Thursday, February 11, 2010
When I returned to Brazil to live in Fortaleza, I was delighted to discover that umbu is popular in this part of the country too. And at the moment, we're right in the middle of umbu season with vendors offering the fruit from their carts throughout the city. Here, in contrast to Salvador, you often see yellow umbus, which are more mature, less acidic and sweeter. Yet, no less delicious.
When I bought a small bagful of umbus yesterday, I knew I had my blog topic for today. Tracking down this fruit, and learning about where it's grown, what it's called in other parts of the world, and what it's uses are. So here I sit at the computer, researching the umbu, with a bowl of them at my side for inspiration.
Spondias tuberosa) is native to northeastern Brazil, where Fortaleza is located. It does not grow near the coast, however. Instead its native habitat is the harsh, dry semi-desert of the interior of Brazil's Northeast, called the Sertão. This region is one of the poorest and driest in Brazil, and life is hard there. The umbu is one of the few fruits that flourish in this difficult environment, and historically has been extremely important in the diet of the region's inhabitants. The umbu is most commonly eaten fresh, but can be preserved by making jams, jellies, syrups, and pastes (semi-dried pulp, similar to North American "fruit leathers.")
Interestingly, the umbu and the mango are both members of the same botanical family, the Anacardiaceae. (Cashews, poison ivy, smoke trees, and pistachios are "in the family" too.) For those in the know, this leads to jokes about the family having rich cousins (mangoes) and poor cousins (the humble umbu).
Until recently, little attention was paid to the economic potential of this fruit, and the market was limited to fresh fruit and was very local. The umbu was very little known outside its home region - even in the large cities of southern Brazil, like Rio de Janeiro or Porto Alegre, it has never been common. In the last few years, however, the cause of the umbu has been taken up by a number of government agricultural initiative projects, and the international Slow Food movement has added umbu to its Ark of Taste program, in which an umbu presidium has been established to ensure the quality of umbu production and to raise the profile of the umbu in domestic Brazilian and international markets. It appears this humble little fruit has some powerful protectors.