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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

Quercus in Quijote

Illustration by Gustave Doré, in an etching by H. Pisan, depicting Don Quijote with an acorn in his right hand, as he holds forth about the good old days when man "to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit."

On the advice of a novelist friend of mine, I have been reading Cervantes' Don Quijote. It was recommended for its literary merit ("Flaubert knew the novel by heart before he learnt to read," my friend told me), but in Chapter XI I came across a passage that appealed more to the quercophile than to the bibliophile. Having tilted at windmills and emerged battered but victorious from his enocunter with a Biscayan, in this chapter Cervantes' hero and his sidekick Sancho Panza share the supper of some goatherds. And after the meal the group have a tasty desert of dried acorns. I was familiar with the notion of edible acorns, and had enjoyed Béatrice Chassé's presentation about the history of acorns in human diet at the 8th IOS Conference[1], but I was still surprised and delighted to find such a specific and detailed account of the practice. 

The acorns are described as "bellotas avellanadas". Bellota is the Spanish word for acorn (derived from the ancient Greek balanos, which is also the origin, via Arabic, of the species epithet of Quercus baloot), and avellanadas in this case means "dried", referring to a similarity to dried hazelnuts (avellanas)[2]. What is remarkable about the passage is Don Quijote's eloquence: taking the dried acorns as his cue, he embarks on a graceful speech about a Golden Age when humans had no need of toil but could live off the fruits of the land. Amongst the fruits mentioned are of course the acorns of the encinas​, most likely referring to Q. rotundifolia. The common name encina can also refer to Q. ilex, but one of the characteristics of Q. rotundifolia is the sweetness of its acorns. (See Francisco Vázquez´s Species Spotlight article on Q. rotundifolia, where he also describes one of the ways the acorns are prepared, which is probably what Cervantes' goatherds had used: "gently toasted . . . in order to preserve them throughout the year.")  

Another oak species is featured in the passage: the alcornoque (cork oak, Q. suber), which generously provides its bark to be used as roofing for shelter. Lost in translation is Cervantes' elegant play on words: the cork trees provide their bark (corteza) as a courtesy (cortesía).

While Don Quijote pontificates about the Golden Age, the goatherds are bemused and Sancho Panza is busy filling his eponymous belly (panza = stomach) with the acorns and washing them down by helping himself to the goatherds' wineskin. Here again oaks serve humankind, for the wineskin has been hung out to cool on the branch of an alcornoque.

Below is the beginning of Quijote's speech, in the original and in Thomas Shelton's translation.


Después que don Quijote hubo bien satisfecho su estómago, tomó un puño de bellotas en la mano y, mirándolas atentamente, soltó la voz a semejantes razones:

—Dichosa edad y siglos dichosos aquellos a quien los antiguos pusieron nombre de dorados, y no porque en ellos el oro, que en esta nuestra edad de hierro tanto se estima, se alcanzase en aquella venturosa sin fatiga alguna, sino porque entonces los que en ella vivían ignoraban estas dos palabras de tuyo y mío. Eran en aquella santa edad todas las cosas comunes: a nadie le era necesario para alcanzar su ordinario sustento tomar otro trabajo que alzar la mano y alcanzarle de las robustas encinas, que liberalmente les estaban convidando con su dulce y sazonado fruto. Las claras fuentes y corrientes ríos, en magnífica abundancia, sabrosas y transparentes aguas les ofrecían. En las quiebras de las peñas y en lo hueco de los árboles formaban su república las solícitas y discretas abejas, ofreciendo a cualquiera mano, sin interés alguno, la fértil cosecha de su dulcísimo trabajo. Los valientes alcornoques despedían de sí, sin otro artificio que el de su cortesía, sus anchas y livianas cortezas, con que se comenzaron a cubrir las casas, sobre rústicas estacas sustentadas, no más que para defensa de las inclemencias del cielo. Todo era paz entonces, todo amistad, todo concordia: aún no se había atrevido la pesada reja del corvo arado a abrir ni visitar las entrañas piadosas de nuestra primera madre; que ella sin ser forzada ofrecía, por todas las partes de su fértil y espacioso seno, lo que pudiese hartar, sustentar y deleitar a los hijos que entonces la poseían.

When Don Quixote had quite appeased his appetite he took up a handful of the acorns, and contemplating them attentively delivered himself somewhat in this fashion:

"Happy the age, happy the time, to which the ancients gave the name of golden, not because in that fortunate age the gold so coveted in this our iron one was gained without toil, but because they that lived in it knew not the two words "mine" and "thine"! In that blessed age all things were in common; to win the daily food no labour was required of any save to stretch forth his hand and gather it from the sturdy oaks that stood generously inviting him with their sweet ripe fruit. The clear streams and running brooks yielded their savoury limpid waters in noble abundance. The busy and sagacious bees fixed their republic in the clefts of the rocks and hollows of the trees, offering without usance the plenteous produce of their fragrant toil to every hand. The mighty cork trees, unenforced save of their own courtesy, shed the broad light bark that served at first to roof the houses supported by rude stakes, a protection against the inclemency of heaven alone. Then all was peace, all friendship, all concord; as yet the dull share of the crooked plough had not dared to rend and pierce the tender bowels of our first mother that without compulsion yielded from every portion of her broad fertile bosom all that could satisfy, sustain, and delight the children that then possessed her.


[1] See International Oaks No. 27, pp. 107-136

[2] Dictionaries define "avellanada" as "shriveled, wizened", but the online edition of Don Quijote on the Insitituto Cervantes website footnotes "bellotas avellanadas" as "sweet acorns, with a taste similar to that of hazelnuts, as opposed to bitter ones." The English tranlsations I have consulted translate the terms as "dried acorns" or "parched acorns."