Autumnal Foraging and Hand Drill Practice

The wheel of the year has turned again, and with it come cool, crisp nights, and a deep Earthy aroma of leaves ablaze in vibrant colours. Across the state, farmers are making a final push of effort before the upcoming harvest. We’ve had a very dry summer and weeks of hot weather. But the apple orchards have prevailed, teaming with smaller but sweeter fruit, ripening earlier than normal. For us in the northeast, this is an exciting time of year, one that has a special place in our minds, muscles, feet, and hands, as we take part in harvest celebrations.

In the forests, there is an equal flurry as the wildlife plans and prepares ahead for winter. They waste little time in collecting insulation for their dens and gathering nuts and seeds from the oaks, hickories, walnuts, and pines that dominate our woodlands.

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Acorns are calorie-heavy and a good source of fats and carbohydrates – according to the USDA, per ounce, acorn flour has 142 calories, 8.55 grams of total fat lipids, and 15.49 grams of carbohydrates (USDA Nutrient Data Lab, but they don’t seem to specify what species of oak was tested for the nutritional data).

It isn’t hard to see why these seeds were a staple among many indigenous tribes in North America as well as Europe, wherever oaks were to be found. A single mature oak can yield several hundred acorns – all you have to do is collect them and process the seeds into an edible flour or mush. In New England, we have 12 native species of oak, some of which can be found as far north as Maine.

In anticipation of the abundance my local woodland offers, I headed out with my pack basket and the makings of a primitive kit to begin the foraging harvest.

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The understory of the forest was carpeted in soft, golden leaves. We haven’t yet reached our peak foliage colour, but that time is fast approaching.

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These are 3 three common oak species in my area. From left to right – Black Oak (Quercus velutina); Chestnut/Rock Oak (Q. montana); White Oak (Q. alba).

I found Chestnut Oak acorns all over the place. One tree in particular was dropping a few almost every minute. In about 45 minutes, I collected over 10 pounds/4.5 kg acorns, a few of which came from nearby Black and White Oaks.

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The next part, shelling, can take awhile depending on the species of oak. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Chestnut Oak acorns can be shelled at a fairly rapid pace.

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Hammerstones make excellent acorn crackers :).

Most of the nut meats were intact, and I only found 1 oak worm in the entire batch. However, some of the acorns had these little brown things attached to the meat.

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I’m not quite sure what they are, so I just scraped them off.

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In about an hour and 45 minutes, all the acorns were shelled. Since I haven’t made a closed-weave basket, I stored the nut meats in my mosquito head net and carried this in my shemagh, improvising it into a satchel by tying the corners to each other.

The process of leaching the tannins from acorn meats requires soaking in water. In the past, indigenous peoples would fill closed-weave baskets with acorn meats and leave them to leach in rivers and brooks for a few days, where the running water would flush out the tannins. A more modern method is to soak them in a pot of boiling water, repeatedly changing the water until it no longer turns brown.

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I had hoped to find a flowing stream that I could use, but unfortunately all our water sources are low due to the summer drought. Not to be discouraged, I planned an improvisation to do at home later.

To pass time, I decided to practice some hand drill with a fire kit I made using only stone tools.

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The drill is Mullein, and the board is seasoned Long-Beaked Willow. No ember, just brown dust…but I did manage to make a waft or two of smoke. The smell of the heated wood  was amazing :). I think I need to shave off more of the hard, outer bark of the Mullein near the drill tip. I’m doing much of this on my own, figuring things out by trial-and-error.

Before heading back home I figured I’d check up on the public orchard to see how the apples were progressing.

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This is a decent year for apples, no doubt. All the trees were in good health, bearing their delicious fruit. These apples above are Newtown Pippins, an old-stock variety that grows only in Connecticut and Long Island. They are green when ripe, with spots of darker green/grey. You can find them in our farmers’ markets this time of year…but I got mine for free :). They are excellent for cooking or eating straight from the tree – not overly tart, but delightfully sweet.

Oh, and the acorns…

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I decided I would leave them to soak for 2-3 days outside in a bucket of water, changing the water each day. After that they meats can be dried and ground into a meal, and then roasted into acorn coffee or mixed with a little water to make a primitive bannock. 🙂

I’ll update this post soon to give you the end-result of my experimentation :).

UPDATE 24th September, 2015:

I ended up letting the acorns soak for 4 days. One thing to note, if you plan on soaking them outside like I did, it might be a good idea to cover the top of the bucket with something heavy. On the third day I noticed that some animal, presumably a racoon, had tried to raid it, ripping holes in the mosquito net bag. Fortunately, the perpetrator walked away empty handed (or should I say, “empty pawed”? :P). I guess the bitter water wasn’t appealing :).

After the soaking, I drained the water from the bucket and transferred the acorns into my shemagh, tying and hanging it to a bush to dry in the sun for 10 hours or so. It was a windy day, and that sure helped.

The next thing to do is to pulverise the meats. Once again, smooth hammerstones are quite useful as pestles :). The grinding took about an hour and a half. Not all the acorns were evenly ground; I did this on purpose because I wanted some of the meats to be left a bit coarse so I could roast them into a coffee – the finer ground meats would be used as meal for primitive ash cakes/old fashioned bannock.

The ground meats were still somewhat moist, so I spread them out on a large cookie sheet and put them in the oven at 200 F/93 C for around an hour and 45 minutes, and then I increased the temperature to 250 F/121 C for 15 minutes. At this low temperature, the meats will dry out and become parched. If you want, you could try putting them in a dehydrator. But the lovely smell of drying acorns in the oven is something you don’t want to miss – it’s an earthy, bread-like aroma :). Depending on how many acorns you collect, you may need more or less time in the oven, so go slow, start at a low temperature, and check every half hour. After the meats dried, I separated the finer parts from the coarser bits with a sifter.

To make ash cakes or old-fashioned bannock, you need an open fire…and since we are still dealing with dry conditions and fire hazard warnings, I decided to prepare things in the yard.

I took a handful of meal, mixed it with a splash of water, and shaped it to form a small pattie. The leaves you see here are from a River Grape vine. They are large (up to 7 inches/18 cm wide) and perfect for plates, a mixing surface, and for wrapping foods to be cooked in ashes and dirt, surrounded by embers. To keep the leaves from unfurling, I tied them in place with a bit of Asiatic Bittersweet vine.

Done right, the ash cake shouldn’t burn. Whatever you do, don’t just stick it in the embers, because without ashes or dirt to insulate the cake, it will scorch and you’ll end up with a charred and unappetising bread. Wait until the fire dies down to coals to give you plenty of ash and embers.The time required for baking depends on how hot and large the fire is, and the size of the ash cake. Mine took around 20 minutes.

Just the sort of meal to pair with River Grapes :). The acorn ash cake had a strong flavour reminiscent of buckwheat flour….very earthy and nutty. It was good as is, but it would be fantastic with a drop of honey or a pinch of salt.

To make acorn coffee, I took the coarse bits of the meats and spread them out on a large cookie sheet, setting them in the oven first at 275 F/135 C for 45 minutes, then 300 F/149 C for 30 minutes, and finally 325 F/163 C for 15 minutes.

This is a slow-roast process – you don’t want to bake them until they’re burned and black all over…much of the acorn flavour will be replaced with an unpleasant charcoal taste. A dark brown colour is a good indicator they’re done roasting. All that’s left to do now is grind them in a coffee grinder and brew up a ‘cuppa.

The results were positively delicious :D. Now, I must admit that I am a sort of coffee connoisseur…the brew reminded me of fresh-roasted Balinese Kintamani (which is a medium roast). A very smooth, robust and earthy flavour, with notes of nuttiness and cacao. It wasn’t bitter/astringent, or papery as many poor quality coffees are, and I’ve sampled a wide variety of coffees, including authentic Italian espresso, fresh-roasted Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Longberry Harrar, Guatemalan dark, Balinese Kintamani (aka Bali Blue Moon), Tanzanian Peaberry Zanibar, and of course the standard Columbian and Brazilian coffees available at the market. This acorn coffee is a winner and a new favourite. Drink it black, as it is…it doesn’t need sweetener or cream. 🙂

So, there you have it! I hope you found this post informative…now go out there and start foraging! 😀

Primitive Bushcraft: Vine Pack Basket

For thousands of years, before the introduction and widespread use of cloth carrying sacks, primitive peoples worldwide wove wooden splints, vines, and tree barks into pack baskets as a way of transporting goods. They are still very much in use in some parts of the world despite the availability of modern materials. In Malaysia, for instance, the Orang Asal people carry their kit in pack baskets made of rattan. Even in the US, there are still basket-weavers who keep the craft alive. For the Akwesasne Mohawk on the New York-Quebec border and the Penobscot (Panaomeska Wabanaki) in Maine, basketry is a way of keeping their tribal traditions alive. They make beautiful and practical pack baskets out of Black Ash splints, just as their ancestors have done for so long. Today you can buy handmade pack baskets at outdoor retailers or directly from the basket-weavers themselves.

But since I don’t have $89 to spend on such a basket and wanted to make one on my own, I figured I’d give it my best shot…using no metal tools, only stone, the aboriginal way.

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The tool kit…

For the sake of simplicity and time, I opted for using vines with an “open-weave” construction.

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There is no shortage of invasive Asiatic Bittersweet here. I cut numerous long, new growth shoots around 1/2 cm to 1 cm /0.2 – 0.4 inches in thickness. For the frame itself, I used River Grape vines bent into a teardrop shape and bound at the top and bottom with Black Willow inner bark. Wild Grape vines are equally as strong as Bittersweet, but they’re much more flexible and make excellent alternative weaver strands.

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Splitting a Black Willow branch to get even strips of inner bark. Make sure you scrape off the flaky outer bark as it will weaken the fibres as they dry.

This is not a project that can be completed in an hour or two. Gathering the materials, cutting them to shape, removing the protruding nubs of branching off-shoots, weaving, and gathering more materials (if you think you have enough materials prepared, you WILL run out) is a lengthy process. Patience and commitment are key, and once you “get in a rhythm”, the hours will pass without you noticing.

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But all that work pays-off ;). Here is the end-product, with a final piece of River Grape vine bent at the top to provide extra strength, and shoulder straps fashioned from a 5 ft/152 cm piece of Asiatic Bittersweet vine. The pack basket measures 12 inches/ 31 cm tall with a top opening of about 6 inches/15 cm diameter, just enough to carry all my essentials.

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It is most certainly not a very comfortable design…I noticed right away that the shoulder straps bit into my shoulders, and the woven structure dug into my spine. With some upgraded shoulder straps made of willow inner bark, and perhaps the addition of a back panel, these problems should be alleviated. On the plus side, the pack rode high on my back and distributed the weight surprisingly well.

There you have it :). Despite some comfort issues, I am very impressed with how it turned out. This pack basket is going to get a lot of use – and for me, that is most rewarding part of all :).