Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Heart Of Palm - The Palmito Avoids Extinction (We Hope)


In Brazil, as well as in Europe and North America, hearts of palm (palmito in Portuguese) have long been considered a gourmet delicacy. The flavour of these buds of a number of species of palm trees is subtle, yet distinctive. Hearts of palm are not conducive to transport or storage in a fresh state, and so are universally available only in tins or jars, preserved in a simple brine. They are most commonly served both here in Brazil and abroad as a stand-alone appetizer, drizzled with olive oil, or as part of a salad plate or buffet table.

Hearts of palm have always been an expensive treat, and still are so today. If you live in Europe or North America, transportation is part of that cost, as palm trees only grow in tropical environments. However, the main reason for the expense of hearts of palm is that in order to harvest the bud of the palm tree ("hearts" of palm are in fact buds of palm) the entire tree must be sacrificed. The bud is the growing tip of the tree, and once it is removed, there is no way for the tree to continue to grow. Hearts of palm are harvested from young trees, but it still takes a number of years for a tree to reach maturity. There is no annual harvest when it comes to palm trees.

There are a number of species of palm from which hearts of palm can be harvested. Until the 1990s, the most common species used in commercial production was the içara palm (Euterpe edulis), which grows all along Brazil's southern coastline. However, over-harvesting and poaching of this plant resulted in its becoming endangered, and extinction of the species was a possibility.


Fortunately, most production of hearts of palm in Brazil and in other tropical countries like Costa Rica and Ecuador has switched to other species, notably pupunha and açaí palms. These species are easier to cultivate, and quicker-growing, and thus are not endangered by properly considered harvesting schemes. Interestingly, the açaí palm is the same tree from which the increasingly popular açaí fruit is harvested, thus allowing the cultivation of two distinct food products from one plant. Because of this switch, the içara palm is no longer in danger of exinction, though it does remain endangered, according to it's listing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). As a long-time lover of hearts of palm, it's "heartening" to know that I can eat this delicacy without a guilty conscience.




Although the most common way to serve hearts of palm is simply and naturally, as mentioned above, there are other ways to showcase this product at the table. In Brazil, it's common to add chopped palmito to pizza combinations. One particularly successful combination is palmito and arugula on pizza, with the shredded arugula sprinkled on the pizza after it is removed from the oven. Another possibility is hearts of palm soup, the recipe for which can be found in the following post.

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