By Kaare Melby
The air is getting cooler, the leaves are falling from the trees, and wild plants are dying back. It would seem that there is no wild food to gather this time of year. But even now, there is a wonderful bounty waiting for us in the forest. With the leaves and plants mostly gone now, visibility in the forest is rapidly improving. This is the time to go grouse hunting.
Grouse are fairly large forest-dwelling birds that eat berries and tree buds – thus transforming wild plants that we can’t (or don’t want to) eat into nourishing and tender meat. Grouse can often be found along trails in the morning eating small pebbles that aid in the bird’s digestion. If you want to go grouse hunting, you need to get a license from the DNR. It’s also a good idea to learn how to hunt from someone who has experience.
Hunting grouse is not the only way to find wild food this time of year. As plants go dormant, they convert their energy into sugars, and store those sugars in their roots so that they can survive the winter and have enough energy to burst forth next spring. Thus roots harvested from a dormant plant will be sweeter, and these roots can also contain stronger concentrations of medicinal compounds as well. Thus, we can turn our attention to those roots we had gathered in the spring: wild ginger and dandelion root. Once dried, these roots will be good to use as medicine, seasoning, and tea through the winter.
Another wild food that can be gathered this time of year is acorns. Acorns are an ancient food source that has been consumed by traditional people all over the world. In Europe, it was mainly replaced with grains, but there are some areas that still make acorn bread and acorn porridge to this day.
Many northern red oak trees can be found in certain areas along the North shore, and where there are oak trees, there are acorns. Acorns are a complete food, and they provide a healthy balance of protein, fat, and starch. But, they do require some processing to remove the unpalatable tannins.
If you want to process acorns for food, you can follow these steps: First, test the acorns by putting them in a tub of water, if they float, they are no good and should be discarded. Next, dry the acorns. You can do this by placing them in a sunny area, or in a dehydrator (do not use heat!). It will take several days, but once they are dry they are stable for nearly 2 years! Next, take the dried acorns and remove the nut “meat”, I do this by smashing them with a hammer to break the shell. Then mix the acorn “meat” with some cold water and blend the nuts until they are ground into a fine consistency. Now you start what is called the “cold water process” which can take several days. I find this process is faster if I add some “lye water,” which I make by mixing hardwood ash with water, then let the ash settle to the bottom. Each day the acorn “flour” will be settled to the bottom of the container you are processing them in, so you can simply pour the liquid off and replace it with new cold water and about a cup of the lye water. To speed the process you can change the water 2 or 3 times per day. After 2-5 days of this cold water process most of the tannins should be leeched out. Do a final water change, but this time don’t use any lye water (you might want to do a couple of changes of water without lye just to make sure there is no lye remaining in your final product). Then, once the acorn flour settles again you can pour off the water and transfer the remaining acorn flour “goop” into a finely woven cloth to drain further. This is a good point to test the flour. Take a little and put it into your mouth, if it makes your mouth feel really “dry” then you have not removed all of the tannins and you need to continue the cold water process further. If the flour is ready, you can continue to dehydrate it. Once it’s completely dry you can grind it up into a flour (I use a blender) and make porridge or bread with it. It makes delicious bread! If you want to learn more about processing acorns for food, I suggest watching this video, and joining this Facebook group.