By Andrea Maraschi
Acorns represented a staple food in the prehistoric stage of human society, for instance among the Native Americans, and in the Far East (where they are still quite popular). However, there were discordant opinions about acorns in ancient Europe.
In the classical world, intellectuals often linked acorn consumption with a primitive bucolic past, in either a positive or a negative sense. The Greek historian Strabo (64/63 BC – AD 24), for example, noted that the mountaineers of Lusitania used to make bread with acorn flour because they did not have many other resources available (i.e., grain flours). Others, like Herodotus (484– 425 BC), associated acorn consumption with the mythical Arcadia, a land populated by primitive and fierce men. In this case, however, the idea of primitiveness implied that the Arcadians could be incredibly hard to conquer, even for the Spartans (at least according to the Oracle of Delphi).
Be that as it may, the Mediterranean notion of civilization was not based on acorns whatsoever, but rather on the Mediterranean triad: bread, oil, and wine. “Civilization” coincided with “agriculture”, and acorns were merely considered a food for swine. A particularly recommended food for swine, actually: it will suffice to think of jamón ibérico de bellota, a well-known and appreciated ham with a unique flavour which is still a Spanish delicacy, and which has a considerably old tradition. Acorns generano miglior carne (“make better meat”, with clear reference to pork), stated the Italian agronomist and gastronome Vincenzo Tanara (†1667), around the second half of the seventeenth century.
In the early Middle Ages, pigs and acorns became so important in the peasant economy that the chronicler Gregory of Tours (538-594) even recorded a kind of famine – “forest famine” – which Roman historians totally neglected. For instance, Gregory writes that, in 591, floods and incessant rain destroyed the hay, and the crops were poor in the Frankish kingdom; furthermore, he added, “acorns grew, but they never ripened.”
Medieval emergency food
In ancient and in medieval times, acorns were also occasionally employed as food for man, in cases of emergency: “when there is scarcity of corn”, Pliny noted in the Naturalis Historia, that people used to dry acorns and grind them into flour, and knead this in panis usum (“to make bread”). This was exactly the role that acorns began to play at some point in the history of Western civilization among peasants: replacement food or – even more precisely – replacement flour. This substitution would be made on numerous occasions in the past, medieval times included: wars, famines, bad seasons, etc. This is a beautiful demonstration of a peculiar human attitude: that of sticking to habits, no matter the context.
Wheat bread was an identity-marking food, and people would still make bread in times of hardship: with inferior grain flours if these were available (barley, rye, oat, millet, etc.), or with anything else that could be ground into powder in case of extreme emergency (chestnuts, wild grasses, roots, acorns). For instance, the eleventh-century chronicler Godfrey Malaterra recorded that during a terrible famine in 1058, many people in southern Italy had to steal acorns from pigs to make bread: they dried, ground, and mixed them with millet flour. By doing so, they were not acting as “animals”, evidently: this was an act of civilized panic. Don’t forget: bread was a cornerstone of the idea of civilization, regardless of the ingredients it was made of.
This turned out to be an incredibly successful experiment, so much so that it would be featured in a number of treatises up until the nineteenth century, all of which suggested to make bread in the same manner in case of need. Acorn bread was still consumed during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939; likewise, pan’ispeli (“acorn bread”) was consumed in Sardinia until the half of the last century in times of hardship. In fact, acorns represented this facet of the history of human nutrition: inventiveness which arose from need.
However, since they were associated with the idea of poverty, and a lack of more desirable foods, they also came to represent that of penitence and mortification in medieval times. Those particularly pious men of God who decided to part ways from the community and live in the woods – the hermits – would feed on whatever they could find in the forest. Consequently, acorns – alongside roots, herbs, etc. – also became a way of humiliating one’s body and thus purify the soul.
From Peasant to Posh: Acorns as a delicacy
Interestingly though, acorns made it to the tables of the elite as well. Firstly, because intellectuals started to recognize their supposed medicinal virtues. For instance, an early fifteenth-century version of the Tacuinum Sanitatis – composed by the Arab Christian physician Ibn Butlân in the second half of the eleventh century and repeatedly translated and copied in medieval Europe – suggested eating acorns when they were fresh and large, and noted that they helped retention, and prevented menstruation. The latter effect could be neutralized by eating them roasted with sugar. Needless to say, the mention of sugar is an indicator of the kind of audience the treatise was addressing: the elite, the aristocracy. In fact, acorns were upgraded to the status of elite delicacy towards the end of the Middle Ages. But how, and why?
Actually, peasant and elite cooking were strictly connected with each other. Elite chefs appreciated the delicacies which were typical of the peasant world, and so did aristocrats and the new urban upper class of the late Middle Ages. It was just a matter of ennobling such delicacies and make them fit for the tables of the wealthy. There were two main techniques which allowed them to achieve this. One, was to add certain special ingredients to the recipe that were inaccessible to peasants and to the lower classes: spices, for example. Alternatively, chefs would use elements of peasant’s cooking as side dishes, or as secondary ingredients in recipes featuring foods which peasants could not afford, such as large game.
The result of this was that elite cookbooks were heavily based on peasant cooking. So much so that acorns started to appear in such cookbooks. In 1549, the steward of the House of Este, Cristoforo Messisbugo (†1548) has an important cookbook posthumously published where we find a recipe for an acorn pie. He suggested taking the acorns and boiling them in broth, and then passing them through a filter. Then, the cook was to add grated dry cheese, sugar, cinnamon, pepper, butter, and eggs. After making the pie, it was cooked in the oven, and finally sprinkled with sugar. Similarly, in 1570, the famous chef Bartolomeo Scappi (1500–1577), who served the most important Italian courts of his times, included an acorn pie in his extremely influential recipe collection.
What is striking, is that the core of these preparations were not much different than the way in which acorns were prepared at the time of Pliny or Strabo. The main idea was that oak nuts (preferably those from Turkey oaks, Quercus cerris) were to be treated in order to deprive them of tannins, and were parboiled in meat broth, or salted water. They were then ground in a mortar and passed through a filter. With that, the tourte was made by mixing this powder with fresh butter, milk, creamy and grated dry cheese, sugar, ricotta or provatura, cinnamon, pepper, and uncooked egg yolks. Eventually, the pie was was put in the oven and glazed with sugar, cinnamon and rose water.
And that is how acorns – an element of peasant cooking in times of hardship – were “artificially ennobled”. Through wars, famines, genius, anxiety, and experiments, the culinary history of acorns in Europe has been troubled, to say the least. They surely – but rarely – acted as a bridge between the poor and the wealthy, the lower and the upper classes, and this seems to have happened at some point during the late Middle Ages.
Andrea Maraschi is a Lecturer in Medieval History at Università degli Studi di Bari. He has taught courses on Food history in the Middle Ages and Anthropology of Food, and he has published on many aspects connected with food in medieval times such as banqueting, religious symbolism, and magic practice. Click here to see him on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @Andrea_Maraschi
This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.
Top Image: British Library MS Royal MS 2 B VII fol. 81v