Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Acorns a growing cash crop on the Greek island of Kea

I have been getting email updates from Red Tractor Farm about their incredible effort to restore acorns to their rightful place in the local economy (an economy, I'm guessing, which has seen better days).

I figured out how to provide links to those updates. 

Here's one:  http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=47137f1c34e4960098f1cf150&id=2bf8fe5b9e&e=90fb9caee5

Here's the other (that I mentioned in a recent post:  http://us6.campaign-archive1.com/?u=47137f1c34e4960098f1cf150&id=d4b5518616&e=90fb9caee5

Sign up to receive these email updates here:  http://www.redtractorfarm.com/acorn.html

Read about their Acorn Initiative here:  http://www.iloveacorns.com/

It is, without question, one of the coolest things going in the world right now... a small but critically important step toward the acorn reclaiming its place in our diets and our lives.

Huffington Post says: I love acorns!

Check this out:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/marisa-churchill/i-love-acorns_b_4395356.html

Acorns are going mainstream.  Again.  After only a brief hiatus for a couple thousand years for a brief and failed experiment with grain crops.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Acorn Consumption in Civil War Spain...

... would be a great subject for a master's thesis.  Instead, sadly, it's just the subject of this mediocre blog post.

One of my favorite books is called, Or I'll Dress You in Mourning, by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  It tells the story of the rise of Manuel Benitez - El Cordobes - from abject poverty to bull fighting glory (as if there's a long list of men who were born into affluence who decided to make a living facing 1,200 pounds of angry bull in front of thousands of people wearing a sparkly pair of long johns and slippers and armed only with a marshmallow skewer and Linus's blanket).  El Cordobes was born on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, and his father spent time in prison for being part - a somewhat half-hearted part at that - of the resistance.  (Note: this El Cordobes is not to be confused with a later bull fighter calling himself El Cordobes who claimed to be Benitez's illegitimate son - a claim I suspect he shares with a small army of Spaniards.)

James Michener (who my dad always suspected of getting paid by the word) wrote about El Cordobes in his travelogue/doorstop Iberia:

"During this epoch there was a very brave young man who was to give his name to the period, El Cordobes, an illiterate street gamin from a town near Cordoba, who electrified the bullfighting world by the animal vitality he exhibited in the plazas.  Part vaudevillian, part satyr, part inspired improvisator, he sold huge numbers of tickets and charmed huge numbers of people but not me... With a shock of unruly hair, a rock-and-roll manner and a mouthful of unusually handsome teeth, he revitalized bullfighting, but I am not sure that it was any longer an art.  It was something else.  I would have to confess, however, that three times I saw him perform a feat that even now seems impossible.  Eager to make a good impression in classical Sevilla, he came out to cite his bull from a distance four times as great as the ordinary matador would normally choose, and as the bull charged at him, eleven hundred pounds of furious power, El Cordobes whirled in a tight circle, his small protecting muleta furled tightly around him and he in direct line with the bull's charge.  At the last moment he stopped his whirling, dug his feet in and unfurled his muleta, allowing the bull to thunder past a few inches from his chest.  It was exciting, but it wasn't bullfighting; it was vaudeville, and after a few performances I lost my taste for it.  But not even the young man's severest critic could deny him extraordinary courage and the ability to spread his charisma over an entire nation."

I have no idea how I came to own this book - no recollection of how it came into my possession.  I think I stole it from my parents years and years ago (sorry guys).  I have read it four or five times.  I love the story, of love the lyrical way in which it is told, and I love the history.

What does all this have to do with acorns?  A lot.  You could say that acorns, at least in part, made the "Epoch of El Cordobes" - as Michener calls it - possible.  Very simply:  No acorns, no El Cordobes.

The last time I read Or I'll Dress You in Mourning I took a different - and very weird - approach.  I know that Spain is one place where acorn consumption has continued well into "modern" times.  I know that the Spanish Civil War was a period of extreme privation for the people of Spain.  So I thought to myself, "I wonder if acorns are part of the story of El Cordobes?" and I pored over the book searching for acorn references.  I found several.  Here's the first:

"These years would later become known, in the memory of those who suffered and survived them, as los anos del hambre, the years of hunger.  Every facet of man and nature seemed to conspire to produce the terrible, searing hunger that stalked the villages of Andalusia in the years of 1940 and 1941... (The people) turned to other expedients.  On the Plaza de Abasto, the town's covered marketplace, a new commodity soon became a staple item in their diet.  It was grass, wild grass cut during the night along the banks of the Quadalquivir.  It was prepared by being boiled in a big kettle.  To that green and glutinous mass the fortunate added a drop or two of oil or the leg of a stray dog or cat, until the day came when there were no more cats and dogs wandering the streets of Palma del Rio... Nor was grass the only staple furnished by the open spaces of Analusia.  Tangadina, a kind of hard and bitter wild cauliflower usually reserved for mules and horses, and cardo, a sort of thistle, also found their way into the cooking pots of the poor.  Acorns were ground up and used to produce a brew consumed in the place of coffee.  Dried leaves and the shavings of potato peels replaced tobacco."

Yum.  Remind me of this next time I complain about eating a vegetarian meal.  I have to question the historical accuracy of this a bit.  Using acorns to produce a coffee-like brew has a long history, both in Europe and among indigenous North Americans.  But I have a very hard time buying the fact that the starving peasants of civil war era Andalusia ate wild grass, bitter cauliflower and thistle (although granted artichokes are thistles) while at the same time relegating the most nourishing food available to them - acorns - for use only in the coffee pot.  I'm guessing that acorns played a large role in sustaining this starving population through this period.

 Here is the second reference to eating acorns.  According to Juan Horrillo, who shared Benitez's dream of becoming a famous matador, who traveled with the young El Cordobes from town to town begging bullfights (and sometimes stealing clandestine bull fights in the moonlight in the pastures of the local Don) and food alike - and who eventually, when finally given the opportunity to face a real bull in a real bull ring, did what any sane person would do - he ran like hell and was thoroughly humiliated:

"'We learned to live in the field.  We ate acorns and fir nuts, wild asparagus, sorrel and cardo.  In the worst time we ate the grass the bulls ate.  We knew what herbs to crush and spread on our wounds to stop the bleeding if the bulls got us.  In the winter when the bad weather came and we caught cold, we learned to burn eucalyptus leaves and breathe in the smoke to cure ourselves.  It was the season of our adventures.  Manolo Benitez was learning to be a bullfighter and I was his soul.'"

This is a bit more like it, spoken by the man who actually lived through this time:  acorns as a dietary staple and grass as, well, a salad I guess.  Acorns helped fuel Manuel Benitez through the time when he was living in the field and fighting bulls in the moonlight.

Here's the third reference I found:  "Their pursuit of the corrida's mirage took them that summer over half of Spain.  They existed on the fruits of their petty thieving and, when that failed to nourish them, on whatever they could rip from the fields in which they fought (the landowner's prize bulls).  Sometimes for days the only items in their diet were acorns and grass.  They lived in a constant state of fear: of the Guardia Civil, of the ranchers' vaqueros, of the railway police on the freight trains they hopped, of the animals they fought."

In the poignant epilogue to the book three young bullfighting aspirants shiver outside the gates of El Cordobes mansion, hoping for a chance to meet their idol and beg him for a chance in the ring - exactly as he had done a decade or so before.  "Scattered around them were the acorns which, with the grass underneath their feet, had constituted their sole nourishment for three days."  Eventually their hero drives down the lane in his Jaguar and instructs the kids to head to his kitchen and get something to eat.

Eventually, Benitez - with the same intensity he brought to his life or death battles with the bulls - learned how to read, write and do arithmetic... primarily so he could count his growing stacks o' money.

All of these quotes talk about acorns as an emergency food source, sustenance of last resort.  And to some degree, undoubtedly, they have always played that role.  However, I also wonder if the forebears of El Cordobes and his fellow Andalusians who I'm sure made acorns a staple of their diet and cultivation of oaks their primary form of "agriculture" were nearly as vulnerable to the vagaries of other crops and better able to deal with times of drought or upheaval that hindered the production and transport of other foods.

I have to finish with this extended quote from the book.  Nothing to do with acorns, except to say that if acorns give you this type of courage/stupidity I'm not sure how healthy they really are.  Imagine a portable bull ring hastily set up in a tiny town.  Imagine a homeless waif in a rented suit of lights striding to the center of the ring, to the jeers of those who have only known him as a delinquent and a thief.  Imagine that his best friend, the above mentioned Horillo, has already run from the ring in disgrace.  And imagine that by the end of this halcyon summer this young man will be the most famous matador in Spain.  I will let his trusted picador Antonio Columpio tell the story:

"Manolo came strolling back to the barrier, trailing his cape behind him.  He took the two banderillas I gave him and showed them to the public.  Then he took them and broke them in half on the edge of the ring.  Then he broke them in half again.  By the time he had finished, they weren't any bigger than a pencil.  With that big smile of his, he started to sneak along the edge of the ring like a cat to the spot where Almendrita (the overly experienced, enormously horned and very dangerous cow recruited for duty in the absence of a fighting bull) was waiting.  Five or six meters from the horn he stopped.  The crowd gasped when they saw what he was doing.  He turned his back toward the wall and knelt down.  'He's trying to kill himself,' I said.  I slipped behind the burladero closest to him. The animal was so close, I didn't even dare shout to him to stop.  Put in sticks like that, kneeling down, with your back to the wall, sticks no bigger than a pencil, I can tell you there isn't anything much more dangerous you can do in bullfighting.  It takes incredible precision and you have to be dumb with courage to do it.  The slightest error, the slightest twist in his charge, and - op - you've got a horn in your eye or your mouth... Manolo raised his arms with those tiny sticks stuck in his palms.  He stuck out his chest and yelled, 'Vaca, venga!' Almendrita shook her head.  'Vaca, vaca!' he shouted again.  She hesitated. The whoosh she charged.  For one second it looked like she would get him.  I did the only thing I could to help. I flicked the corner of my cape from behind the burladero, trying to get the cow's eye. That sudden flash of color bent he charge just enough. As her horns went by his face, he spun and stuck his sticks right where they belonged.  

'After that, they were ready to tear the ring down.  Everybody was standing up, yelling, applauding, stamping their feet.  Manolo was glowing."

Can you possibly imagine the scene?  Benitez was carried from the ring and through the town on the shoulders of those who had mocked just an hour before, to the door of his sister's home.  The sister to whom he had that morning promised success in the ring, "Or I'll dress you in mourning."

A dream.  Sustained by acorns.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Monday, December 9, 2013

Yours in Quercus,

How cool is this?  I received an email from a tree tube customer last week with the closing:

Yours in Quercus,

Totally awesome.  Tells me I'm doing something right.  Although I have to say it's not the best letter closing I have ever received.  That honor goes to a rather elderly gentleman member of the Pennsylvania Nut Growers Association who signed his letter to me, nearly 25 years ago:

Yours for better nuts,
George Dickum


Hope on the horizon - Red Tractor Farm

Red Tractor Farm in Greece is turning the dream of re-discovering acorns as a food source into a reality.  It gives me great hope for the future.  Read this, watch the video.  Looks like paradise to me!

I received a "mail chimp" email from Red Tractor Farm about their 2013 acorn harvest.  I'll try to figure out how to post it on this site.  To quote:

3000 kilos (6600 lbs) of acorn collected in 5 weeks.

We began whacking green acorn out of the trees in late September. Trees that have been harvested in this manner, in the past, are healthier and heavier with acorns this year. We've learned that the best method for whacking the trees, in order not to damage the next year's crop. is from the trunk outward. Volunteers must be fearless of heights and able to climb trees as well as swing a stick.
That whole "fearless of heights" thing rules me out of the harvest process.  Second rung on the step ladder and my knees start to quake.  I will learn more from them about methods of harvesting acorns that do not reduce the size of the following year's crop.  This is fascinating to me, and critically important.

On an unrelated - and very stupid - note, it's surprising that the Greek economy is in so much trouble.  My family alone buys about 50 tubs of their yogurt every week.

Good bye, Mandiba

The greatest man of our age has left us.

Thank you Nelson Mandela.  For everything.  Never has someone left shoes so large to fill, to a world that so desperately needs them filled.