Eat like the ancestors: reclaiming your birthright
For many thousands of years, wherever oaks grew, acorns (‘oak-corns’) were a staple food for people. Balanophagy, the eating of acorns, can be seen across a wide range of cultures since earliest prehistory.
Across northern Spain, where Abrazo House is based, large quantities of acorns have been found hoarded in Celtic hill-forts. Anyone who’s read an Asterix book knows that the Celts venerated the oak, but who knows that it also gave them their daily bread?
If you live near oak trees, or your ancestors did, anywhere in the world, then at some point in the past, acorns were part of your culinary heritage. Acorn bread is your birthright, but it’s one that you’ve likely never tasted.
At some point, the idea of eating acorns seems to have dropped out of Western culture like a millstone. They may be unique in this regard, as a staple food in vast areas of the world that’s been almost entirely forgotten.
In many parts of Spain, “until a few decades ago, many people in rural areas would habitually eat acorns, raw (if they were sweet or only slightly bitter), toasted, as soup or stew, roasted as ‘coffee’, or as bread mixed with maize flour (as talos, like Mexican tortillas) or with wheat flour (as bread)… using immersion in streams and rivers, heat, ashes, and other processes to remove the tannins… and drying as the most important method of preservation, which meant they could be kept for up to two years.” (César Lema, 2013: “Cocinar con Bellotas en la Era Post-Petrolera.”)
Preparing acorn meal
When I explain the process of preparing acorn meal, people often say that it seems like a lot of work. But the only step that could be considered tedious is shelling, which you can do while watching a film, listening to music, or talking with friends.
The oak tree makes acorns, quietly and without fuss, as a free gift, knowing the vast majority will end up eaten. The least I can do is to honour that gift with my own work, which I see as both a meditative practice and a gentle form of activism.
Every acorn shell I crack by hand is another crack in the armour of our warlike civilisation. Every handful of acorn meal I eat, feeds the wildness within me. Direct action never tasted so good.
The seven-step process
- Gathering: Collect acorns in autumn from under any species of oak, discarding those that are very discoloured, squishy, lightweight, or with holes.
- Drying: Spread your acorns out to dry in a single layer, in a well-ventilated place out of direct sun. We use stackable plastic baskets, lined with newspaper. The acorns can be left there until you’re ready to process them.
- Planting: When you help yourself to acorns, you should also help the tree to reproduce. As you spread the acorns to dry, select the very biggest and best to plant immediately (acorns germinate quickly and don’t keep well), in spots where they’ll be protected from grazers and grass-cutters, e.g. among thorny bushes.
- Shelling: After a few days of drying, you can easily remove the shells with your fingers, or with a nutcracker or penknife.
- Grinding: Put the shelled acorns, a couple of handfuls at a time, into a blender with water and grind them to a coarse meal.
- Leaching: Pour the meal into a cloth bag and place this in a saucepan or bowl. Fill the bag and pan with water and leave to soak, removing the bitter tannins. Change the water about five times over a 24-hour period.
- Baking: Now your acorn meal is ready to use immediately, store in the freezer, or dry in the oven.
NB: Acorns and maize are, in principle, gluten-free, while spelt is considerably lower in gluten than modern wheat.
Acorn and Spelt Bread
- 6 cups leached acorn meal
- 6 cups spelt flour (or other bread flour)
- 1/2 tablespoon salt
- fresh yeast
- sesame, poppy or sunflower seeds
Mix the acorn meal, flour and salt in a large bowl. Dissolve the yeast in 1/2 cup of water and add this. Knead the dough well, adding water (or more flour) until it is a good consistency, not too stiff and not too sticky. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave to rise overnight. Knead again and shape into loaves, scoring the top of the loaf with a knife to prevent splitting and make it easier to slice later. Brush the top with water and sprinkle with seeds. Bake for 45 minutes at 200°C. Makes two large loaves.
Acorn and Maize Talos
- 2 cups leached acorn meal
- 2 cups hot water
- 2 cups maize flour
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
Put the acorn meal, hot water, and salt in a saucepan and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring now and then to prevent sticking. Take off the heat and blend with an electric mixer to get rid of any lumps. Add the maize flour, mixing well until you have a stiff dough that is not too sticky. You may need to adjust the amount of flour. Leave to stand until cool. The dough can be kept overnight in the fridge.
Roll the cool dough into small balls between your palms, then either pat it into flat cakes by hand or, for thinner talos, roll it out between two sheets of plastic, or use a tortilla press. The talos can either be toasted in a hot pan with no or a very little oil, or baked in the oven for 15 minutes at 200°C. Serves four.