Monday, December 2, 2013

Acorn Harvest

With the Thanksgiving holiday upon us, I thought it the right time to process the acorns that I gathered in the late summer and early fall. I have a fairly good sized Valley Oak tree in my front yard, and since the acorn crop this year was rather abundant, I harvested about a third of what the tree provided this year - leaving the rest for the birds.

Speaking of those feathered friends, as soon as the acorns got to sufficient size, crows, doves, and mostly scrub jays began working on the nuts which they knocked to the ground. Yes, while the early nuts were mostly still green, I began picking the good ones up to hide away for myself before anything else got to them. Seems to me the birds would mostly eat a little bit of acorn and then continue to knock others down. Maybe they were only interested in the grubs that infest most of the nuts.

By picking about a handful a day off the ground, I harvested quite a nice little batch. Eventually the nuts ripened on the tree and the birds started knocking down mature brown ones. I ended up with just as many brown ones as I did green, and kept them separated in two different boxes to do this here little experiment.

I left the acorn boxes in my garage where they could dry out and age a little. About half of them split open on their own which eventually made shelling those easier. In early October I began shelling a few of the brown ones. Those I put in a bowl and left them in the fridge.

Something I had no idea would happen is how fast these acorns oxidize where they were bruised from the shelling process. If put in the fridge right away after shelling, the bruises would only turn a light brown, and remain somewhat "ok" looking. If not left in a cold environment, the bruised meat would turn black and eventually mold up. Moral of that story is to only shell them when you are ready to start the leaching process in the same day if you don't have access to refrigeration or cold temps.

So the 20 browns I first put in the fridge stayed good for two months and may have lasted longer. Of all the browns harvested, only half turned out not to have grubs, even though they all looked good when I first picked them up. Towards early November, I shelled the rest of the good browns. However, those I left in the garage overnight. The next day I found them half black and ugly. So I took out the good meat and added that to my fridge bowl. So overall I was only able to use about a quarter of the browns harvested.

Thanksgiving rolls around, and I decide it's a good time to cook these up. I take all the browns I have, which isn't much now, and start the process. I first shaved off some of the bruised meat that had turned dark brown. That probably wasn't necessary, but this was my first time doing this. I ground them to a fine flour with ease with the coffee grinder. That was a big help!

Luckily I had the rest of the materials for leaching out the tannins already which was nice. Using this leaching method, I found it was good for filling up the coffee filter with water once, achieving a good first initial flushing. However, when I tried to refill the filter with water, it slowed to a drip. So I put the mash into a piece of an old shirt and squeezed and pressed the rest of the tannins out into a bowl in the sink. This took many pressings to get the acidity out. When I was done, all that remained was about a cup's worth.

The next morning I started on the green acorns that were by now all brown, but we'll still call them green. About a third of these were edible, equaling around three cups of flour. Ground these up later that night, leached as before, and added in a cup from the brown batch. This flour when freshly ground is cream colored like the acorn meat, but I was again surprised how quickly it browns in the open air. Much like apples do.

Now there's many ways to cook acorn flour. You can make it stretch by using it with wheat flour in recipes. But I just wanted to fry up some cakes with a little brown sugar and salt. So I mixed up the mash, and fried them in a little butter. These nuts being rich and buttery already probably didn't need to be fried in butter, but again this whole thing was a first time experiment for me.

And no they do not look pretty, but I thought they were pretty damn good! Rich like Hudson Bay bread. With these a little goes a long way. I can see how civilizations made these a large part of their diet with some meat and berries to supplement. However the recipe I made was only liked by myself and one other that night. The seven remaining participants thought it was pretty nasty. Ha ha! Think of Jeremiah Johnson when he first eats the bread his new wife cooks him. That's the image. So adding it with wheat flour and doing a proper recipe would have been better for the masses. For this time, I didn't want to add too much other ingredients so that the acorn meat could really be the main item.

So out of a whole tree's worth of harvest, I came away with only a plateful of nutrient rich cakes. If anyone's doing the math, only 17% of the harvest was edible. And that was including the green acorns. Not sure if you're really supposed to eat those, but they seemed alright to me. When in the middle of autumn during the normal harvest time, all the acorns on the ground are brown, so it would be hard to tell which ones fell when green. That's my thinking anyways. As long as they look good, they should be alright yea? (Not an expert opinion obviously)

I'd lay the claim that one Valley Oak tree yields about 4 to 6 cups of flour. And these are big trees. The smaller prized Black Oaks must have been like a delicacy in times past.

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