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In most cultures, acorns are thought of merely as feed for pigs, or a squirrel’s favourite food. However, they are a highly nutritious, and delicious, ingredient which nature makes available to us at zero cost. As with many other wild ingredients, knowing how to cook with them can help us get through times of scarcity.
In this special episode, we take a detour to Europe to trek through the forests of Italy with chef Eleonora Matarrese, known as La Cuoca Selvatica – the Wild Cook – and explore how foraging can play its part in a more resilient food chain.
For Eleonora Matarrese, who hails from the small town of Alberobello in Puglia, southern Italy, finding and cooking with wild ingredients is the most natural thing in the world. She learned it as a child from her grandmother, Nonna Enna, who grew up in the period between the two World Wars and, like all women of her generation, knew how to use foraging to fill food gaps during hard times.
Foraging was historically a pillar of the daily diet in most rural societies around the world, but with the food industrialisation of the 1960s and ‘70s and the appearance of supermarkets, it gradually became less relevant.
But now, chefs like Eleonora are trying to revive it. She runs a restaurant called Pikniq near Lake Maggiore, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, where she serves up wild ingredients to enthusiastic customers.
Another important aspect of Eleonora’s work is education: she runs courses to teach people how to recognise, collect and cook wild ingredients from their environment. Among her students, there are school classes and other chefs.
She says they want to taste something different: “They are foodies. But when they meet me, we try to understand why we are foraging… because it’s in fashion, because there may be a time in which we won’t have supermarkets anymore? Or are we foraging because it’s in our DNA?”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, people around the world suddenly found themselves with the time to go back to this tradition. One study of an urban foraging group in the United States during the peak of the pandemic in 2020 showed that this activity helped communities cope with the impact of lockdown, and the associated economic decline.
From Philadelphia to Copenhagen, people included foraging in the outdoor exercise they were permitted to do, whether biking, walking or running. They created apps to exchange information such as where to find wild foods in the city or which edible plant had reappeared along pavements.
The European Commission says Europe should reacquaint itself with subsistence gardening and foraging in order to strengthen its food security. And there are examples of Europeans getting through a crisis thanks to their knowledge of wild plants throughout history – and more recently.
In Italy, women like Eleonora’s grandmother coped with the deprivations of the aftermath of war thanks to their foraging knowledge. Similarly, it helped Eastern Europeans survive the economic shock that came with the fall of the Soviet Union. And now, Ukrainians are going back to foraging for mushrooms in the forest, a year after the Russian invasion.
But whether it’s for reasons of necessity or pleasure, Eleonora Mattarese believes: “No meal tastes better than the one you forage yourself.” She adds: “It’s like our ancestors going in the woods and searching for something… not because we need it for dinner, but because we need to search to be complete.”
The recipe: Acorn bread
400-450 grams of acorn powder mixed with oats, seeds (e.g. chia, flax) and herbs and/or flowers (e.g. mallow root).
How to cook the acorns:
Tannins are natural chemicals found in certain plants that are toxic to humans. Acorns are high in tannins but there are several ways to remove them.
The quickest is to simmer them until the water boils clear. This can take more than an hour depending on the variety.
They can also be left to soak for several months, changing the water from time to time until it is clear.
In order not to waste water, Eleonora suggests putting them inside a net and leaving them in running water, such as a river, for a month.
How to prepare the dough:
First, you have to dehydrate the acorns. For this, Eleonora recommends using a food dehydrator. Set it at 33°C maximum in order not to lose the acorns’ nutrients.
Then you mix the acorn powder with oats and seeds such as chia or flax. Because Eleonora is the “wild cook,” for this recipe she used mallow roots from her garden.
Gardenias, pansies, hibiscus, and fuchsia are other examples of edible flowers.
You can also add salt and other herbs to the mix.
To blend all the ingredients, Eleonora uses a dough whisk. The holes in its design create spaces in the mixture.
Of course, you can use any kind of whisk but be careful not to break the seeds while you’re mixing.
How to bake the bread:
While picking up acorns, Eleonora usually also collects chestnut leaves to create a natural cover for the bread while baking.
Put the bread in the oven at 180/200°C for roughly 40 minutes. The first 20 minutes at 20°C to create the crust, and the second half of the baking time at 160°C to cook the core.
Acorn bread will harden quite quickly, but to soften it, Eleonora suggests soaking it in warm water and putting it back in the oven at 80 to 100°C for ten minutes. It’ll come out as fresh as if it had just been baked.
If you’re hungry for more recipes and stories around indigenous ingredients, listen to all the episodes of our series.
The podcast The Star Ingredient was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.