Acorns — food and metaphor
If you’re going to eat them, don’t tell the oak
It’s that time of year — autumn/fall — when we see acorns on the oaks and on the ground and we go “hmm, they’re cute, shouldn’t we be doing something with them?”
There’s a kind of vague folk memory that we used to eat them, and not leave all the oak nuts to the birds, squirrels, deer, rabbits and everything that munches these little pods of goodness.
And of course every single marketing person ever born since they crawled out of the primordial slime — for some as much as six months ago — will give you a cheery metaphor about how mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow.
But you’re still standing there with that little nut in your hand, possibly still in its cup. If you pull the nut out you’ll marvel at how smooth and fine the inner surface of the cup is. This would be a pretty comfortable place to perch. It’s just a little hint of the effort the oak tree has put into nurturing its seed, and it’s not keen on seeing that effort wasted. It has taken precautions.
Back in the day people did eat them. The Romans made a coarse flour out of them, and in the Second World War people — British and German among them — made a sort of coffee by roasting then grinding the acorns. You can make a pretty nice flour from doing that with sweet chestnuts, but acorns have what those marketing people would call “a barrier to entry”.
If you’re going to eat an acorn you’d better be prepared to put in the work. The oak tree wants you to scatter the acorns around, not eat them.
Squirrels weigh and smell each acorn and gauge it for nutrition. A good one is jam packed with carbs, fat, minerals and protein, just the thing for the long months of winter ahead. But most acorns don’t get eaten at once, they are stored away for later. So how does the squirrel choose which ones to eat, which ones to save?
When an oak tree comes under attack from a predator, like bugs, deer or anything else, it reacts by pumping tannins up from its main body into its leaves. Tannins are bitter — they’re what makes a stewed cup of tea taste so horrid and dark. After a few minutes the predator will often move away because the leaves start to taste unpleasant.
The tree stuffs the acorns full of tannins too. That way, animals are more likely to bury them than eat them, and then indeed a mighty oak can grow from that acorn. Over time, as the acorns turn brown, the tannins break down, and then the squirrel can tuck in without looking as though it’s sucking a lemon.
So feel free to eat Nature’s bounty. After all, all you have to do is pick up the acorns, they’re free, they’re not in a prickly case, and they’ve travelled no food miles. But you’ll need to leach the tannins out, by leaving them in water for days and probably weeks, changing the water regularly. It’s not that arduous, but once they’re clear you can roast, grind, do whatever you want with them and carry on an ancient tradition.
Just be aware the oak tree has put a lot of effort into ensuring you don’t do that. Trees can be very benevolent, but they fight hard to protect themselves and their successors. So, if you’re going to harvest acorns, make sure you go and bury a few in likely places.
But make sure no squirrel is watching you first.
Graham Scott is the author of the children’s Treelogy series, with the first book, Banished to the Forest, and the second book, Defending the Forest, available through Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com or the publisher Phillimore Book Publishers.