Beech NutsSunday, January 24, 2010
The Latin name of the genus, Fagus, is derived from the Greek word for "to eat," phagein. We think it's always a good sign when the scientific name for something suggests that it might be tasty. American Beech is F. grandifolia (or F. Americana), which just means it has big leaves; European Beech is F. sylvatica, meaning the trees grow in the forest -- not much of a surprise there. Beechnuts, too small for modern tastes, not to mention too inconvenient for mechanized harvesting, are tasty enough to have been worth gathering for ages; Pliny -- referring to them as one of "thirteen varieties of acorn" -- wrote:
That of the beech is the sweetest of all; so much so, that, according to Cornelius Alexander, the people of the city of Chios, when besieged, supported themselves wholly on mast*. The different varieties cannot possibly be distinguished by their respective names, which vary according to their several localities...
The acorn of the beech is similar in appearance to a kernal, enclosed in a shell of triangular shape... The leaves are also very fattening for dormice, and good for thrushes too [both Roman delicacies, but outside the scope of this article]. Almost all trees bear an average crop but once in two years; this is the case with the beech more particularly.
Beechnuts are small, less than half-inch in diameter, but sweet and similar in flavor to chestnuts -- though they are richer (their fifteen percent of fat, by weight, is nearly four times that of chestnuts). They contain 19.4-21.8% protein, 18-20.3% carbohydrate, and a whopping 50-53.5% fat (the numbers vary according to the analyses of different scientists).
They have never been a major product, commercially, in part because the trees bear nuts erratically, often skipping years between fruitful yields. The biggest consumers of beechnuts are wild game (deer, bears squirrels and gamebirds -- such as turkeys and grouse -- love them), and as feed for domestic animals; pigs have been freed to forage beneath beech trees for over two thousands years. Pliny said, "The acorn of the beech, when given to swine, makes them brisk and lively, and renders the flesh tender for cooking, and light and easy of digestion." Beechnut cake, left behind after the oil is pressed out, is also included in feeds for non-free-range pigs, goats, rabbits and poultry.
The nuts should not be eaten raw (at least not in any significant quantity), as they contain a toxic substance, a saponin glycoside, which -- while not fatal -- can cause gastric problems.
Fortunately, heat destroys the toxin -- and, like most nuts, roasting enhances their flavor.
Because of their high fat content, beechnuts have provided cooking oil and butter substitutes in Germany, and salad oil in France (the French have also roasted and ground the nuts as a surrogate for coffee). Ten pounds of beechnuts yield about a quart of oil that has better keeping properties than olive oil. Native Americans used beech meal -- made by grinding the nuts and drying the resulting paste -- as flour.
While the beechnut has sometimes been relegated to the category of survival food -- as with Pliny's citizens of Chios, or treated as patriotic duty (during two world wars, children in southern Germany were given holidays from school to collect beechnuts after the first frost released the kernels from their husks).
Beechnuts have rich sweet flavor that belies practicality. The following recipe is from the Spring 1948 issue of The Countryman:
Beechnut Cake (a Tramp's Recipe)
After scalding the nuts and peeling them like almonds, pound them and mix them with the flour, eggs and butter or margarine you would use for an ordinary cake, putting one part of beechnuts to two parts of the other ingredients. Or, in practical language:
Prepare a cake mixture from eggs, butter, flour, according to your favorite recipe, and add to it a quantity of scalded, peeled and pounded beechnuts, which should be as much as half of the cake mixture. Then bake it, and your cake will have a 'nutty' flavour and be richer in fat.
Linda and Fred Griffith's cookbook, Nuts, offers a somewhat more elegant and savory loaf:
Coarse-Grain Bread with Hickory Nuts and Beechnuts
1 Cup Cracked wheat
1/2 Cup Lavender honey
2 tsp. Sea salt
2 Tbsp. Unsalted butter, plus more
1 2/3 Cups Boiling water
2 Tbsp. Active dry yeast
1 Cup Warm water
1 Cup Whole wheat flour
5-7 Cups Unbleached flour
1 Cup Mixed hickory nuts and beechnuts, chopped and lightly toasted
- In a small bowl, combine the cracked wheat, honey, sea salt, and butter. Pour boiling water over them and stir until the butter is melted, then let it cool.
- While the mixture is cooling, proof the yeast by combining the yeast with 1/4 cup of the warm water. Stir to dissolve the yeast, then set aside in a warm place.
- When the cracked wheat mixture has cooled and the yeast is bubbling, combine the two mixtures. Add the remaining 3/4 cup water.
- Combine the whole wheat flour and 5 cups of the unbleached flour in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle. Pour cracked wheat/yeast mixture over the flour then blend. Then blend in the nuts.
- Change to a dough hook and knead for 10-20 minutes on the lowest setting, adding flour as needed to make a dough that is a bit tacky but not sticky.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and gently knead it by hand for 5 additional minutes. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until doubled, 1 to 2 hours.
- Punch the dough down, divide in half, and form into 2 loaves by patting each half into a flat oval. Then fold each oval in half and flatten them down on the seam, tucking the ends under. Place each piece in a well-oiled loaf pan that is 9x5 inches.
- Cover pans with plastic and let the dough rise for 1 hour, or until it reaches above the top of the pans. At the same time, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Bake loaves for 50-60 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 210 degrees F. Immediately brush loaves with melted butter and let them rest for 5 minutes.
- Then remove loaves from pans and place on racks top cool.
Makes two 9x5-inch loaves.
Beechnuts can be substituted for chestnuts or hazel nuts in other recipes if you want to begin experimenting with them. Assuming you don't have access to a grove of fruitful beech trees (even if it is a good year for them), or you don't have the time to go out and collect the tiny nuts yourself, it may be possible to purchase them. They are, clearly, an unusual food item, but they are sometimes available from:
P.O. Box 67
Coker Creek, TN 37314
Duke, James A. CRC Handbook of Nuts. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1989.
Elias, Thomas S. and Peter A. Dykerman. Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide. New York: Sterling Publishing, 1990.
Griffith, Linda and Fred Griffith. Nuts: Recipes from Around the World that Feature Nature's Most Perfect Ingredient. New York: St Martin's Press, 2003.
Loewenfeld, Claire. Britain's Wild Larder: Nuts. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.
Bostock, John and H. T Riley (trans.). The Natural History of Pliny. Vol. 3 of 5. London: George Bell & Sons, 1892. (excerpts from Book xvi, Chapters 6-8)
Rosengarten, Frederic Jr. The Book of Edible Nuts. New York: Walker & Co., 1984.