Wowsers that’s good wood: the humble Beech

Yo Happy New Year beeeecheeeessss!!

Yep, you heard right beeeccchhhesss!! And indeed you may have guessed it – this first-blog-of-2021 ‘wowers, that’s good wood post’ is all about the beautiful beech. I know, I know – I need to stop being quite so ‘hilarious’ in these blog posts.

Anyway, on with the learning. Firstly, a little bit of history.

The lovely beech tree (Fagus sylvatica) is classed as truly native to south-east England and south-east Wales, and it’s thought that it may have been introduced by Neolithic tribes - nomadic hunter-gatherers who liked the tree for its nuts (more of which later).

On first glance, it looks fairly standard as far as wood goes. It’s light in colour and a hardwood, meaning that it’s good for practical stuff like flooring and furniture. Indeed, ye olde village craftsmen used it to make the legs of ye olde Windsor chairs.

However, look harder and you find it’s not that standard at all. It’s actually a really, really good wood. Why?! I hear you cry….

Well, it’s great to steam bend – so those ancient wood-guys may well have used it for chair backs too. It becomes slicker when it rubs against other wood, making it really useful as drawers. It also smells less ‘woody’ than some woods do - ideal for homes that aren’t a fan smell of freshly sawn timber (heathens).

As well as these marvellous qualities, it’s also record holder. According to Guinness World Records the highest hedge in the world is the Meikleour Beech Hedge in Meikleour, Scotland. Reaching 30 metres (98 feet) in height and 530 metres (1,740 feet) in length, this magnificent beast is usually trimmed once every ten years, although the most recent trim, which took place in late 2019, was the first in almost 20 years. So yay once again for the beech. Big AND useful.

But it’s not all about the home and garden.

Beech also helps with beermaking.

Yep, you read that right. Budweiser beer making to be exact. After being washed in caustic soda to take out any flavour or aroma, slats of beech wood are spread around the bottom of the fermentation tanks in the Bud brewery. The slats allow the yeast to settle and not pile up. Which in turn stops yeast autolysis, which is a nasty thing that would make the beer taste off.

It’s is also used in food too and is the wood of choice to smoke Westphalian Ham, sausages and cheese. Tasty, and perfect with one of those non-off Buds…

And, as well as making other food taste better, the marvellous beech tree also feeds you itself. Yes. As mentioned earlier, it produces nuts you can actually eat.

Indeed, once again back in ye olden times, it seems the humble beechnuts even saved a whole town from starvation. According to the Greek scholar Cornelius Alexander, when the people of the city of Chios were under siege, they “supported themselves wholly on mast [from the beech tree]". Ummmm. Nutty.

Be warned though, beechnuts are bitter with a high tannin content, but if you just happen to be near a tree and a bit peckish, crack on and have a nibble. For some actual recipes involving said beechnut – and the yummy sounding Beech leaf gin – take a look at Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants & Herbs (Grub Street).

Indeed, with food and booze prices potentially rising with these trade tariffs we keep hearing about, it may be prudent to get a couple of these super trees planted in the back garden just in case….

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