Thursday, February 11, 2010

It's Umbu Season!

When I first came to Brazil some many years ago, in the city of Salvador, Bahia, I developed a taste for a small round green fruit by the name of umbu. The umbu looked like an overgrown gooseberry at first glance, although its skin lacks the transparency of the gooseberry. It's taste was acidic, hinting of a high vitamin C concentration, not too sweet, and distinctive. Like many other fruits, it's taste was extremely difficult to describe in words, but was utterly unique and wonderfully refreshing. I never forgot the umbu, and its taste was a Proustian memory of Brazil.

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.

It appears that the umbu (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.

It appears that this fruit is one that, at the moment, is entirely Brazilian. I've not been able to locate any production outside Brazil, and it appears that the fruit doesn't exist under different names in other countries. So, if and when you come to Brazil's Northeast during umbu season (December-March), search them out. It's an exotic local treat that you won't find anywhere else.

Bom apetite!

8 comments:

  1. Just found your blog from KitchenButterfly. Nice informative blog. I will be back to visit again.

    Cheers,
    Tuty @ ScentofSpice.com

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  2. Thanks! Welcome to Flavors of Brazil, and I look forward to your return.

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  4. Hi, I'm an avid grower of rare and unusual fruits (member of the California Rare Fruit Growers) and I've been trying for almost 3 years now to track down some seeds of umbu (Spondias tuberosa) ever since I read about it in Wilson Popenoe's book about under utilized fruits (a classic and quite a few Brazilian fruits mentioned). I wanted to see if you'd be willing to save the seeds from some umbu's you eat and send them to me in California. Wouldn't need a whole lot and I'd be happy to pay you like 50 cents a seed. So maybe like 100 seeds for $20 plus shipping expenses? I hate to do this on a public blog but I am terrible at technology and can't figure out how to do so otherwise so here's my email address, TynanWyatt@aol.com. You can google me and see I'm a real person too if you're concerned. Thanks for any help you can provide and your descriptions of umbu.

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  5. Wow, my math skills apparently are terrible too. 100 seeds for $20 is 20 cents per seed. My apologies.

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  6. Just drank a mixed fruit juice from lidl supermarket in UK. In Reading label it has umbu puree in it. So it's distribution must be widening. So looked it up and here I am

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  7. Hi. We too have just had some umbu juice in a multi fruit juice drink from Lidl and wanted to know what umbu was. Thank you for the info. Perhaps on our world tour we can stop in Brazil and have fresh umbu.... Mark

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  8. tracking down the seeds of the umbu for Curacao....... would love to get this tree, especially seeing that it is drought resistant and we live in a semi arid climate. If anyone here can help please email me sprockbrian @ gmail .com thx

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