Holm oak acorns (Quercus ilex)
I have previously called it the forager’s carb conundrum (following Hank Shaw’s term, 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 from there to 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 parts 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’, 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 southern Europe, acorn cakes remain (notably using holm oaks), although they are generally viewed grimly, if at all, as a desperate famine food some ancestors may have been forced to eat amid the horrors of the two world wars. Some Native Americans still treasure their balanophagy (acorn-eating) as a tradition and foragers over there are also keeping those skills alive. It also continues in parts of Korea, presumably mostly in the more impoverished North.
All this makes Australia far from the first place you would think of for acorn foraging. Any oaks we have are introduced specimen plantings that have never been a part of any local culinary tradition. Nonetheless, Centennial Park, just a few kilometres from the heart of our largest city, has more than 300 holm oaks (Quercus ilex). Each one of the mature specimens will produce as much as a tonne of acorns annually. Even with conservative sums, that means we are talking about more than 100,000 kilos of compact carbohydrates and oils per year, all of it edible for people.
But there is a pretty serious catch: It takes some very dedicated processing. So much so, that if you decide to give acorns a go yourself, it will probably need to be more for the adventure of it than any realistic need to solve your own ‘forager’s dilemma. But, why not? None of the process is at all unpleasant; in fact there is a lovely calm rhythm to it all and a patience that makes some so-called ‘slow food’ seem as rushed as a service station sausage roll.
Finding Oaks: Outside of Centennial Park in Sydney, I cannot offer much advice. Although I suspect they are not too uncommon in parks in the southern states, the more common oaks around will be English oak (Quercus robur). I understand that they can be eaten, but that the processing takes even more than with holm oaks – which is already a serious commitment. Some of the American white oaks, if they happen to be planted near you might, however, be easier to leach than holm oaks.
Collecting: Your best time for Centennial Park will be in April and May and it is presumably similar elsewhere in southeast Australia. If I had to narrow it down, I’d say whenever is most convenient around the 1st of May. I should probably stress that I have never checked if it is allowed, figuring that if it isn’t, and considering that it is a public resource, I would conscionably defy the ban anyway. You can pick acorns off the tree if they are fully plump and come easily from the cupule (the characteristic little hat that acorns wear) or you can gather them from the ground. You have a choice of either being particular about what you pick up or doing some sorting later. If there is even the tiniest hole in the shell (pericarp), leave it, because it is probably the entry hole of a weevil or other grub that will already have messed things up inside. Just get a few at first and work out how long it takes to do the processing before you commit to gathering whole sacks of the stuff. I would suggest keeping harvests from different trees separate if it is not too much of a hassle, because the tannin levels (and therefore processing needs) vary from tree to tree.
Shelling and cleaning: You can either get started on the processing straight away or store them for anything up to a few months. Freezing is fine and is supposed to have the benefit making the skins come off easier. Otherwise hanging in a bag somewhere dark but ventilated, although you will get more spoiled ones in the end. Once they are older you can crack the shell a little to get the meat out, but when they are fresh, I find that a knife works best. I top and tail them with a very sharp Swiss Army knife, run a slit down the shell and can then easily peel it off (check out the video). The pocket knife seems to give me more control and safety than even a good paring knife. There is a slight danger that you might cut your thumb the way I do it – I am sure that one absent-minded day I will, but so far haven’t (you might prefer a large knife cutting downwards onto a chopping board. You can then scrape off some of the skin, particularly if you are going to go straight to a quicker hot water leaching, or you can work it off later during the soaking stage. Pop them in water, which is where they will be until the drying stage.