Last month we gathered shagbark hickory nuts in abundance, and now that the leaves have fallen, the trees stand as silent wooden sentinels in a silvery grey forest.
I squirreled away the leftover shells and uncracked nuts, and now is the time to gather some hickory bark. I peel off the sections that hang off the sides of the tree like brittle old wooden house shingles.
The bark of a tree is its skin, protecting the tree layers from insects, disease, and the elements. Barks have their own unique eccentricities—some are smooth, grey, bumpy, brown-black, streaked, scaly, or furrowed, depending on the type of tree.
Just under the bark is a layer of living wood, containing phloem, a soft tissue that transports sugars from the leaves to the roots and other parts of the tree. If the bark is damaged or cut it can affect the phloem, injuring the tree. The great thing about the shagbark hickory bark is that it naturally exfoliates, so it's easily harvested without cutting into the tree.
American Indians boiled shagbark hickory bark and chips to make sugar, and also used the bark as a tonic for "general debility" and arthritis. The Cherokee used the hickory wood ashes to cure pork.
Today, hickory is a common flavoring used to smoke or cure meats like ham. In smoking, the meat absorbs the hickory flavors from wet hickory chips or logs that are added to a fire in a chamber or smoker. You can also add hickory chips to barbecue grills, or even use a liquid processed hickory smoke flavoring. Here's a tasty recipe for smoked lamb using hickory chunks.
It's hard to imagine this incredible hickory smoke flavor as I sniff at the bark I just peeled. The bark just smells...woody, not much else. I admit I feel a bit doubtful. It's not until the bark and shells warm in the oven that I start to get a sense of the toasty, smoky flavor of real hickory.
And then, when I boil the toasted bark with milk and leave it to infuse for hours, an amazing transformation takes place. I can't believe that this hunk of wood can exude a such buttery, nutty, smoky flavor, filling my kitchen like a holiday hearth. This infusion makes a remarkable base for desserts like panna cotta, or the unique ice cream detailed here, which wouldn't be out of place on your Thanksgiving table.