Monday, 27 December 2010

It Comes From Brazil – Açai

Açai Tree
Açai is the world’s latest Superfruit, one of those high protein fruits whose nutrient-rich content leaves it open to the application of modern marketing terms. The fruit is popular all over Brazil, although it is mostly eaten as the frozen pulp in a type of sorbet  around the coastal areas, usually with extras such as bananas, strawberries, granola and honey. The açai fruit itself comes from the thin açai palm tree which grows up to 30m high in the floodplains of the Amazon region. The palm also grows in other countries in the Amazon basin such as Peru, and even up through the jungles of Central America to Honduras and Belize. At the moment though, as far as the rest of the world is concerned, açai comes from Brazil. 

Açai fruit attached to thin branches

This may be because cultivation of the açai fruit has been easier in Brazil, with larger tracts of flat lands around the state of Para in particular which also have access to the larger Amazon tributaries for transporting away from the area, unlike those countries further up the river system. The palm may be thin but it is also sturdy, allowing Amazon natives to scale the trunk to harvest the fruit. The palm fruits hang down from the top of the trunk in panicles attached to thin branches. Each panicle contains perhaps 20-50 of the small grape-sized fruits, and there may be up to 1,000 of the fruits growing on each tree in their biannual crop. The fruits begin life green but gain their dark purple colour under the equatorial sun, which is when they are harvested, pulped and transported. 

The amount of flesh on each fruit is less than that of a similar sized grape or berry as the açai is a drupe, the genus of fruits that contain stones or pits. Other examples of drupes include the fruits of most other palms such as the coconut and date trees, and also mangoes, cherries peaches, nectarines, olives and even the coffee bean. This drupe takes up about 75% of each fruit, so açai travels best pulped and frozen, and this is how most people in the outside world will experience it. Even ‘fresh’ açai fruit juice is first made from pulp.

The natives of Para and the rest of the Amazon region do not have much need of this technique for eating one of their staple fruits though. They eat their açai in savoury dishes with tapioca and Amazon fish. Some people in the region find it funny that anyone wants to eat the better-known sweeter version. 

But they do. In ever greater numbers, in ever more parts of the world. Brazil’s production of açai has more than quadrupled in the past decade with more than 50% of the increase being down to the explosion in exports of the last five years. This explosion is even more remarkable considering that açai only really made it out of the Amazon area in the mid-1980s. The good news business-wise for Brazil is tempered by the subsequent rise in price within the country, even to the point of making it too expensive for the local people for whom açai made a major part of daily nutrient intake in many poor areas of the Amazon region. 

Açai Sorbet with Granola, Banana and Strawberry
This is a common story in many poor areas of the world that export produce to first world countries of course. The globalisation of açai is not entirely to be viewed in negative terms for the local population though. Increased cultivation of açai means that a native Amazon plant can be a much-needed resource in one of the poorest regions of Brazil. The increase in areas producing açai means an increase in the need for areas growing the açai palm. If this cultivation and production can help prevent more of the Amazon Jungle being eaten up for soya plantations and cattle ranches, then açai could truly be considered the world’s greatest superfruit.

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