With a large amount of time on my hands recently, I’ve looked into some slightly less straight forward forms of free food. Finding myself in Denmark surrounded by countless fruiting beech and oak trees I spent a day in the leaf litter collecting acorns and beech nuts.
Acorns are a very important food source for many animals. They are enjoyed by a variety of birds (including jays, pigeons and woodpeckers), small mammals (mice and squirrels) and large mammals including deer. Moth and weevil large also develop inside acorns (see right). Acorns are full of energy and nutrients and are often cached or stored to be consumed later!
For human consumption, you need to remove the bitter tasting tannins (left) before acorns are palatable. Tannins are astringents which cause shrinking or constriction of body tissues due to protein binding. Tannins contained in certain foods cause that dry cotton wool mouth feel as the saliva proteins are bound together. Have you ever eaten a sloe (blackthron berry) or some banana skin? You know what I’m talking about!
After releasing the nuts from their tough outer shell (a few hours in front of the TV will have it done) and discarding any partially eaten fruits the bounty was ready. We ground the acorns in a blender (not too fine) with some water. In order to leech out the tannins the meal was covered in water and allowed to stand. Then twice a day the water was changed and slowly the fluid turned from a murky brown to a clear pale colour.
The meal was drained (using a coffee filter!) and spread on a baking tray (it doesn’t look very appealing!). If you are planning on storing it, you will need to dry it out. To do this, place the meal in the oven on a low heat (about 50 degrees) for about an hour. This step can be avoided if you are going to use it straight away.
I used the meal as an addition to bread rolls. I made the dough as before except replaced approximately one third of the flour with the acorn meal. It gave the dough a very interesting colour and once baked a very nice texture. There is a distinctive taste to the bread, not bitter, but one we enjoy! If you have the time, I recommend giving it a go! I’ll be making more 🙂
The last few weeks have been filled with one of my favorite activities – foraging for free food! It has mainly revolved around mushrooms, but I have found other foods including acorns, beech nuts and apples. Collecting wild mushrooms is an activity I do very cautiously. Last year I attended a mushroom walk on the Quantocks and became comfortable identifying a few tasty mushrooms.
This year I attended another talk organised by the biology society in the Southern University of Denmark. I recommend this method as an introduction to wild shrooms. You have an expert on hand to quiz and help you identify the ones you want in your pan and the ones you want to leave to the slugs. The experts will also bring you to the best spots where a good variety will be found.
There are other resources which can assist in your mushroom ID if you can’t make it to an organised talk/walk or you want to add to your knowledge afterwards. If you are interested in buying a book, the Rodger Phillips book “Mushrooms” is an excellent book with great photos to guide you. It is rather large and not the type of book you could easily bring into the woods with you, so a smaller field guide could also be helpful.
To add to that there are some nice on-line keys which can help you figure out what it is you have found and whether it’s safe to eat. Two I’ve tried and found useful are http://www.mycokey.org and http://www.rogersmushrooms.com. On the mycokey site there is a nice picture key where you can input the various characteristics of your mystery mushroom to help narrow down what it could be.
You can input colours, size, texture, shape and at the end you get a list of suggestions with photographs and detailed information. It’s very simple and doesn’t require any previous knowledge. If I want to ID a mushroom, I take a sample home and have it close by to help identify the various parts, colours and shapes. Detailed photos can also be helpful.
The second site is similar but does require some understanding of the terms used to describe the different parts and shapes. The Rogers site has a large number of different photos of the mushrooms which is very helpful and you can also upload your own photos to the site to assist in ID. There are also mushroom recipes and a forum where you can post questions.
While out foraging in the local beech woods near Odense we came across a beautiful purple mushroom which I hadn’t seen before and wanted to ID. We took some photos in the forest and I took a sample home to investigate. I used the on-line ID sites and a Danish book figure it out.
I compared the colours, size, shape and eventually I was able to identify it Laccaria amethystea (edible, but probably not worth the hassle, it’s very small!). A big thank you to Rasmus for letting me use some of his beautiful photos for this blog!