Fancy chefs are putting local squirrel food on the table
Last month, Patrick Kompf got a food-related surprise. The 34-year-old runs the Burlington-area restaurant delivery service 863-TOGO, but the news was related to Kompf’s other line of work: a website called Acorno Acorns.
The shocker was a PDF of a page from Art Culinaire, a quarterly magazine that features recipes from the country’s most ambitious, creative chefs. In the September issue, chef Corey Lee included a recipe for acorn soup. Lee, a French Laundry alum and James Beard Foundation award winner for his restaurant Benu, had recently bought acorns from Kompf and mentioned Acorno as a source in the ultra-haute magazine’s glossy pages.
Though Kompf’s cellphone number was listed correctly in AC, his web address was not. So much for fact checking. But the error, he says, hasn’t stopped some of the country’s top chefs from contacting him to learn more about his wares.
As chefs celebrate back-to-basics recipes and local ingredients, everyday items such as acorns have a new cachet. If the idea of making something magnificent out of little more than lawn clippings appeals to the chefs who patronize Acorno Acorns, they’ll be happy to know that many of Kompf’s nuts actually do come from someone’s lawn.
Kompf says he came up with the idea for Acorno Acorns in the summer of 2009 while walking on the Burlington bike path. In a slow time with 863-TOGO, the businessman wondered what else he could sell online to supplement his income. As he passed dozens of oak trees, it occurred to him that there might be money in their seeds.
He got in touch with Mike Hamilton of Timber Management, a seed company in Robins, Iowa. Hamilton has been selling acorns since 1989 and provided Kompf with both guidance and white-oak acorns from his own organic orchard.
For local red-oak seeds, Kompf placed an ad in the Colchester Sun offering to remove acorns from people’s yards at no charge. “After one week, I asked to pull it,” he says. More than 50 homeowners had contacted him in the first few days.
In the summer, Kompf uses a machine that looks like the spawn of a lawn mower and a car-wash brush to gather nuts. Once leaves and twigs are on the ground, he must pick up everything by hand.
Given the demand for acorn removal, Kompf can be pickier than he originally anticipated. For one thing, he doesn’t do his gathering at the homes of dog owners: “I can’t be picking up acorns and dog shit at the same time,” he reasons.
Though Kompf says Acorno Acorns couldn’t support him without the supplementary income from 863-TOGO and a trio of other nut- and seed-focused websites, the business has been good to him over the last three years. Each year, Kompf can rely on Urban Outfitters Inc. purchasing $8000 worth of acorns and caps for fall displays at its more than 135 Anthropologie stores. Wedding season brings “bridezillas” looking for only the most attractive nuts to decorate their centerpieces. “I have to tell them this isn’t a factory,” says Kompf. “We don’t make them on a conveyor belt.”
Though Kompf does a booming business selling acorns to elderly women with pet squirrels (he has a website, squrlfood.com, devoted exclusively to such customers), it wasn’t until the Art Culinaire article came out that he considered the culinary possibilities of his product.
“I knew people could eat them,” he says. “But I always saw them as animal feed.”
Of course, the same batch of nuts can feed both hogs and gourmets. Chefs in Spain and Italy have long known the benefits of finishing animals on acorns before slaughter. One taste of creamy, nutty jamón ibérico de bellota (Iberian acorn ham) could convert anyone to acorn eating.
Kompf, who runs his business entirely from home, refers hog farmers seeking acorns to Hamilton in Iowa, since he can’t supply the enormous amounts necessary to feed a farm of hungry pigs. His store of raw nuts is limited to what he can fit in his small Winooski basement and a medium-sized shed out back.
That’s plenty, though, to serve a market of chefs and home cooks looking for something so old it’s new again. Among them is Beard award nominee John B. Shields of Town House restaurant in Chilhowie, Va. Inspired by his friend Corey Lee’s dish of acorn soup with cherries and Joselito-brand jamón ibérico, Shields began experimenting with Kompf’s products last week.
By phone, Shields briefed Seven Days on the progress of his acorn cookery. His original plan was to pair two classic Native American ingredients by serving his acorns with venison. After some thought, he conceived a dish incorporating a pig’s feet and tail. A former sous-chef at Chicago’s famed Alinea, Shields creates food with an avant-garde bent. He envisions his dish covered in a veil of thin pork belly. “I’m going to make a sauce of pork bones and acorns and see where that leads me,” he says.
So, how do acorns taste — and how does one render them fit for human consumption? I decided to do my own experiments and find out.
Kompf referred me to sources that suggested leaching the bitter tannins from white-oak seeds with a three-day system of cold-water baths. Lacking the time for that, I tried the alternative method of boiling the acorns and draining them as the water turned opaque brown — about every 20 minutes.
After an hour or so, the odors of black tea, cedar chips and molasses filled my home. It was a bouquet unlike anything I’d experienced. As the boiling time climbed to nearly three hours, a hint of artichoke scent took hold. Still, the acorns turned each new batch of water almost black. This couldn’t be right — they wouldn’t be considered “ready” until the water stayed clear. I dried the nuts in my oven for five hours at 200 degrees and hoped for the best.
Then I turned to one person I knew could explain how to deal with acorns. Nova Kim and her partner, Les Hook, are perhaps Vermont’s only celebrity wildcrafters. The couple runs Wild Gourmet Food from their home in Fairlee, providing education and even a CSA to Vermonters looking to learn more about native foods.
Before a lecture at the University of Vermont last week, Kim filled my hand with acorn flour. The powder was fine in places and chunky in others. Its taste bore a striking similarity to that of gingerbread.
All Kim had done to treat her tree nuts was dry and grind them. “You probably boiled out all the flavor,” she suggested. Why hadn’t I asked her before spending all those miserable hours with no result?
The sweet, rich-tasting powder is a fairly new addition to Kim’s bag of tricks, but she learned one thing early on: Though the bitter tannins need to be removed from red acorns (for palatability, not safety’s sake), white ones require only drying and grinding. “That’s why I like white oak,” says sixtysomething Kim. “If there’s anything I can appreciate at my age, it’s ‘easy.’”
Kim isn’t the only Vermonter taking advantage of the sweet taste of local acorns. David Hoene, chef-owner of Pauline’s Café in South Burlington, recently began purchasing acorn flour from Wild Gourmet Foods.
Hoene says he enjoys the “malty banana flavor” of the powder. Though he plans to experiment with using the acorns in a mild cream sauce over pappardelle or linguine, or in a soup filled with butter-poached lobster, he says his applications thus far have been sweet rather than savory.
“It’s really delicious on vanilla ice cream,” says Hoene, who serves acorn flour over scoops from Strafford Organic Creamery. “Just outrageous.” He also plans to top a mildly sweet rice pudding with the powder.
Hoene points out that there are advantages to eating acorns beyond their captivating flavor. “When I tasted it, the first thing I thought of was protein powder,” he says. “I started to think: It’s a nut, it’s gotta be really high in protein.”
Hoene also found that after eating just a handful of acorn flour, he felt surprisingly sated — because of the high vitamin content of the nuts, he speculates. “This could be a superfood right in our own backyard,” he says.
Though the acorns-as-haute-cuisine movement is in its infancy, Kim says she’s heard of other chefs using them, particularly shaving them into dishes like black truffles.
To Kompf, who only recently learned of the gustatory potential of his product, all this is news. He hasn’t yet tapped the market of local restaurants, but says diners should expect to see more acorns on Vermont menus in the near future. “I would love to work with local restaurants,” he says. “I just need to get more experience.”
And if those gourmet acorns come from our neighbors’ backyards? That’s local dining in its essence.