Everything about nuts
With a wide variety of oak tree species, acorns are an important part of the landscape and culture in many areas of the Iberian Peninsula. Acorn usage in this area goes back thousands of years, and nowadays, you can find all kinds of acorn products and dishes.
I was so impressed every time I encountered an original use for acorns in this region. Now that we have”Nutgeeks”, I had to dedicate an entire blog post to the cultural, gastronomical, and economic importance of acorns in the Iberian Peninsula.
Before we start, I will refer to this region as Iberia from here on out. It’s also a common name for the Iberian Peninsula, which includes Spain and Portugal.
When Did They Start Using Acorns in Iberia?
Archaeological findings suggest that acorns have been used in Iberia since the iron age, which means thousands of years ago. To be more precise, the iron age started in different periods around Europe, but in this area, it was around the 8th century BC.
The Food of Invincible Men
While visiting Portugal and discussing acorns with locals in shops and farms, I heard some people calling them “the food of invincible men”. After asking around and researching a bit, I started to understand why they call it that.
Many peoples and tribes used acorns in this region. But the most famous of all was the “Lusitani”. They lived during the Iron age in an area called Lusitania that included the center and south of Portugal and a small part of southwestern Spain (keep in mind that both countries still didn’t exist). In fact, the Lusitani are considered the ancestors of the Portuguese people, and Lusitania is still an alternative name for Portugal. Here is a map of the old region of Lusitania (the region in pink).
They are seen as courageous warriors who fought the Romans bravely and kept them from conquering all of Iberia for many years, despite the tremendous numerical disadvantage.
On the right, you can see the statue of Viriatus, in the city of Viseu, in Portugal, which is where many historians believe he was from. Viriatus is considered the bravest and most cunning leader of the Lusitanians.
Acorns were very important to the Lusitani, who used them as a staple food in their diet. Due to archeological evidence, they were grinding them into flour, baking bread, and other foods.
After knowing the background, it’s easy to see why acorns are considered the food of brave and invincible men. And it’s not surprising; acorns are packed with benefits that may have contributed to their overall health and strength.
Acorn Varieties in Iberia
Iberia has a wide variety of oak tree species, each with its unique qualities. Here are some common ones:
- Evergreen oak, also known as holly oak (Quercus ilex)
- Holm oak, also known as ballota oak (Quercus rotundifolia)
- Cork oak (Quercus suber)
- Portuguese oak (Quercus faginea)
- Gall oak, also known as Lusitanian oak and dyer’s oak (Quercus lusitanica)
A Note on Nomenclature
It’s important to understand that there is some confusion and mislabeling among the different species when it comes to acorns. Given the several hundreds of oak tree species, such confusion is unsurprising.
I highlight this because the Iberian Peninsula boasts a particularly notable species that is frequently misidentified. Addressing this specific species is vital to this article to prevent further confusion. The species in question is the holm oak. Previously, it was labeled as Quercus ilex and, subsequently, as its subspecies, the Quercus ilex subsp. rotundifolia.
However, contemporary academic consensus holds that Q. rotundifolia should be recognized as a distinct species. Thus, in this article, when I refer to the holm oak, it pertains to Q. rotundifolia.
The holm oak explains a lot about the popularity of acorns
Considering that the holm oak acorn is one of the most common species spread throughout Iberia, this nut’s deep cultural and historical significance becomes easier to understand. I will explain.
The holm oak provides one of the acorns with the lowest amount of tannins. This phenolic compound makes the nut taste bitter and can be toxic if you eat too many. Therefore, the nut of this particular oak is one of the less harmful and best tasting acorns. This is very rare, as most species have high levels of this toxic compound. In most cases, they have to be processed before consumption.
Before knowing how to remove tannins, people ate the sweetest varieties, such as the holm oak acorn. No wonder tribes like the Lusitani adopted this sweet and widely available nut in their everyday diet.
Here is a map with the distribution of the holm oak in Iberia. You’ll have a better idea of the availability of this particular variety in the area.
Most products I have tried were made from holm oak acorns. Again, it’s not a surprise; if it has the best flavor and is available in large numbers, it will obviously be the most popular choice.
It makes me wonder if this species wasn’t present there, and all acorns were bitter, like in most places of the world. Would acorns still be a big thing in Iberia? Would they still be connected to its history and culture?
It’s remarkable how much difference a simple detail, such as a tree species, can make.
The cork oak plays an important economic role
It is not just the acorns that are valuable to the populations of these two countries. In the case of the cork oak, the cork is a precious resource. This tree’s bark regenerates itself, making it a renewable resource to harvest.
Around the beginning of the XVIII century, when cork started to be used to cover wine bottles, demand for cork increased dramatically. Until then, Portugal was exporting cork from oaks that grew naturally. They started planting cork oaks solely for harvesting, in order to meet the new cork demand.
Today, Portugal is the world leader in natural cork exports. It’s impressive that such a small country has a massive part of the world market. In 2021, Portugal set a new record of $1.269 billion in value in cork exports.
Spain is also a big player, being the second largest exporter worldwide.
Iberian Typical Acorn Products
Acorns are an important part of my trips when visiting Portugal and Spain. Let’s explore some of my favorite acorn-related products.
I tried it in both countries, and it was similar (and delicious). They make it with the holm oak acorn that I mentioned above.
While I cannot match the skills these people gained with a lifetime of hard work, I can still share my acorn liqueur recipe inspired by the one they have there. It’s really not bad.
Evidently, the meat of animals is not an acorn product. But I want to include it here because some animals are fed with acorns to improve the taste of their meat.
One of the best delicacies in the area is the famous “Jamón” from the Iberian pig species. The “jamón” (in Spain), or “presunto” (in Portugal), is a dried ham. It can be done from any pig species, but the Iberian pig is the most valued.
The best and most expensive ham is the one from a black Iberian pig that was exclusively fed on acorns. I have tried most types of ham in the region, and this one is indeed something exceptional.
There are a lot of other acorn-based products people eat there, such as coffee, flour, bread, and biscuits. But you probably heard about those too, as they are also becoming popular in the US.
One place I loved, which made all of these products and more, was the “Montado Freixo do Meio” farm, in the Portuguese region of Alentejo. Besides the more regular products I mentioned, they sell interesting things, like acorn honey and patê. There are even options for vegans, like acorn chorizo and even hamburgers. Their page is in Portuguese, but the different products are still worth looking at.
Unearthing the Acorn’s Legacy
The acorn’s significance in the Iberian Peninsula transcends time. For millennia, this nutritive treasure has been deeply woven into the region’s dietary and cultural fabric.
From ancient warriors who relied on acorns as a dietary staple to contemporary farmers who utilize them to enhance the flavor of their livestock, the acorn’s legacy in the Iberian Peninsula remains profound and enduring.
Its role as both sustenance and a symbol of heritage showcases the enduring connection between nature and the cultures of this vibrant region.