Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Story of Carmelita - Ver-o-Peso's Queen of Amazonian Fruits

Among all the thousands of vendors hawking their products daily in the stands and stalls of Belém's enormous Ver-o-Peso market, there is only one small stand, operated by one small woman of 62 years, that year-round sells fruits from the Amazonian basin, and only sells Amazonian fruits. No apples, no pears, no strawberries - if it isn't from the Amazon Carmelita dos Passos Rocha wants nothing to do with it.

When Carmelita first opened her small stand at Ver-o-Peso 42 years ago, this wasn't the case. At that time, the shoppers at the market weren't interested in the fruits that flourish in the rain-forest and along the banks of the Amazon. They wanted sophisticated European fruits, which had to be shipped in at great expense, and which often arrived in less-than-perfect condition. Of course, Carmelita, who was only 20 years old when she bought her stand, also sold the more commercialized tropical fruits of Brazil. Things like bananas, mangoes and papayas. But it was her apples and plums that made her living in the early years.

About 15 or 20 years ago, Carmelita was asked by a customer if she sold cupuaçu or tucumã, traditional local fruits which had almost been forgotten. She didn't, but promised the customer she'd find some to sell, and when she did, these local fruits sold very well. She began to add more local fruits, and over time, apples and peaches lost their place in Carmelita's stall - bananas didn't, but she began to carry some more unusual varieties of Brazil's number-one fruit. Today's Carmelita's stand is a shrine to the bounty of the jungle that surrounds Belém. Besides cupuaçu or tucumã, one can find bacaba, açaí, ingá-chinela, bacuri-pari, cajuru and taperebá on display. And if one of these fruits is not currently in season, it's likely that Carmelita will have frozen pulp available. For those pulps, you can thank Carmelita's sister - she's the one who prepares and freezes them.

It's encouraging to see someone like Carmelita flourish. Remaining small and independent, she has created a business that is tied intimately to its own region, and which showcases the region's botanical cornucopia. She surely is Ver-o-Peso's Queen of Amazonian Fruits.

Adapted from material by Olivia Fraga published in the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper.


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