It has been called the ‘forager’s dilemma’, the problem of procuring, even in a world seemingly bursting with wild food, the energy-rich foundation of a carbohydrate source that almost all human diets rely on. In most traditional foraging economies, most Australian Aboriginal ones included, this quest for the daily bread was the biggest labour demand in the community, reliant on often labour-intensive gathering and processing of plant seeds and roots. It was the process of finding ways to influence the abundance and distribution of these plants that gave rise, not through any ‘agricultural revolution’ but by a gradual human-plant coevolution, to farming and the type of cultures from which most of us descend. Among those plants that could be farmed, a relatively small suite now provide the vast majority of human food energy. Among those not so easily farmed, many once-treasured species have become largely forgotten. Like oaks, and their acorns.
Across much of the northern hemisphere, acorns, the fruit of oak trees (Quercus spp.), are believed by many to have been so fundamental to the human diet that people speak of ‘balanocultures’ (see here), being those of people for whom the oak forest and its products was the home, the hearth and the daily bread. In a few places, remnants of balanoculture survive. In a few parts of Italy, acorn cakes remain (notably using holm oaks), some Native Americans still treasure their balanophagy (acorn-eating) as a tradition (see here and here), and it is alive and well in Korea. In Spain, while acorn eating by people is largely gone, a landscape called dehesa is still treasured in places; being open oak woodlands with holm oak (Quercus ilex) and cork oak (Q. suber) as the dominant trees over meadows grazed by cattle. The trees directly provide firewood and cork and the acorn crops are hoovered up by pigs, whose consumption of them gives their meat a special quality, revered and central to the finest Iberian hams (jamon). Dehesa was traditionally often communal land, both a grazing commons and a public oak woodland in which wild greens and fungi were also foraged and small game hunted. I like the idea of dehesa.
My nearest big park has more than 300 holm oaks (Quercus ilex), a peculiarly large number for a tree not otherwise at all commonly planted around here. It is about as close to dehesa as probably exists in Australia. Picnickers, joggers, cricketers and dogwalkers replace the grazing animals – but there is nothing really there to treasure the acorns. A few rats may be doing ok out of them, and then for a first time, last autumn, there was me. From a fairly random collection of ideas from books and the net I came up with a fairly random experimental approach (mainly from here and pages on the same blog, here and here and (surprisingly from a fellow-Australian) here). The big challenge, and probably the big obstacle to modern balanoculture catching on, is that acorns almost invariably come with tannin levels that make them inedible without some long and quite complex processing – more than enough to make most people quit and head down to the shops for some flour and/or almond meal.
But should you decide to give acorns a go yourself, and it will probably need to be more for the adventure of it than any realistic need to solve your own ‘forager’s dilemma’, you will get most of the way to learning how from the weblinks above. But truth be told they will also include some advice that doesn’t work, or at least won’t work when you try it. I don’t know if it is differences in oak species, preferences, or simply that these are all partly experimental rediscoveries of balanoculture rather than the refined detail of an established culinary tradition, but no advice that I have found to date is fool-proof or complete. Anything offering a shortcut is the most likely to be wrong. I have altogether removed from this post almost any and all advice that I had previously written, thinking perhaps that by next autumn’s harvest I might have something more than another journeyman’s reckonings to offer. Still, the photos below give some indication of the direction I ended up with.