Nestled amongst the crisp fallen leaves, just waiting to be found, are sweet little beech nuts.
There are over ten varieties of beech tree growing in the northern hemisphere and come the fall they drop prickly brown husks to the forest floor. Breaking these open reveals a pair of plump beech nuts. A beech tree will reach maturity by around forty years old which is when it will begin to produce nuts, only not every year.
These small triangular nuts have been eaten for thousands of years. Early colonists roasted beech nuts before pounding them into meal for bread making. In 19th Century France there were great forests of beech trees producing two million bushels of nuts. There were many uses for these nuts including roasting them and grinding them for a coffee substitute. Oil was extracted which was then used for not only drizzling over food but also for providing light in the oil lamps of the day. For every 1lb of beech nuts just 6tbsp was produced but the tedious process then yielded such delicious oil that it was deemed worth it.
With too many difficulties to overcome for commercialization to become viable the beech nuts are available to anyone who is willing to collect them. The nut’s flavor has been likened to both hazelnuts and pine nuts and can be used in any recipe calling for those ingredients. A beech nut pesto maybe, or chopped and sprinkled over creamy chocolate ice cream. The early colonists added them to breadcrumbs and other ingredients for stuffing their turkeys for Thanksgiving.
Nowadays organic farmers let their pigs and turkeys roam free in beech forests to forage out the tasty nuts hoping to improve their animal’s flavor when the time for market arrives. Just as our forefathers did to fatten up the family pig hundreds of years ago.
While these nuts do involve a little more effort in collection than a trip down the market, they are available for free but it does mean competing with any local squirrels for the beech nut bounty.
Photos courtesy of flickr - Jackie and Dennis, Danvers72, 1967geek, Law_Keven.