The acorn for human consumption

The acorn, as the fruit of several cultivars of the genus Quercus, is a part of the culinary and medicinal traditions of the cultures and regions where these species can be found.

A bolota

The acorn, being the fruit of several cultivars of the genus Quercus, is a part of the culinary and medicinal traditions of the cultures and regions where these species can be found. Besides the acorn powder, used for breads and cakes, roasted acorn can also be used to make a watery drink, recommended for its beneficial healthy properties as anti-diarrhea and astringent. Besides its calory value, the quercus acorns have a high content of polyphenols, a chemical with confirmed anti-oxidant properties.

The acorn is a kind of dry nut, akin to the hazel-nut, made of one seed covered by a woody shell, with a dome shaped capsule.

Being the montado made essentially by oaks – holm oak (quercus rotundifolia), cork oak (Q. suber), kermes oak (Q. coccifera), portuguese oak (Q.faginea) and pyrenean oak (Q.pyrenaica), besides other species less represented, it is only natural that the acorn, a product of all of them, became one of the most used resources of this system.

During the Middle Ages, the acorn, before the introduction of corn and potato in Europe, was a staple in the diet of the poorer classes, like the chestnut, being found a bit all over the world.

The acorns of many species can be eaten raw, right after the harvest, but some are too bitter for general consumption.

In many recipes, corn powder can be replaced by acorn powder. Pastas, bread and cakes made with roast acorn can be found in traditional cuisine more or less in every places this type of plant exists, being used instead of chestnuts, chickpeas, nuts or olives in a number of dishes. In the South of the Iberian Peninsula, including Portugal, you can find Acorn Liquor, a traditional alcoholic beverage made with brandy aromatized with the sweet acorn of the holm oak, also used as an aroma for traditional sweets. 

Besides its calory content, the quercus acorns are high on polyphenols, namely tannins, with demonstrated anti-oxidant action.

Until a few years ago, humans lived in a very close connection with their environment, a relation that is all but extinct, with the emergence of urban life.

The coevolution that took place during the history of man and nature gave place to many of the landscapes we now consider as possessing high ecological value. The Montados are one of these cultural landscapes, with high biodiversity and interesting for conservation.

In their parallel evolution, man knew how to tame the oak woods, through the control of the sub vegetation and grazing, leading to a very stable and diverse ecosystem, and being able to take advantage of a range of products and services in a sustained manner (wood, cork, wild fruits, honey, resins, game, animal husbandry).

Currently, the acorn is used mostly by cattle and represents, together with the natural pastures, a very significant resource.

However, in more ancient times, the acorn was an important food for people, as confirmed by archeological data from Portugal and Spain, and written sources in Roman and Greek.

Pais (1996) mentions, as an example, the existence of acorn among the oldest material found in the yards of the Castle of Mértola, from the end of the 11th century and beginning of the 13th. These were, he claims, used to make powder, together with wheat.

Mattoso (1993) too, defends that the human diet of the later Bronze Age was complemented with acorn. According to this author it was consumed pealed and dried, or made into porridge or bread, once toasted and grounded.

At Citânia de Briteiros, toasted acorns were found and also millstones believed to be used to grind the acorns in manual mills (Alarcão-e-Silva, 2001).

The oldest written reference to acorn used as human food refers to Hesiod (1978), a greek poet from VII BC, that wrote in his work «Works and days» – «The land produces plenty of sustenance, the holm oak is loaded with abundant acorns on its higher branches and bees in the ones in the middle. »

In the same way Pausanias (1994), speaking of Arcadia (the central region of the Ancient Peloponnesus, in Greece) quotes Pelasgo, the mythic patriarch of the first Greek settlers who taught them to feed from the acorns of the Asian oak, and to stay away from harmful herbs and roots. Arcadia was denied by Sibilia to the Spartans when they consulted in Delphos, their possibilities for success for the invasion they planned, as told by Herodotus (1977:140):

«You ask for Arcadia? You ask a lot. I shall not give it to you. In Arcadia there are many men who eat acorns and they will stop you».

Strabo, roman geographer and historian (58 BC – 25 AD) refers to the Lusitanian people by saying that «(…) During the fourth part of the year they eat nothing but acorns, that once dried and grounded, are made into bread that can be kept for a long time (…)» (Amorim, 1987)

There was back then a milling technique for cereals, where corn, wheat and acorn were mixed, using mills made of granite, and generally oval shaped.

The use of acorn as food by pre-roman people in the Peninsula during the Second Iron Age is also narrated by another Roman author, Plinius the old.

«Is is certain today that the acorn is a wealth for many peoples even in times of peace. Being cereal scarce, one dries the acorns, picks them, and make the flower in the form of bread. Presently, including the Spains, the acorn is among the desserts. Toasted in ashes it becomes sweeter. »

Literature is also a rich source of reference to the consumption of acorn by men.

Jerónimo Baía describes, in his «Phoenix Reborn», «Raisins, figs and acorns/is an unbored thing. » Were eaten raw, mas most times roasted and boiled. A soup of acorns, with beans (more recently with potato) e bread was common in the Alentejo, where you could also add green beans, chickpeas and fig-leaf gourd. (Amorim, 1987)

The acorn would have been, in fact, used as human food since very early, mostly by people with few resources.

Link, later (1803), also notes this fact during his passage by Portugal: «les hommes les manges grillé, et ils nónt point un goût désagréable. Ils ne servent cependant qu’à la nourriture des pauvres.»

It was consumed in several forms, even finding its place in the repertoire of conventual confectionary. Of that is an example the following recipe: This recipe belongs to the book of Sister Mara Leocádia Tavares de Sousa who professed at the Convent of Conception in Beja.

There are a series of representations, in illuminations in Books of Hours, demonstration how important a resource the acorn was. An example is the representation of the month of November in the Old Mass Book of Lorvão, dated from the XV century, corresponding to an image of swineherds using long canes to whip the acorns.

Representação do mês de Novembro no Missal Antigo do Lorvão, séc. XV
Representation of the month of November in the Old Mass Book of Lorvão, XV century.
Representação do mês de Novembro no Livro de Horas do Duque de Berry
Representation of the month of November in Book of Hours of the Duque of Berry.

Contemporary of these representations are the various measures taken since at least the end of the XII Century  to protect the «montados» from the extraction of acorn (Castro, 1965).

Still in the XVII century, we find rules for the same end. From 1660  a law for those whipping acorn states that «any person found whipping acorns before St. Martin’s Day, will pay a fine of 200 «reais» and the same will be paid by anyone found with a hard cane in any holm or cork oak forest before St. Martin’s day, not being the owner, and as for acorn to be eaten, they can not pick before All Saints day, unless being the owner or licensed by him»

The use of acorn for human feeding was already seen as of great concern, and the existence of a law shows it was common practice, at least among the population with fewer resources. For that reason, the date from which pick was allowed, for this end, was earlier, at All Saints Day.

A very common way of preparing the sweet acorn for human consumption was, and still is, to roast at the embers of the open fire.


Acorn-based products

Find in our online store the acorn-based products, produced and processed in the Montado do Freixo do Meio.