Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Turtle Returns to the Brazilian Table

For untold centuries, the millions of turtles that inhabited the fresh waters - rivers, ponds and swamps - of the Amazonian rain forest were an important food source for the natives that inhabited the same territory. Because the turtle population was immense and the human population limited there was never an issue of overhunting of turtles. All was in balance.

This balance ended after the arrival of Europeans on this continent. Turtles were hunted as a food source by early explorers without regard as to the survivability of the species, and especially after the technique of canning meat was developed in the 19th century, turtles were hunted almost to the point of extinction in the Amazon. Turtle was considered a delicacy in North America and Europe, particularly turtle soup, and tons of canned turtle meat was exported from Brazil to meet the demands of the Northern Hemisphere.

Turtle numbers dropped drastically in the middle of the 20th century as overhunting brought Amazonian turtles every closer to extinction. In 1967 the Brazilian government, through its environmental protection agency IBAMA totally prohibited commercial hunting for turtles and began a public-awareness campaign to protect the species at risk. Turtles disappeared from menus and store shelves in the entire country.

Farmed Amazonian turtle
In 1992 IBAMA, on a test basis, allowed a small number of turtle farms to be built in the Amazonian region, and in 1997 issued the first commercial license for farmed turtle meat. The limitations and restrictions imposed on these farms meant that for the first ten years or so they were few in number and produced a very small quantity of turtle meat. One significant reason for the slow start for commercial turtle farming is the fact that turtles have a very long life cycle and are not mature to eat until they are at least five years old and are not sexually mature for reproduction until they are fifteen or more.

During the initial phase of the re-introduction of farmed turtle meat into the market distribution was limited to localities within the Amazon regions, where turtles are part of the traditional market. Outside that region, even with product available, it was difficult to convince chefs and consumers to buy turtle meat. The initial public-awareness campaign had been so successful that there was now a prejudice against eating turtles, and another campaign had to be created to partially reverse the results of the earlier one.

Within the past year, though, as the supply has increased (with a resulting reduction in price) and with ever-growing interest in Brazil in regional foods and traditional food sources, the turtle has finally begun to appear once again on restaurant menus and frozen in gourmet grocery stores. Forward-looking chefs from the big cities of Brazil are exploring old and new ways to deal with this meat and to present it to its best advantage.
Ana Luiza Trajano's turtle appetizer

Chef Ana Luisa Trajano, of São Paulo's Brasil a Gosto restaurant has recently added turtle from the Amazonian state of Acre to her menu. She uses the loin, the most tender part of the turtle, in a cold appetizer which combines marinated and low-temperature-cooked turtle with a nut emulsion, Amazonian basil, chicory and crunchy "shoestring" manioc. Celebrity chef Alex Atala plans to put turtle on the menu soon at his restaurant D.O.M. One of his proposed dishes combines a thick broth made from breast and foot meat of the turtle, a farofa of strongly-flavored tutle liver plus deep-fried turtle rinds (similar to pork rinds).

The Brazilian experience with turtles-as-a-food-source shows that when proper environmental protection and anti-poaching regulations are in place and enforced, commercial use of endangered species doesn't necessarily put a species at risk of extinction. In fact, the reverse is true. It can enhance the long-term survivability of the species by increasing the interest in all segments of the market in ensuring that there will continue to be a viable supply of the meat in question. This seems to be happening with Amazonian turtles.


  1. How interesting! And good to hear a success story in the conservation world. I had always thought that the turtle soup of last century was made from sea turtles. As I understand it, sea turtles are still very much endangered. I remember seeing sea turtle eggs for sale in Guatemala and although I was desperately curious to see what they tasted like, my conscience won out.

    I will keep an eye out for turtle meat in the restaurants of Rio!

  2. I'm not a culinary historian, but I believe that the 19th century turtle soup could be made out of marine or fresh water turtles. I do know that in New York the dish was often made with terrapin, a species of fresh water turtle. In any case, there's been severe pressure on all sorts of turtles worldwide because of overhunting. It's particularly sad because they've been around since the days of the dinosaurs. At least the project mentioned in the article gives one hope for these charming animals.