Many Aegean islands are mentioned in ancient texts as having rich oak forests. These days in this region you can only find these forests in Kea, home to an ancient, native oak forest where acorns are plentiful. The area has recently been affected by the economic crisis, and an initiative to move back to traditional acorn harvesting is currently boosting the local economy, protecting the forest and even helping to reduce soil erosion.
The specific types of giant acorns from Quercus Ithanburesis, only found in Mediterranean regions, is considered to contain the best vegetable tanning agent for leather. From the 1600s to the mid-1960s the acorn caps from Kea were sold to leather tanneries around the world. However, from the mid-1960s, cheaper chemical alternatives for leather tanning replaced the harvesting of acorn caps in Kea’s forest. The tradition for collecting acorn caps was lost. The forest became in severe danger of degradation and areas were cleared to build holiday houses, many of which are left unfinished due to the economic climate.
When the French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, visited the island in 1701, the acorn industry was thriving and he even took passage on an acorn-laden ship when he departed from the island. Read his story.
The Hamada Acorn Initiative
Marcie Mayer, who lives in Kea, decided it was time to do something to revive the ancient oak forests by getting people interested again in the benefits of acorns. Marcie set up the Hamada Acorn Initiative in 2011. It is a non-profit organisation that aims to restore the acorn as an important factor for the local Kean economy. She says “It can be a source of additional income for local people, from harvesting acorns to oak and acorn related crafts.” The aim is to create a network of people that acquire acorn skills and knowledge. Marcie says they promote the fact that “acorns are a viable, sustainable and nutritious food source, needing little interference by man”.
The Acorn Initiative promotes many diverse products (including cookies!) which can be made from acorn flour. Tannins are removed from the acorns by soaking them in water, and this makes the flavour a lot less bitter. Tanneries were found to invest in the acorn caps. For companies producing luxury leather, this product is still in high demand. Last year 35,000 kilos of Acorn Caps were exported to Germany, India and Greece. A first annual contract was drawn up with a German tannery and this was a great incentive for the people involved.
Involving the Community
As acorns and acorn caps gain in value, people have become enthusiastic to participate. Farmers and other people of all ages have started gathering acorns again. Community involvement is an important aspect and according to Marcie, the older people have enjoyed reminiscing about the acorn harvests they did in their youth and have provided plenty of harvesting knowledge.
For the production of the flour, initially a hammer was used to individually remove the shell from the acorns. This became too time consuming and thanks to a successful crowdfunding project, they were able to invest in a giant acorn de-huller. The Initiative now offers hulling services to local farmers (the acorns are also excellent animal feed) in exchange for a small percentage of acorns.
Acorns are nutritious
Did you know that acorns can be used to make delicious cookies? Or that their caps can be used to produce an excellent tanning agent for leather?
Acorns were eaten by people in most parts of the world for tens of thousands of years. They are still on the menu today in Turkey, Korea, North Africa and China. Acorns are high in protein, potassium, magnesium, calcium and vitamin B6, they are gluten-free and they keep a long time without spoiling. Furthermore, oak trees grow in many places across the planet, they need little looking after and they produce acorns in abundance.
Education and awareness
The Hamada Acorn Initiative has set up a website www.oakmeal.com giving a lot of information. They run activities and seminars to teach farmers and people the benefits of acorns and also techniques for collecting, leaching, storing and processing them.
The Initiative is currently working with food scientists across Europe on themes such as the protein content of the flour and the nutritional content of the acorns. Marcie is also just beginning to research and develop acorn oil.
Promoting awareness about the values and potential economic returns that acorns and the oak forest can have for the islanders is essential to help raise support for use of the oak trees. Registered as a habitat of community importance (NATURA 2000), the indigenous oak forest of Kea depends on community support. The giant acorns and acorn caps of Kea have created new sustainable income for the island’s farmers and a greater awareness of new possibilities for the forest as a unique and benevolent ecosystem.
Harvesting the acorns is also good for the oak trees and they are now healthier which has proven effective in protecting against soil erosion on the island. Beating the trees to get the acorns while they are still green is beneficial to the trees and trees that have been beaten usually produce more acorns the next year.
“There are many cottage industries that can emerge from the mighty Oak” says Marcie “I see a bright future for Kea if our natural resources continue to take priority and provide new opportunities for local residents.”
From INSPIRATIONAL IDEAS JANUARY 2015 published by the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-AGRI)