Oak trees belong to the Quercus genus and

produce fruits called acorns.
In botanical
terms, acorns are a type of nut, i.e. an indehiscent fruit with just one seed which comes from
a flower with a superior ovary. In many Romance languages, the term for acorn evolved
from the Latin word “glande” (Catalan; gla, Galician; landra, French; gland, Italian; ghianda,
Romanian; ghindă), although the Spanish and
Portuguese terms come from the Arabic ballúta, in turn possibly evolving from the Greek
βαλανωτή ( DRAE, 2014). Hence, the acorn in
Spanish is called a bellota (even billota in the
countryside) and in Portuguese bolota.

Ancestral food
About 500 species of Quercus have been very
important in human nutrition in different cultures and places all around the world. In Japan,
acorns from the Daimyo oak (Quercus dentata)
are roasted and consumed as a food or a coffee
substitute. In North
America, natives used
eight different oak species, gathering their
acorns for food. Specially, the best ones are
from Quercus macrocarpa, used to make bread
and muffins. Nowadays, in Korea, acorn jelly is
a popular meal (dotorimuk) as are noodles made from acorn starch (dotori gooksoo). Acorns
are one of the basic ingredients in racahout, an
Arabic preparation for children and ailing persons. In Italy, acorns as a food have fallen into
disuse, although in the past the fruits of Q. frainetto, Q. congesta, Q. cerris, Q. suber y Q.
ilex were mixed with chestnut and rye flour to
make bread (Pignone and Laghetti, 2010)

Figure 1: Acorn shown in a Roman cornice, First Century A.D.
(Archaeological Museum of Córdoba)

Acorn seeds are readily dispersed by animals, which
hide or bury the nuts to store food. New oaks are produced by the acorns forgotten by squirrels, jays, etc.
The Holm oak (Quercus ilex subsp. ballota) is a Mediterranean evergreen tree which produces acorns
of varying size, shape and taste. Its acorns range
from bitter to sweet (depending on the tannin content), but always with the same taste on a single
tree. The best way to know how an acorn tastes is
to try it. The skin which covers the seed is especially
bitter, so it´s better to remove it. In Southern
Spain acorns ripen in late autumn.

Figure 2: Acorns group

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Among plant remains found in Spanish archaeological settlements, one of the more common fruits is
the acorn. In fact, there are remains both of the
fruits and food products, e.g. cakes. Often, acorns
appear mixed with cereals, pointing out the use of a
mix with other seeds (García et al, 2013).

In our field work in Southern Spain, we have documented the old practice of picking acorns in autumn
and spreading them out on the upper floor of houses, to be used later in human or animal nutrition.
Nowadays, acorns in Spanish nutrition have definitely fallen into disuse.

Strabo, in his Geographica, Book III, about Iberia,
mentioned that people in the mountains ate acorns
three quarters of the year. Dried and ground into
flour, they were useful in make a longlasting bread
(García y Bellido, 1968). There are many historical
references to acorns and their consumption. For instance, Andalusian scholars in the Middle Age wrote
about the differences between acorns, their consumption as a food, ecological tree needs, medicinal
properties of acorns, etc. (Carabaza et al, 2004).

Figure 4: Making acorn sweets

Oak management
Figure 3: An illustration of a acorn (J.F.)

In the works of Enrique García et al (2013) there is
a detailed description on the history of consumption
of acorn bread in Spain. In this very interesting paper we can find the different ways to prepare acorn
flour, cooked in a porridge or in cakes.

Acorns are an energetic and nutritious food, with a
high content in carbohydrates. They also contain
lipids and proteins, calcium, phosphorus, potassium
and niacin (Pignone and Laghetti, 2010). For this
reason, the acorn, when well prepared, could be a
staple food.

Centuries-old oaks which have survived up to
today have often done so for practical reasons;
such as being used as shade trees on hot summer days or because they produced large, sweet acorns, highly appreciated in the old days to
feed people and animals. Near the little hamlets in the mountains of the Alcaraz and the Segura Ranges (South-East Spain) one can often
find a handful of big holm oaks which have been used as fruit trees, due to the excellent quality of their acorns. This human selection has
changed the composition of Iberian forests and
meadows, favoring the holm oaks with the best
fruits (while designating the bitter ones for firewood or charcoal).

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In order to promote acorn production, while also
producing firewood and sunny pastures, there is a
traditional pruning method in Spain called “a horca y
pendón” (which means hayfork and banner, due to
the resulting shape of the crown). The vertical branches in the center of the crown are pruned, leaving
only the branches which hang down over the side.
In most of the meadows of South-West Spain, it is
easy to find these trees with such an amazing shape.

The main problem of using bitter acorns as human
food is their high tannin content (very variable).
Tannins may cause nutritional problems by blocking
protein and other nutrient assimilation (besides the
bitter taste). Nevertheless, bitter acorns have been
used as a food in times of need, thanks to the development of different techniques to remove the tannins. Since tannins are soluble in water, they can be
eliminated by soaking the acorns in water for some
days or by boiling them and throwing out the boiling
water. In some cases, people used water mixed with
red clay to trap the tannins (Pignone and Laghetti,
2010).

Animal fodder. Acorns are very appreciated by livestock. Sheep, goats and pigs eat them when they
fall to the ground. In La Mancha, acorns were gathered and fed to pigs in their pens. Shepherds
would beat the oak branches with sticks so the
acorns would fall off the oak trees, making it easier
for animals to graze.
Figure 5: The dehesa, a traditional management system which
juggles acorn production with other uses.

Traditional Uses
Food. Acorns can be eaten raw or roasted. Acorn
cakes are prepared by making a dough with boiled
acorns mixed with honey. With this dough, people
fill pastries which can be fried or baked in the oven.
In the Alcaraz Range (South-East Spain) an old recipe is composed of lentils with acorns (see below).
In many places acorns have traditionally been
ground up and roasted to be used as a coffee substitute.

Acorns gathered in the forest must be spread out to
dry. Once well dried they can be stored all year round.
After drying, peeling and grinding, acorn flour is obtained. This can be eaten alone (although it is very astringent), or mixed with cereal flour to make porridge
or cakes.

Acorns are a key nutrient in the fattening of Iberian
pigs, being the raw material for “pata negra” (black
leg) ham, the most highly prized of Spanish hams.
The longer the pigs are fed with acorns, the better
the quality of their ham. Spanish regulations establish different qualities for hams, depending on the
time spent in the field, animal density, etc.
(Magrama, 2007):

De bellota o terminado en montanera (1st)

De recebo o terminado en recebo (2nd)

De cebo de campo (3th)

De cebo (4th)

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Formerly, sweet acorns were saved for people, whereas the bitter ones were used to feed animals.
Folk Medicine. Since antiquity, acorns have been
employed to control diarrheas, due to the astringent
properties in their tannins. There are different home
-made remedies, including an acorn-milk drink
(García y Pereira, 2013). People used these fruits
as astringents in the Segura and Alcaraz ranges,
preparing a beverage by boiling acorns with bay leaves and corncob stigmas. After delivering a baby,
women were nourished with a porridge made with
acorn flour to increase milk production (Verde et al,
2008).
Craftwork. Acorns, due to their richness in tannins
(the more bitter, the better), have been used to tan
leather (Pignone and Laghetti, 2010).
Beekeeping. Acorns with worms secrete a dark,
sticky, sweet syrup which bees utilize to make a
thick, dark oak honey.
Liquours. In Extremadura (West Spain) there is a
typical, delicious acorn liquour, sweet and aromatic,
which people drink for digestive purposes.

Games. Acorn cupules are used as whistles when
hidden between the base of the index and middle
finger, in a way which is hardly visible. By blowing
between these bent fingers, children and shepherds
produce a strong, sharp whistle.
Lentils with acorns (Alcaraz mountains, Albacete)

Ingredients (for 4 people)

400 gr. of lentils

250 gr. of acorns

Bay leaves

Garlic

Tomato

Paprika

Soak lentils for some hours until tender. Drain.
Make a cut in the shells and submerge the acorns in
boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove the acorns
from this water and place them in a fresh pot of boiling water with the soaked lentils and some bay leaves. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic cloves, tomato
and paprika, adding them to the pot with the lentils
and acorns. Boil the mixture until ready.

.

Figure 5: Cupule position for whistling

Figure 6: Lentils with acorns

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References:
Carabaza, J.M., García, E., Hernández, J.E. y
Jiménez, A. 2004. Árboles y arbustos de AlAndalus. Ed. CSIC.
DRAE (Diccionario de la Real Academia Española). www.rae.es (accessed online on December 14, 2014).
García y Bellido, A. 1968. España y los españoles hace dos mil años. Según la geografía de
Estrabón. Ed. Austral. Madrid.
García, E. y Pereira, J. 2013. El uso medicinal
de la bellota. Medicina Naturista 7:42-50

Now a forgotten food, acorns
are an essential natural resource in the Mediterranean.
These old recipes should be
recovered and used in
today’s cooking.

García, E., Pereira, J. Tardío, J. y Pardo, M.
2013. Historia, elaboración y consumo de
pan de bellota en España. PastryRevolution
3: 84-97.
Magrama. 2007. Nueva norma de calidad de la
carne, el jamón, la paleta y la caña de lomo
ibéricos. Ministerio de agricultura, pesca y
alimentación, Madrid.
Pignone, D. and Laghetti, G. 2010. On sweet
acorn (Quercus spp.) cake tradition in Italian culture and ethnic islands. Genet. Resour. Crop. Evol.
Verde, A., Rivera, D., Fajardo, J., Obón, C., y
Cebrián, F. 2008. Guía de las plantas medicinales de Castilla-La Mancha (y otros recursos medicinales de uso tradicional). Altabán
Albacete. 528 pp.

Texts: José Fajardo y Alonso Verde
Photos José Fajardo
.

Design: Miguel R. Brotons

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