September 28, 2011 – San Francisco Chronicle |
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San Francisco Chronicle article insertIt’s acorn season. They’re falling by the barrel-load into our yards and parks, littering the ground with squirrel food. But Jolie Lonner Egert doesn’t see this as a nuisance. She calls acorns the “original California cuisine.” And the Fairfax-based ethnobotanist is betting that they’ll be the next locavore sensation. “I think in 10 years, you’ll be able to walk into any farm-to-table restaurant and order acorn pancakes,” she said.

Egert runs Go Wild, an ecological education company that offers classes on foraging and preparing edible wild plants across the Bay Area. For the past four years, she’s spent her Septembers gathering the harvest from oak trees and teaching others how to do the same.

Sporting a felted acorn cap and gesturing with a squirrel puppet, Egert led a lively presentation earlier this month at Hidden Villa, an organic farm in Los Altos, in which she explained to a group of families how oak trees used to provide an easy, plentiful crop for native Californians. A mature oak tree can produce 300 to 500 pounds of acorns per season, yielding a massive surplus even after a vast network of insects, birds and mammals have been fed.

The trees are also extremely adaptable. California has at least 20 species of oak, growing in every part of the state and covering over a third of the land mass. “Oaks are shape-shifters – they can grow in the desert, or in wet, cold climates,” Egert said.

SF Gate | Acorns: Not just for squirrels anymoreShe believes that if we can re-plant and sustainably manage our oaks the way native Californians did, then today’s residents will have a secure and abundant food source during the coming decades of unpredictable climate change. It’s simply a matter of getting Americans to try them.

“In Mexico, Korea and all across the Mediterranean, people eat acorns,” she said. Audience member Jing Zhou said that he grew up eating acorn jelly in central China, and currently buys it at a local Korean market in Los Altos. “You make it like tofu,” he said. “You cut it and serve it with ginger and soy sauce.”

Egert prefers her acorns in baked goods. Acorn flour can be used in any recipe that calls for corn meal or nut meal. She also likes to saute chopped acorns in sugar and butter, roast the nibs with honey, or boil them into an oatmeal-consistency porridge.

So how do they taste?

Egert served the crowd a range of acorn goodies. A tray full of cakes disappeared quickly, and the adults were offered a taste of Spanish-made acorn liqueur.

After sampling a handful of chopped and dried acorns, Rebecca Sherwood of Los Altos had some difficulty nailing down the flavor. “They’re not like walnuts, which have more oil and fat and a creamy taste. They’re just very mild and chewy.”

Nutritionally, acorns are a good choice. They’re gluten-free, low-fat, and loaded with vitamins and minerals. But they do take a lot of preparation. And a specific set of tools.

First, they must be dried until their insides rattle. A good dehydrator can accomplish this in two days. Then the nuts have to be cracked open, scanned for burrowing bugs or mold, and the inner kernel ground into coarse flour.

Young participant holds acornsAt the Hidden Villa event, kids used the traditional method of pounding the acorns with stone mortar and pestle.

“This is the sound you would have heard upon entering a native Pomo village 200 years ago,” Egert said, as the hammering and giggling resounded across the farm.

Loaded into a porous sack, the flour then has to soak in running water for several days to leach out the bitter-tasting tannins.

Egert and her husband, David Egert, who teaches biology at the College of Marin, are constantly experimenting with new methods for each of these steps in order to perfect the process.

“People tell me that acorns take too much work. But then I ask them, ‘What would you have to do to grow wheat right here?’ ” she said, pointing toward a majestic Oregon white oak.

She ran through the requirements: “You’d cut down the trees, destroying the rich and complex ecosystem here. You’d till the soil and have to water, weed, and kill the pests – often with nasty chemicals. Then you’d have to gather, thresh and grind the flour. Every year, you’d do the same thing over and over again.”

By contrast, native oaks require only occasional pruning and weeding, and they keep local flora and fauna thriving.

“It’s better for the land and way easier just to pick acorns off the ground.”
Acorn workshops

For future acorn events, go to