Tuesday, February 13, 2007
More on Eating Acorns
The trouble with acorns is their tannin content. They impart bitter taste and also can have other adverse effects. Even so, they are very rich nutrient sources and perfect animal fodder.
However, although most oak species produce high tannin acorns, there are a handful in Europe, and a good bunch in N America, that are sweet and have been appreciated as human food from prehistoric up to recent times. The best of them are comparable and can replace chestnuts.
It would be good to know what kind does Hesiod refer to. I should venture to suggest that before the coming of the true chestnut some such sweet acorn might have held the place.
The European chestnut is in fact a Persian native brought to Europe rather later by the Greeks. In the Book V, Ch. IV of Anabasis (tr. H.G. Dakyns), Xenophon describes noble Mossynoecian children being fattened with chestnuts ("fatted children belonging to the wealthy classes, fed up on boiled chestnuts until they were as white as white can be, of skin plump and delicate, and very nearly as broad as they were long").
The description does not suggest chestnuts were already a common Greek food item ("nuts […] the broad kind without a division") and, in Hesiod’s time, they were probably unknown.
Even the bitter ones have been consistently used as human foods in times of crop failure or famine. Methods of tannin-leaching have been developed (water soaking or repeated boiling) by several human cultures.
(Wiki cites, without reference, ancient Japan (Jomon period), where acorn was an important food, harvested, peeled and soaked in natural or artificial ponds, then processed into cakes. Also, in Korea, an edible acorn jelly (dotorimuk) is made).
The acorns of white oaks, much lower in tannins, are nutty in flavor, which is enhanced if they are lightly roasted, before grinding. As for the N American sweet ones, their former use by Native Americans is well documented.
Alan Davidson, in The Oxford Companion to Food, OUP, 1999 (a useful, if very uneven and poorly edited work) refers to the acorns of the Holm Oak (also Holly Oak, Evergreen Oak), Quercus ilex, of southern Europe and northwestern Africa, the ssp. rotundifolia (syn. Q. rotundifolia, Q. ballota), as the best and sweetest. The acorns are 2.5 cm long (longer than most) and cylindrical in shape. Davidson does not bother us with references. However, he does mention Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I take the liberty to provide a few actual quotes in John Ormsby’s translation.
CHAPTER XI. WHAT BEFELL DON QUIXOTE WITH CERTAIN GOATHERDS
The course of meat finished, they spread upon the sheepskins a great heap of parched acorns […] When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:(And here follows a wonderful harangue on the Golden Age, a gem that deserves mention. For mere convenience, I append it at the end of the message).
II. CHAPTER L. WHEREIN IS SET FORTH WHO THE ENCHANTERS AND EXECUTIONERS WERE WHO FLOGGED THE DUENNA AND PINCHED DON QUIXOTE, AND ALSO WHAT BEFELL THE PAGE WHO CARRIED THE LETTER TO TERESA PANZA, SANCHO PANZA'S WIFE
[…] They tell me there are big acorns in your village; send me a couple of dozen or so, and I shall value them greatly as coming from your hand; […]
From this place. Your loving friend, THE DUCHESS.
CHAPTER LIX. WHEREIN IS RELATED THE STRANGE THING, WHICH MAY BE REGARDED AS AN ADVENTURE, THAT HAPPENED TO DON QUIXOTE
"If you come to people of quality," said Sancho, "there's nobody more so than my master; but the calling he follows does not allow of larders or store-rooms; we lay ourselves down in the middle of a meadow, and fill ourselves with acorns or medlars."CHAPTER LXII. WHICH DEALS WITH THE ADVENTURE OF THE ENCHANTED HEAD, TOGETHER WITH OTHER TRIVIAL MATTERS WHICH CANNOT BE LEFT UNTOLD
"No, senor, that's not true," said Sancho, "for I am more cleanly than greedy, and my master Don Quixote here knows well that we two are used to live for a week on a handful of acorns or nuts."With best wishes,
Appendix: the Golden Age
When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:
"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words "mine" and "thine"! In that blessed age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit. The clear streams and running brooks yielded their savoury limpid waters in noble abundance. The busy and sagacious bees fixed their republic in the clefts of the rocks and hollows of the trees, offering without usance the plenteous produce of their fragrant toil to every hand. The mighty cork trees, unenforced save of their own courtesy, shed the broad light bark that served at first to roof the houses supported by rude stakes, a protection against the inclemency of heaven alone. Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord; as yet the dull share of the crooked plough had not dared to rend and pierce the tender bowels of our first mother that without compulsion yielded from every portion of her broad fertile bosom all that could satisfy, sustain, and delight the children that then possessed her. Then was it that the innocent and fair young shepherdess roamed from vale to vale and hill to hill, with flowing locks, and no more garments than were needful modestly to cover what modesty seeks and ever sought to hide. Nor were their ornaments like those in use to-day, set off by Tyrian purple, and silk tortured in endless fashions, but the wreathed leaves of the green dock and ivy, wherewith they went as bravely and becomingly decked as our Court dames with all the rare and far-fetched artifices that idle curiosity has taught them. Then the love-thoughts of the heart clothed themselves simply and naturally as the heart conceived them, nor sought to commend themselves by forced and rambling verbiage. Fraud, deceit, or malice had then not yet mingled with truth and sincerity. Justice held her ground, undisturbed and unassailed by the efforts of favour and of interest, that now so much impair, pervert, and beset her. Arbitrary law had not yet established itself in the mind of the judge, for then there was no cause to judge and no one to be judged. Maidens and modesty, as I have said, wandered at will alone and unattended, without fear of insult from lawlessness or libertine assault, and if they were undone it was of their own will and pleasure.But now in this hateful age of ours not one is safe, not though some new labyrinth like that of Crete conceal and surround her; even there the pestilence of gallantry will make its way to them through chinks or on the air by the zeal of its accursed importunity, and, despite of all seclusion, lead them to ruin.
In defence of these, as time advanced and wickedness increased, the order of knights-errant was instituted, to defend maidens, to protect widows and to succour the orphans and the needy. To this order I belong, brother goatherds, to whom I return thanks for the hospitality and kindly welcome ye offer me and my squire; for though by natural law all living are bound to show favour to knights-errant, yet, seeing that without knowing this obligation ye have welcomed and feasted me, it is right that with all the good-will in my power I should thank you for yours."
All this long harangue (which might very well have been spared) our knight delivered because the acorns they gave him reminded him of the golden age; and the whim seized him to address all this unnecessary argument to the goatherds, who listened to him gaping in amazement without saying a word in reply. Sancho likewise held his peace and ate acorns, and paid repeated visits to the second wine-skin, which they had hung up on a cork tree to keep the wine cool.