Dear Readers, when I was growing up, a bowl of mixed nuts in their shells was a sure sign that Christmas was coming. There was a kind of hierarchy of difficulty when it came to using our manual nutcrackers. Hazelnuts were easy. Almonds were a bit trickier. Walnuts were pretty much spherical, and so they needed careful handling. But when it came to Brazil nuts we always handed the nutcrackers over to Dad so that he could apply the necessary pressure. Then, the white nut with its creamy flavour was separated from the papery dark brown inner skin and, if you were my grandmother, it was dipped into a puddle of table salt. She nibbled away at the nut with such obvious delight that it was clear that this was an exotic treat, not something to be taken for granted.
And if I’d known what went into the ‘making’ of a brazil nut, maybe I would have appreciated them more too.
Brazil nut trees grow in the forests of the Amazon, and the vast majority of the harvest comes from (unsurprisingly) Brazil, with Bolivia and Peru also major exporters. For some reason they are also grown in Cote d’Ivoire in Africa. However, this is one of the few major crops in the world that can only be wild harvested, and the reasons are complex.
Firstly, the Brazil nut flower can only be pollinated by a bee with enough heft to wriggle into the impressive flower. The female orchid bees meet the criteria, and so are essential to the continuation of the plant.
However, what about the continuation of the orchid bee? The male of this species is much smaller than the female, and pollinates the orchid Coryanthes vasquezii – like all bees, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, but because the orchid has something to offer. Unusually, what the orchid offers is not nectar, but a scent – the smell of the flower is a strong attractant for the female bee, and so the male ‘splashes it on all over’ in much the same way that adolescent males of my generation used to bathe themselves in Brut aftershave.
Fortunately for the rainforest, the orchid is an epiphyte which grows only in the upper canopy of emergent trees. So, what this means is that the Brazil nut tree can’t be grown in a monoculture plantation like a peanut, but must be part of a diverse rainforest environment to survive.
Once the flower is pollinated, it takes up to 14 months for the fruit to mature. And what a whopper it is! A Brazil nut ‘fruit’ can weigh up to 2 kgs, and as they sometimes grow in parks and gardens, there is a risk of passers-by being brained. However, once safely on the ground, the fruit can be gnawed open by agouti, delicate forest rodents who tiptoe through the undergrowth. Like squirrels, the agouti bury what they can’t eat, but don’t always return to harvest the fruit, so this is one way that new Brazil nut trees emerge.
And I’m sure we’ve all seen those wildlife films featuring capuchin monkeys cracking open nuts by using a stone as a hammer, but if you haven’t, have a look here.
Brazil nuts, like all seeds, come with a hefty amount of fat and protein, which is intended to power the new tree when it germinates. Brazil nuts are also amongst the richest natural foods in selenium, which is an essential micronutrient. It seems that exposure to mercury or Vitamin E deficiency are the two commonest reasons for people suffering a deficiency, but grazing animals may need supplements if the soil is deficient. Although many people (like my grandmother) enjoy munching on an occasional Brazil nut, they are expensive enough not to be a regular ingredient in nut roasts and such. However, in Brazil itself, Brazil nuts are made into a cake Bolo de castanha-do-pará, and brownies and other sweetmeats may substitute Brazil nut flour for the normal wheat flour. The recipes I’ve found are mostly in Portuguese, as you might expect, but here is a link to one in English which looks pretty authentic, should you happen to have some Brazil nuts just laying about doing nothing.
And finally, in the absence of a poem, I would like to present to you this quote from Noël Coward, that delightful misanthrope. I have to say that I’ve found rather more brazil nuts than vanilla creams in my life. I will maintain to my last breath that there are more good people in the world than bad, and even if it’s not true it certainly makes the world a more hopeful place to live in.
“It is my considered opinion that the human race (soi disant) is cruel, idiotic, sentimental, predatory, ungrateful, ugly, conceited and egocentric to the last ditch and that the occasional discovery of an isolated exception is as deliciously surprising as finding a sudden brazil nut in what you know to be five pounds of vanilla creams. These glorious moments, although not making life actually worth living, perhaps, at least make it pleasanter.”
Photo One by Taken by Deathworm at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3580398
Photo Two By M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas – M. C. Cavalcante, F. F. Oliveira, M. M. Maués, and B. M. Freitas (2012) “Pollination Requirements and the Foraging Behavior of Potential Pollinators of Cultivated Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa Bonpl.) Trees in Central Amazon Rainforest” Psyche vol. 2012 doi:10.1155/2012/978019 Figure 2, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22391398
Photo Three by Edrei Quek at https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10154959741085289&set=gm.1874856789457566&type=3&theater
Photo Four By Lior Golgher – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3231673
Photo Five By brian.gratwicke – Agouti, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20397416
Photo Seven by By Nando cunha – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15650550