If harvested sustainably and treated to remove bitter tannins, acorns may once again have a more prominent place in the kitchen.
As the world’s breadbaskets strain to meet the demands of the Earth’s growing population, already more than seven billion strong, we could use another nutritional, ecologically friendly food source. Could acorns, the fruits of the oak tree, be the answer? Certainly, they are beginning to draw renewed interest in the hunt for sustainable alternative food sources.
Over the past decade various Web sites, magazines and newspapers have recommended that the occasional acorn-based items be reintroduced into our diets. With a growing interest in foraging for local, edible wild plants, eating new and ever-more exotic food items and the need (both real and imagined) for gluten-free ingredients sweeping through parts of the Western world, is it possible that acorns—small nuts that fit all of these criteria—could be on the verge of a dietary comeback.
Clearly, acorns have always been a major component in the diets of various species of wildlife; insects, birds and mammals obtain much nutritional value from ingesting them. In fact, Janet Fryer, a plant ecologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, says that “oak species with their large, nutrient-rich acorns, may be the single most important genus used by wildlife for food and cover in California forests and rangelands.” Acorns are also an important food source for some domestic livestock. Farm animals—particularly hogs in Europe—have been fed a diet of acorns for centuries.
Although acorns rarely feature in today’s diet, their appeal was not lost on our human ancestors. Recent studies on Palaeolithic hunter–gathers in Grotte des Pigeons in Morocco suggest that acorns were a major food item in their diet. Balanophagy—the practice of eating acorns from the oak and tan oak genuses, Quercus andNotholithocarpus, has played an important part in the diets of many cultures around the world. In fact, the Roman natural philosopher, Pliny the Elder, regarded the sacred oak as the “tree which first produced food for mortal man.”
Throughout time and across continents, acorns were eaten raw, roasted and boiled, and have been used to make oil, soup, mush, flour, coffee and quick snacks. The dietary and energetic components of acorns and their easy availability probably made them an important food item in the past, says Danny Rosenberg of the The Zinman Institute of Archaeology Laboratory for Groundstone Tools Research at the University of Haifa
Eating acorns was particularly important for many Native Americans living in California where oak trees were an abundant, reliable, naturally occurring resource. In fact, acorns were the staff of life for many of the indigenous people in California for millennia, says author and ethnobotanist Kat Anderson. Evidence has shown that acorn nutshell is the most abundant charred plant food residue in archaeological sites in all regions of central California. Although the acorn is no longer the focus of daily life for Native Americans, they still gather, prepare and eat foods made from acorns at special gatherings and celebrations (pdf). It is important to remember, however, that in the process of gathering acorns, native Californians used (and continue to use) sustainable gathering practices. They had/have rules: “Leave some of what is gathered for the other animals” and “not waste what you have harvested.” Is it now time to put the acorn back on the menu?
There are hundreds of different oak species scattered around the world, and their productivity and nutritional content varies with the species and local environment. In general, acorns appear to be higher in caloric content per unit weight than cereal grains, a reliable source of vitamin C and starch, and high in magnesium, calcium and phosphorus. It is even thought that the high quality of jamón ibérico de bellota, a ham made in Iberia from pigs fed on a diet of acorns (and considered by many to be one of the finest hams in the world), is due to the high level of antioxidants in the acorns, which help to prevent lipid oxidation.
Written By: Dawn Starin
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