Prior to the summer monsoon rains, in the oak woodlands of the borderlands, food begins to fall from the region’s Emory oaks, and yet it goes largely unnoticed by those north of the border. Bellotas are the acorns produced by those trees. Oaks all over the world produce acorns, but there is something special about these acorns. Most other acorns are bitter and need to be leached with water to remove the excess tannins; bellotas are slightly sweet with only a touch of bitter, and are delicious right out of the shell.
Despite their obscurity here in the United States, bellotas are harvested wild and sold throughout the state of Sonora and parts of Chihuahua. In the not-too-distant past, Hispanic and Native American families would come together to harvest them for year-round use.
In the more distant past, in a canyon called Tres Bellotas, south of Arivaca, groups of Tohono O’odham from both sides of the border, Apaches, and Mexicans would come together and camp for several weeks to harvest bellotas. Traditionally, they were eaten directly out of the shell, but also sometimes roasted or ground into a paste and added to soups and stews. It is still possible to find shallow holes hollowed into rocks that native people used for grinding bellotas into flour and meal.
I grew up in Tucson and throughout the monsoon season and into the fall, bellotas were commonplace, a very visible part of my life. They were commonly available in small markets throughout Tucson, including many Asian-owned markets like Soleng Tom’s. My mother would buy small plastic bags full of bellotas from roadside vendors in Nogales for herself and her sisters and friends. My Aunt Tony always had bellotas on her kitchen table. She told me stories about how her parents would gather the kids and spend a few days camped in the Catalinas, Baboquivaris, or Rincons. “We thought of those trips as the best of adventures where we went in search of precious treasure. They were so delicious I could never stop eating them,” she says. They made the trip in a horse-drawn wagon. Years later, I would bring her bellotas from the trees surrounding our house in southeastern Arizona.
It’s still possible to drive across the border to find bellotas for sale. Following the main highway south of Nogales toward Imuris and Magdalena, you’ll find them for sale by roadside vendors or in small stores. Also check in and around Cananea.
You could also make a field trip to collect them yourself. The biggest concentrations of Emory oaks, Quercus emoryi, can be found in the Coronado National Forest of southern Arizona, as well as in New Mexico, northern Sonora, and Chihuahua at elevations between 5,000 and 6,000 feet. Their habitat is known as the oak woodlands. Trees typically display fall colors in the early spring, dropping their leaves only to replace them immediately thereafter. Their height varies depending upon soil type and access to moisture, ranging from about 15 feet to 70 feet tall.
But oaks do not predictably produce every year, depending on rainfall or late spring frosts. Emory oaks can produce a mast crop, which means that once in seven years they produce a very large quantity of acorns. The bellotas typically start falling just before the monsoon rains. This is the preferred time to collect acorns, when they have the lowest probability of worms that can infest the nuts once the rainy season progresses.
We typically harvest into first weeks of the monsoon and freeze the nuts for several days to kill the larvae. When harvesting the acorns, spreading a tarp or cloth on the ground can help when shaking the branches to catch the falling acorns. A tarp left in place over several days is better yet. Bellotas vary in size and flavor, so it’s worth searching out a good tree.
When shelled, a bellota resembles a pine nut both in size and appearance. In Sonora, they are most commonly eaten casually, shelling them one by one, often with an accompanying cerveza or bacanora. One trick that greatly facilitates this process is to insert the bellota lengthwise between the front teeth, bite gently to crack the thin shell, and continue to rotate it until it easily divides into two halves.
In Sonora, bellotas are used to make a traditional meringue cookie called melindres de bellotas. Some steep their acorns in a bottle of mescal or bacanora for flavor and color. John Adkisson of Tucson’s Iron John’s Brewing Company uses them to produce a seasonal fall beer. I can also attest that squirrels fattened on bellotas and other acorns from the area make a fantastic stew.
However, the bellota’s complexity of flavor suggests so much more. Most other options imply an extra step, grinding the bellotas into flour or chopping them fine. For personal use, a food processor or a small tabletop mill will work well enough. A coffee grinder is another option.
Acorns can be easily substituted for pine nuts in a variety of recipes, including pesto. The pesto recipe included with this article is one from Francesca Bianco—mother to the famed pizza makers Chris and Marco Bianco—in which the bellotas have been substituted for the walnuts.
While developing this article, like some sort of cosmic happenstance, two rather talented bakers appeared at our home. The first, Elianna Madril, a baker for Five Points Market, developed an ever-so-tasty cookie recipe she called Chocolate and Double Nut Acorn Cookies. Our other guest was the pie baker Dani Kump, who embodies the creativity of her former employer, Korean-American chef Roy Choi. While sitting around eating tacos one night we got around to tasting acorns and they blew her away. Her instant idea was a daring fresh fruit tart of grapefruit and cream cheese on a bellota crust.
Bellotas are an incredible resource that begs for creativity and experimentation. In many ways, they are the taste of southern Arizona’s oak woodlands. Harvest some acorns, have fun, and see what happens. ✜
Bill Steen and his wife, Athena, are founders of The Canelo Project, a nonprofit organization in Santa Cruz County dedicated to connecting people, culture, and nature.