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Squirrels have it right Often-overlooked acorns are actually a great food source  BY KATHY JOHNSTON
acorns BY KATHY JOHNSTON PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
The nuts of local oak trees are nutritious, delicious, and— best of all—free
rushed under cars’ tires or kicked by hikers’ boots, the thousands of smooth brown acorns that have been steadily thudding onto local trails or bouncing onto country roads under oak trees this month are usually barely noticed. Sure, most people know that the earliest inhabitants of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties thrived on an acorn-based diet. And memories of the bland gruel prepared for an elementary school lesson on Native American culture, and the laborious process to make that gruel, are hardly likely to inspire anyone to want acorns on the dinner table these days. But acorns pack a treasure trove of nutrition inside their shiny shells, including protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals. Cooked with more modern methods than Chumash mush, they’re unexpectedly tasty and not all that difficult to prepare. Once the staff of life not just in California but in many parts of the world, acorns hold promise as a healthy, nutritious food for the future. Almost 25 years ago, ecologist David Bainbridge of U.C. Riverside sang the praises of acorns at a San Luis Obispo seminar on oak management. He presented a paper calling for more research on “the grain that grows on trees,” saying, “The factors that made acorns a major food source in California in the past make them attractive candidates for greater use in the future. … A reevaluation of acorns and their uses is long overdue.” Now retired, Bainbridge is still just as excited about using acorns for food—the best-tasting kinds have “cashew and chocolate overtones,” he believes—and still just as adamant about the need for more research. He’s cooked and eaten acorns many ways, including in breads, muffins, pancakes, soups, and stews. Acorn oil, he said, is similar in taste and quality to olive oil. Packed with a starch with a structure somewhere between corn and potatoes, acorns can even be used to make liquor or beer, or a coffee substitute. San Luis Obispo couple Frank Zika and Josephine Laing have been doing some research of their own for more than 10 years, gradually perfecting their favorite acorn recipes and the easiest way to prepare them. Earlier this month, the two demonstrated their technique to Kim Boege
of Shell Beach and her daughters Pacifica, 16, and Holland, 12. “We have ovens and Cuisinarts and coffee grinders to make the process easier and quicker,” Zika said. “I’m sure the Chumash would have used them for their acorns if they’d had them.” Acorns, Laing pointed out, sustained people for 10,000 years: “They didn’t have to grow food, they just picked it up,” she said. Chumash people who lived in SLO and Santa Barbara counties favored coast live oak acorns, Zika said, as he referred to Chumash Ethnobotany, a book recently published by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The acorns of these trees contain 4.4 percent protein and 20 percent fat, according to the book, and made the best-tasting mush for their daily diet. Zika and Laing prefer blue oak acorns because of their sweet taste and comparatively low tannin content. Laing headed to a bedroom closet where a canvas bag lined with cedar branches was filled with the acorns she gathered last year from the blue oak forest at Heilmann Park in Atascadero. Out on the back patio, she showed the Boeges how to use a rounded river rock to smash open the shiny acorns, removing the brown outer shell and a paperlike membrane to reveal a creamy almond-like nut. Eventually producing a handful of shelled acorns, she wrapped them in a cloth and hit them a few times with the rock to break them into smaller chunks. “How many times do you have an excuse to pound something with a rock?” Zika asked with a smile as he watched the girls go to work.
Into a coffee grinder went the chunks, zing, zing, and the acorns were quickly pulverized into a rich-looking, soft, gluten-free flour similar to graham flour. Sifting it into a bowl, Zika laughed, “Let’s see the Iron Chef do this!” Next came the leaching, considered a necessary step in California acorn preparation because of their high levels of bitter-tasting tannic acid. Laing lined a colander with a tea towel, dumped in the acorn flour, and plunged the whole thing into a hefty bowl of cold water, saturating the flour for a while. When she lifted the colander, a stream of deep brown water drained off. Emptying the bowl of tannin-infused water on a tree, she repeated
the process, and the water ended up much clearer. The finest-textured flour rose to the top. “The Indians carefully skimmed off the top flour to give to a favorite person or to elders, using the flour at the bottom for mush,” she explained. As the girls smashed more acorns and ground them into flour, Kim kept fingering the silky-soft, almost greasy acorns, both the whole ones and the chunks. “I love all the textures,” she said. “Why don’t we start doing this, Mom?” Pacifica asked between poundings. Her mother replied, “I am now! What a wonderful Thanksgiving recipe. It could be our little holiday treat. Or we could pick up a basket of acorns, find a rock, and give that as a present along with instructions on how to make your own food.” An experienced cook, Zika decided to make “griddle scones” from a recipe in his well-worn Settlement Cookbook, substituting acorn flour for half of the whole-wheat flour. Soon he was forming the nutbrown dough into little balls on a baking sheet. After the girls noticed that the flour had a slightly sweeter taste before the leaching than it did after, Zika decided to use the unleached flour to make some more scones as a taste comparison, cutting an “X” into the tops to identify them. As a delicious smell like cookies baking wafted from the oven, Laing and the girls whipped up a batch of toasty-brown pancakes made with 100 percent acorn flour. The taste-testers gathered around the dining table, floury fingerprints on everybody’s jeans as they helped themselves to fresh-baked scones and pancakes. “Mmmmm, that’s so delicious,” they murmured contently, munching on the sweet, nutty treats as Kim announced to her daughters, “I think we’ve found our new calling!” Trying a scone made with unleached flour, Laing pronounced it “perfectly good-tasting, with a little aftertaste.” But eating a lot of tannin isn’t good for you, she said, so it’s probably better to stick with the leaching process. Soon, the happy, satisfied eaters were speculating about which local restaurant would be the first to offer acorn specialties. Jeff Jackson, chef and owner of The Range restaurant in Santa Margarita, told New Times he’s “definitely interested” in learning more about cooking with acorns. So is Tom Neuhaus, professor emeritus at Cal Poly’s department of food science. He’s tasted Zika’s acorn bread and considers it “quite decent.” The starch in acorns is “easy to work with,” Neuhaus said. Acorns make “a neat flour” that could be used for egg-based cakes or for jelly rolls, he said, or substituted for chestnuts in mont blanc or marron glace. “Maybe someday we’ll use acorns in our chocolate,” he added. “I don’t think acorns will be practical for the 300 million mouths there are to feed in this country, but it’s a nice little niche food that’d be fun to play with. Some tannins act as an excellent antioxidant, so
The taste of tradition: Acorns from local oak trees have been eaten for thousands of years, but their bitter-tasting tannins must be leached out with water for the tastiest result. Central Coast couple Josephine Laing and Frank Zika have perfected an easy way to do the leaching. They grind the acorns into flour with a coffee grinder, pour it into a colander lined with a tea towel, and immerse that into a big bowl of water. After it sits a while, the tannins drain off.
maybe acorns could be sold as a ‘nutriceutical,’” Neuhaus said. Food science departments should do research, he recommended, on subjects such as the best way to leach tannins without diminishing nutrients and on the antioxidant potential of acorns. “We have all these oak trees, and there’s no reason to believe acorns couldn’t be very useful,” Neuhaus said. “But what will it do to the environment if people go around harvesting them?” San Luis Obispo’s Natural Resources Manager Neil Havlik doesn’t think human harvesting of acorns would “tip the balance,” since an oak tree’s survival strategy is to produce “zillions” of acorns during its 200year lifespan and only one has to successfully grow to replace that tree. “It might create localized pressure on oaks near town,” Havlik noted. He believes acorn preparation is too much work to become a major food source, but said acorns could become “a gourmet luxury food.” A member of the advisory board and past president of the California Oak Foundation, Havlik said he hasn’t ever eaten food made from acorns, and the idea of eating acorns doesn’t appeal to him. “It sounds kinda like eating snails,” he said, wrinkling his nose. Acorn researcher Walter Koenig, who conducts annual surveys of oaks in the Pozo area and around the state, has made—and eaten—acorn cookies. Although he said his motto is, “You can never have enough acorns,” he’s not really worried about what would happen if Central Coast residents stopped overlooking local acorns and started looking for them instead. “When it’s a good crop, so many acorns are produced that it takes wildlife months to eat them all. When it’s a good crop, one could, at least in theory, harvest large quantities of them and there would still be ‘enough’ to satiate the many animals that like to eat them,” Koenig said. Oak trees start producing acorns when they’re around 25 years old, so if someone had planted an acorn right after hearing Bainbridge’s 1986 speech in SLO about the need for more research into acorns as food, that tree would already be producing tasty treats. Some deeprooted valley oak trees have been found to produce more than 2,000 pounds of acorns in certain years, according to Bainbridge. He said he can now buy Korean acorn flour and Korean acorn noodles in San Diego where he lives, thanks to Asian food markets. An Asian acorn starch block similar to tofu is “excellent,” Bainbridge said. On a recent trip to Portugal, he found acorn liquer—called La Extremeña, with a drawing of a spreading oak and an acorn on its label—as well as whole edible acorns for sale. Whole acorns, meal, or flour can be used instead of chestnuts or chickpeas in a variety of recipes, he said.
Best pancakes ever: Acorn flour makes nutty, sweet-tasting pancakes and distinctive toasty scones. Acorn recipes are included at the end of this story on the Sun’s website, santamariasun.com.
Bainbridge is still calling for research on the acorns produced by the 500-plus species of oaks in the world, with the idea of developing cultivars that produce large, tasty acorns. Even in Native American times, California’s oak trees were planted, transplanted, and intensively managed, he said. So far, the only serious study of California acorns as a potential food source was done in 1945 during World War II, fueled by fears of food shortages. Carl Wolf determined then that coast live oak acorns (Quercus agrifolia) contain 6.26 percent protein, 16.75 percent fat, and nearly 55 percent carbohydrate. Blue oak acorns (Quercus douglasii) are packed with 5.5 percent protein, 8 percent fat, and 65 percent carbohydrate. In acorns from valley oaks (Quercus lobata), there’s 4.9 percent protein, 5.5 percent fat, and 69 percent carbohydrate. With acorn oil another possibility for the marketplace, acorns’ potential as an economic crop for the Central Coast needs further research. “The challenge is first to alert farmers, foresters, and the food industry in California to the potential use of acorns,” Bainbridge wrote in 1986—a challenge that still exists today. “The second task is to establish a larger market for wild acorns and acorn products”—another item still on the “To Do” list. In his latest report, titled Acorns as Food, Bainbridge noted, “It seems possible that an entrepreneur could establish a profitable acorn business,” a job that would be easier, he said, if processing and palatability tests are conducted by university researchers. “I think a talented cook/marketer could make a satisfactory entrance into the market with acorn oil, acorn chips and crackers, acorn breads or muffins, or pickled acorns,” he wrote. As Bainbridge concluded, “It is not surprising that acornbased cultures prospered for thousands of years with this excellent food base.” m Contributing writer Kathy Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.