There is a tremendous diversity of food in South America, and in particular, Brazil. One can find a wide variety of edible seeds of all sorts growing all over the country. In fact, two of them are popular all over the world! Can you guess?
Ok, this is a given, but these nuts are actually native to a big part of South America. Funnily enough, in Brazil they are not called “Brazil” but “Pará” nuts, a Northern Brazilian state which was once the world’s largest producer of them. Currently, Bolivia is the largest producer of Brazil nuts.
Brazil nut fruits
The species is actually a relative of cranberries and blueberries and can live up to 500 years. The fruits are hard and resemble a coconut, with 8 to 24 seeds inside.
It was first made popular by the English in the 1700s, and then by Americans in the early 1900s. There are very few farms of it; the seeds are mostly wildcrafted, as the trees depend on native pollinators, which in turn can only be found in the Amazon rainforest.
In fact, the tree co-evolved with a number of different pollinator insects for its flowers, and a few mammals for the spreading of its seeds, such as the agouti and certain monkeys.
Agouti opening Brazil Nut fruit through its “back” hole
As baru trees, brazil nut trees are threatened by deforestation. The tree cannot be easily cultivated and requires proximity to a pristine rainforest to be pollinated, otherwise it will not bear fruits.
The extraction of Brazil nuts protects the Amazon rainforest biodiversity by generating revenue for a number of local foraging communities, which encourages the preservation of their environment.
This might come as a shock to most people, as they are incredibly popular in India. Although related to the mango tree, did you know this species originated in Northeastern Brazil?
The Portuguese, in the 1500s, went to Brazil and eventually brought cashew seeds to former colonies Goa and Mozambique. Cashew trees were grown to control coastal erosion, and the story goes that in India wild elephants took a liking for the fruits, and spread their seeds over a large territory.
It was only in the 1800s that the first plantations were established, and nowadays India and Côte d’Ivoire are the largest global exporters of cashew nuts. Together they hold a staggering 46% of the world’s production.
Native cashew varieties can still be found in the Brazilian Cerrado, along with baru trees and many other wild species adapted to the dry climate.
Wild cashews growing in the Cerrado
Curious fact: several cultures around the world are not familiar with the cashew “apple”, which has a sweet, astringent flavour and can be eaten when ripe, or used in jellies, juices and beverages.
Direto da Amazônia, livro revela como a castanha-do-pará ganhou o mundo. Jornal da USP, 2017.
PANDA, H. The Complete Book on Cashew (Cultivation, Processing & By-Products). 2013.
DENKE, J. S. The Carrot Purple and Other Curious Stories of the Food We Eat. 2015.