose tall, seed-laden corpses you can see on the ‘horizon’ above) and:

  • Mugwort, one of my favourite plants to rub between fingers and smell, whose flowers and leaves I’ve dried and stripped from the stalk to make a powerfully aromatic tea which is supposed to give you lucid dreams (although mine haven’t seemed particularly out-of-the-ordinary even after drinking a strong 1,5l pot of the stuff just before bedtime). PFAF warn that it ‘should never be used by pregnant women, especially in their first trimester, since it can cause a miscarriage’. First Ways had a nice post on the mischevious personality of the plant recently – clearly one I’ll have to keep a close eye on… 10 out of 10 for crazy medicinal applications:- apparently the Chinese use(d) it to successfully correct breech births!

But the real champion in the photo: the incredible forest of red-brown Dock*, gone so conspicuously to seed. Thanks to Emily Porter who tipped me off to the potential of the seed as flour without having to bother with separating the chaff (a nearly impossible feat so far as I could make out):

I once ground them up, including most of the chaff, and mixed them with regular flour to make biscuits. They had a great taste, reminiscent of buckwheat, which makes [sense] being that they are in the buckwheat family. And you know what? I don’t think it really hurts if you eat the chaff. It’s just extra fiber, not much different from oat bran muffins or the psyllium husk that is in all those products to make you “regular”. (link)

I found harvesting really easy – just grab hold at the bottom of a stem and pull your hand up, cupping the plant matter (and any unsuspecting insects or arachnids) in the palm as you go, then dump into a reasonably sound plastic bag. After drying them in a shallow tin, allowing said creepy crawlers to escape, I decided to try mixing the seeds/chaff in with other flours to make bread. First I gave my digestive system a head start by attacking them with a mortar & pestle:

(Processing left-to-right with spare stalks, grass seeds, misc. etc deposited in the top blue bowl. The small pyramid-shaped rust-red seeds impacted quite heavily on the mortar, but gradually pulverised into a whitish meal. I didn’t get too obssessive about mashing every last one.) Then I threw slightly more than a cupful of the resulting gruel into the bread machine, along with 1 cup ryeflour and 2 cups regular white flour and the usual amounts of sugar, salt, oil, yeast and warm water, plus some sunflower seeds for texture. I had to add more flour to get the right consistency – a lot of air went in with the dock seed cup. Here’s the result, three hours later (I know, I know – I got the slaves to make it for me. I’ll learn how to bake it myself eventually, promise!):

H reliably confirmed that it did have the same kind of flavour and texture as buckwheat (I’d never knowingly tried it before). Initially I was worried that it was going to have the same bitterness as the rest of the plant (the raw seeds have quite a tang to them too), but in the end I liked the taste – sort of mellow, dark & heavy, combining well with the rye and adding a nice chewy/crunchiness to get the molars and jaw muscles working. I don’t know how much nutrition my body took from it (probably more than from the white flour†), but it seemed to ‘sit’ nicely, leaving me feeling full and, yes, coming out quite comfortably at the other end too.

So. Get friendly with these weeds! They’ll be among your first allies when the concrete and tarmac begins to break up (or after you tear it up yourself), and if you can find a home in the ‘waste’ land where they grow and thrive, then there’s nowhere you can’t live!‡

——————-

* – Pretty sure I identified it correctly as the broad-leaved variety, but I haven’t seen any toxicity warnings for the seeds of any of the other common varieties, and they can probably be used in the same way.

† – ‘Be Kind to Your Grains…And Your Grains Will Be Kind To You‘:

Even orthodox nutritionists now recognize that white flour is an empty food, supplying calories for energy but none of the bodybuilding materials that abound in the germ and the bran of whole grains.

‡ – Maybe Antarctica.

Wild Food June/July – pt.2

July 8, 2010

Sorry for the delay – I originally meant to have this post up a couple of days after the first, but hit a wall of lethargy & writer’s block and somehow couldn’t find the energy to finish it until now. My principle (thanks DJ): yelling at the plants won’t make them grow any faster. They will do their thing at their own pace and the best thing you can probably do is leave them to it.* Without further ado:

3) – Yarrow. I really like this plant, first making a spicy, aromatic tea from the flowers & leaves after identifying it last summer in Italy. The book talked about how Achilles purportedly used it to dress the wounds of his soldiers (a leaf wrapped around a deepish cut on my finger later stemmed the bloodflow pretty quickly) and how there was ‘scarcely an ailment for which the various applications of the herb weren’t effective’ [approx.] With the white, sometimes pink flowers out it looks a bit like an umbellifer (member of the carrot/parsnip family) but the feathery leaves distinguish it and make it unmistakeable once you’ve seen them a few times.

I uprooted five of the plants on walkabout last Autumn and replanted them on a very dry, bare patch in our garden, formerly home to an aged conifer. Apparently Yarrow acts as a ‘good ground cover plant, spreading quickly by its roots’. Someone who shall remain nameless unthinkingly dug up all the baby sprouts in April to make way for a red salad, but fortunately I managed to rescue about three of the larger-leaved ones from the compost. Here’s what the patch looked like a few weeks ago, red salad long since disappeared:

Those roots must’ve been busy! Now the whole patch is green with their leaves and we have four stalks straining up into the sun, just about ready to open up their flowers… Anyway, if you want enough leaves to use as a vegetable, I recommend hunting for a patch where they do something like this (picture taken a couple of days ago):

I know two spots in my local area, both near water, both growing among other long-stemmed plants (in this case grasses and nettles, in the other a load of pondside horsetails). It’s easy enough to grab the ends of 3-4 leaves and reach down the stems to snick them all off at the same time with a knife. I’ve been using them to make soup. Here’s a picture of 1 red onion, sliced and simmering in butter & olive oil, with yarrow washed and chopped, ready to go in:

… quickly followed by 1.5l boiling water from the kettle plus salt, pepper and a crumbled veg stock cube. Fifteen minute simmer, then blend (we have one of those electric wand things with a spinning blade) to produce something that looks like this:

Serve with cream, if you so desire. This first attempt tasted a little watery, so I would either put in more yarrow or less water. I put a tbsp flour to thicken the second attempt, but felt the flavour suffered as a consequence. Also lots of stringy bits of stem survived the blending process, so next time I’ll make sure to chop them more finely. PFAF list the herb’s medicinal properties: ‘antiseptic, antispasmodic, mildly aromatic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, diaphoretic, digestive, emmenagogue, odontalgic, stimulant, bitter tonic, vasodilator and vulnerary’ (ibid. – under ‘medicinal uses’ where you can hover over the words to see them explained). I don’t know how many of these would survive the cooking process, but either way I reckon you’d struggle to find something more healthful to put into your system.

4) – Clover. My first year collecting the flowers for tea. Here they are drying indoors (those in the know tell me sunlight is too harsh for the drying herb), red on the left, white on the right:

I prefer the heavier flavour of the reds. Becky Lerner has a good post on the medicinal uses, noting that ‘Red Clover, Trifolium spp., is highly regarded by herbalists as a blood purifier because it helps support the liver as the body’s detox organ.’ It also has quite a reputation as a ‘woman’s herb’, helping with menstruation, fertility troubles, etc. – see here. I might try grinding the whites up to put their sweet, slightly beany flavour into breads – I hear they’re supposed to be ‘very wholesome and nutritious’ that way.

5) – St. John’s Wort. I found this plant growing wild for the first time just the other day (up on chalky downland and in a cornfield border, where the farmers may have sown it as part of their oxymoronic ‘farming for wildlife’ program). You identify it by the needleprick holes in the leaves when held to the light – hence the latin name, Hypericum perforatum – as in ‘perforated’. Didn’t see so much of it growing, so I only gathered a small bouquet, leaving at least three plants standing in each small patch†:

Another one for infusing as a flower tea. It’s supposed to help relieve depression, though a possible warning: ‘The plant was used to procure an abortion by some native North Americans, so it is best not used by pregnant women[257]’ (PFAF). I tried a pot yesterday with the whole herb, fresh, and it tasted quite nice – heavy, sweetish, almost oily. As with a lot of the yellow flower-teas, it starts off straw/urine-coloured and darkens through orange to red the longer you leave it. Apparently SJW does the same in its other popular usage – dunked in oil and left in the sun for several weeks to make a blood-red salve which ‘is applied externally to wounds, sores, ulcers, swellings, rheumatism etc[240]. It is also valued in the treatment of sunburn and as a cosmetic preparation to the skin[240]’. Perhaps I’ll try that if I find it growing more prolifically somewhere. Otherwise for similar skin troubles (including insect bites) I’ll probably stick to last summer’s discovery of the marvelous, cure-all Plantain Leaf Poultice!‡

6) – Lime. Another splendid tree currently doing amazing things:

This beauty is one of several they’ve allowed to mature in the local park. Close-up:

The flowers make a calming infusion known by the French name Tilleul. Last year I spent quite a while up trees plucking the flowers individually and trying not to get stung by the clouds of bees & other insects feasting on the nectar. Tired of this labour I then tried shaking low-hanging branches over a tarp to collect the snow of petals that came loose. This worked quite well, but I later learned from my (French) grandmother that the light-green bract was supposed to go into the tea as well – in fact I found that it added a cool, mellowness to the flavour, which otherwise could be a little harsh with just the flowers. So this year I grabbed flowers and bracts by the handful (2-3 at a time worked best, with a hand steadying the main branch) and stuffed them straight into the bag, no fuss. Here they are drying:

They smell really great when fresh & concentrated like this. People say the tea has a calming, almost sedative effect. I include myself among those people 🙂 – a mug or two prepares me for a deep, sound sleep. Intriguingly, ‘Lime flowers are said to develop narcotic properties as they age and so they should only be harvested when freshly opened’, though I have nothing to report on this (yet…) I should also mention, perhaps belatedly, that permaculturalists like to rave about lime leaves as a suitably abundant (and much hardier) substitute for lettuce in salads. They taste quite pleasant, albeit slightly bland in this capacity to me. In Food For Free Richard Mabey writes that ‘Some aficionados enjoy them when they are sticky with the honeydew produced by aphid invasions in the summer’. While I would’ve preferred not to know that it came from vast quantities of insect poo, I did rather enjoy the sticky sweetness of the leaves I tasted while gathering the flowers the other day. Something to serve up to unknowing friends and watch their expressions after explaining what they’ve just eaten!

That’ll do for now.

———————

* – See also Ran Prieur, who writes:

The most fundamental freedom is the freedom to do nothing. But when you get this freedom, after many years of activities that were forced, nothing is all you want to do. You might start projects that seem like the kind of thing you’re supposed to love doing, music or writing or art, and not finish because nobody is forcing you to finish and it’s not really what you want to do. It could take months, if you’re lucky, or more likely years, before you can build up the life inside you to an intensity where it can drive projects that you actually enjoy and finish […]

† – A Native American foraging rule I once heard (maybe via Ray Mears??): Don’t harvest either the first or the second specimen of a particular plant in any given area because they may need to cross-pollinate in order to reproduce. Something like that… [citation needed]

‡ – Read ‘Grandfather’s Footsteps‘, an Anthropik classic, telling ‘new stories about our rediscovered friends’:

Then, one day, a bee stung one of the Grandfathers. He cried out in pain, and he heard the little plant call out, “Grandfather! Grandfather! Take one of my leaves, and crush it into a poultice with mud!” The Grandfather did so. As the mud dried, it pulled the blood and the stinger’s tiny shot of venom out of his arm. The leaves stopped the sting from infection.

“You have powerful medicine, don’t you, little friend?” the Grandfather asked.

“Indeed I do!” the little plant replied. “Wheresoever the soil is upturned, I grow quickly, and heal the soil, and that is why I grow in your footsteps, for you walk heavily and leave deep footsteps, and much soil for me to heal. But since healing is in my nature, I can also heal your scrapes, cuts, insect bites, stings and rashes. I can soothe your pains and heal your cuts, and a tincture or tea of my healing leaves will help you breathe easier when you grow ill.”

For general use saliva works just fine, either dribbled on the plant as you pulverise it with fingernails, or mixed directly in the mouth, mincing with the front teeth.