Beechnuts are the kernels of the beech tree, a tree which can be found in temperate zones across Europe and North America. As nuts go, beechnuts are not terribly exciting, since they are rather small and difficult to harvest, but they have been used historically as a food source by a number of native peoples. Beech nuts can be eaten out of hand as well as being ground up and added to breads, or included in sweets such as cookies. It can be challenging to find beechnuts for sale, although in regions where the trees grow you may be able to purchase them from local farmers or harvest them yourself.
Two trees in the genus Fagus are the main source of beechnuts. In Europe, F. sylvatica drops the distinctive nuts in the fall, and in North America, people harvest beechnuts from F. grandifolia. Both trees can grow quite tall, with mildly serrated foliage and catkins in the spring which later develop into burred cases, each of which holds two beechnuts. When the cases split open, they reveal the roughly pyramidal shells of beechnuts, which can be cracked to get at the small kernels inside.
In many parts of the world, beech trees are planted as ornamentals. The trees can look quite lovely, specially when they are mature, and their foliage is especially prized. Beech trees are not very reliable sources of nuts; it generally takes around 40 years for a tree to produce a regular crop, and even then small fluctuations in the environment can lead to a decline in yield. In a few parts of the world, beech trees are cultivated specifically for their nuts, an endeavor which can be, at times, very frustrating.
Beechnuts can make a great snack food, especially in regions where the trees grow wild along paths and hiking trails. People who like to collect wild foods may harvest beechnuts as part of a larger meal. Farmers also take advantage of beechnuts to supplement the diets of their livestock, cracking or grinding the shells so that animals can access the nutritious kernels inside. Beechnuts generally contain around 20% protein, along with a rich, nutty fat which makes the nuts popular with those who can find them.
Should you find beechnuts for sale, look for nuts which do not rattle around in their shells, indicating dessication and dryness. If the nuts have already been shelled, they should be plump, without signs of wrinkles, discolorations, or pits. Keep beech nuts refrigerated for the longest shelf life, as this will prevent the oil inside from going rancid.