Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Blackberries (Rubus fruticosus)

Autumn equinox always arrives with a shock: summer is over, winter is on the approach! How can that be? It seems only such a short while ago that we laughed and played in the summer sun! But all too soon I hear the equinox winds hurling outside my window and watch dark, ominous clouds chasing each other across the sky. I sigh. The last of the foraging days are just around the corner. From now until Samhain or All Saints Day, a flurry of activity lies ahead: I will be gathering mushrooms, berries, and nuts to fill the winter larder.

Strawberries, raspberries, red currents – berry season is already over. Almost – except for one! A sweet reminder of the summer days will take us to the threshold of winter: the lowly Blackberry (aka Bramble). How we curse it in spring and summer when we find our passage across a field blocked by its dangling thorny limbs, when its barbs tear our clothes, tangle our hair, or scratch our skin! When bramble blocks the way it means business. Although it is not impossible to overcome, most will choose an easier route than to engage in direct combat.

Yet, who can resist the sweet berries once summer is over? From the end of August to the beginning of November Bramble bestows a seemingly inexhaustible harvest. Rows of jam jars that line the larder are abundant proof.

Bramble is extremely undemanding. It pops up just about anywhere and is often cursed as a weed. But, like many other so-called weeds, it bears a precious secret.

Blackberries highly nutritious and rich in vitamins, especially Vitamin C and A, and K, as well as in minerals, especially manganese and fibre. They also contain flavonoids and tannins, which means that they are not only delicious fieldfare or raw material for jams, but can also be used medicinally.

The tannins act as an astringent. Medicinally Blackberries (as well as the Blackberry leaves, picked in spring) can be used to tighten the gums and to inhibit bleeding. It makes a good remedy for the upset tummies of small children, can arrest diarrhoea, settle a nervous stomach and even soothe a stomach-flu.

The leaves can be brewed like tea. Sometimes they are mixed with raspberry and strawberry leaves to make a refreshing general-purpose household tea. Their diuretic and diaphoretic properties useful in a blood cleansing tea and help to reduce a fever.

Extremely valuable is their ability to lower blood sugar levels, which would commend them to diabetics as an alternative to regular tea or coffee. The leaves are also astringent and can be used as a gargle to soothe a sore throat. The berries or their juice are beneficial for treating hoarseness. Singers and speakers should make ample use of this freely available and effective remedy.

On a more spiritual note, the lowly Blackberry flower has an honoured place among Dr. Bach’s flower essences. He saw it as a remedy for confusion. Bramble essence is said to help one realise the ‘essential truth’ or underlying pattern of a situation and is thought to assist in finding solutions to a problem, bring about mental clarity, and to aid concentration and memory.

Recipes

 

As blackberries are so commonly found in the hedgerows there are a plethora of recipes for cordials, jams, jellies, ice cream, mousse, pies, chutneys, and tons more. I prefer the fresh berries straight off the vine with just a little cream, but here are another couple of favourites: 

Apple and Blackberry Crumble:

Filling

  • 3 Large cooking apples
  • 1lb Blackberries
  • 5oz Sugar or Honey
  • Cinnamon
  • Lemon
  • ½ oz Butter

Crust

  • 2 oz Butter
  • 2 oz Rolled oats
  • 2 oz Flour
  • 1 oz Walnuts (crushed)
  • 1 oz Sugar or Honey
  • Preheat the oven to 200C/400F

Peel and cut the apples into small chunks. Melt the butter and stir in the sugar and cinnamon. Cook until it carmelises, stirring frequently. After about 5 min add the apple pieces, lemon, and walnuts. Cook until the apples are getting soft.

Prepare the crumble topping by rubbing the softened butter, sugar, flour, and oats into a crumbly mixture.

Take the apples off the heat and add the blackberries. Stir in gently. Transfer the filling into a shallow ovenproof casserole and sprinkle the crumble topping on top. Bake for about 20 minutes at about 180°C or 350°F until the topping turns a light golden brown.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.

Blackberry Cornbread

2 cups white cornmeal

¼ tsp. soda

¼ tsp. salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 egg

1 cup maple syrup

1 ½ cup blackberries

Mix cornmeal, soda, salt, buttermilk, egg in a medium-sized mixing bowl; stir well. Add maple syrup, stir well. Add blackberries, stir into the mixture without mashing them. Pour into a well-greased iron skillet and bake slowly at 350°F/180°C until top begins to brown. Reduce heat to 200°F/100°C until cooked.

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Blueberries (Vaccinium myrtillus)

At last, summer has arrived, and with it, the wonderful time of berry gathering. To my taste buds, there is nothing more delicious than a bowl of freshly collected wild strawberries and wild blueberries served with only with fresh milk and sugar – it instantly triggers bliss and brings back happy childhood memories of carefree sunny days spent grazing my way through the woods. My mouth, shirts, and hands stained a deep purplish red for weeks on end. I did not care. I was happy as a bear, gorging myself on this seemingly inexhaustible supply of berries. That is how I came to be a forager at the age of five, a passion that has stayed with me all my life.

Blueberries like an acid environment and are particularly prolific in northern pine forests, heath, and moors. They cling to hillsides or hide among the heather. Although they can be found in the moors of southern England they are more prolific in Scotland and Wales. In the US they are mostly found in the Rockies and other mountainous regions of the western States. Commercial blueberries are widely cultivated in the Northeastern US.

Blueberries are a member of the heather family. The tough, low-growing plants can completely carpet a forest floor, creating a veritable a forager’s paradise. The leaves are small, elliptical with finely serrated margins. The reddish fairy bell flowers, dangling singly from the low bushes, are typical of the heather family. By the end of July/beginning of August, depending on local conditions, they turn into deep bluish-black berries. To be sure, picking each soft little berry requires a certain degree of delicacy and many will squish their sweet juice all over your hands and clothes. Make sure you are dressed for the occasion, as you will never completely get the stain out again (Tip: lemon juice or ascorbic acid works best).

Some find cleaning the berries a chore, as the little stalks can be somewhat tenacious, and tedious to pick off, but the effort is well worth it. Nothing quite compares to blueberry bliss – in fact, my taste buds are performing a little dance of ecstasy at the mere thought of harvesting season drawing nigh.

Blueberries, Vaccinium myrtillus

Medicinal uses:

Both berries and leaves feature in traditional herbal medicine. A tea made from Blueberry leaves can lower blood sugar levels. However, recent animal research suggests that long-term use of large doses can have adverse effects. The berries are known to enhance the peripheral blood circulation, which among other things, improve visual acuity. This property comes to the aid of diabetics and people who find it hard to adjust to poor lighting conditions. They are also hailed to improve blood supply to the brain and thus make excellent brain power food. These findings suggest that Blueberries make an ideal snacking fruit for the elderly. They have also been found to reduce cholesterol and to catch free radicals. In fact, according to a study by Tuffts University, which examined 60 different fruit and vegetables, blueberries demonstrated the highest levels of antioxidant activity. Blueberries also act on the connective tissue, making it stronger and more stable. They have also been recommended for people who suffer from varicose veins. Furthermore, blueberries are rich in anthocyanins, an antioxidant compound found in wine which is known to protect the heart. However, wine made from blueberries has been shown to contain 38% more of this compound than red wine. They also contain another type of antioxidant compound that protects against colon cancer. Thus, blueberries are easily not just one of the most delicious fruits, but also one of the healthiest. Scoff as many as you can while the season is on!

Blueberries have also been found to reduce cholesterol and to catch free radicals. In fact, according to a study by Tufts University, which examined 60 different fruit and vegetables, blueberries demonstrated the highest levels of antioxidant activity. Blueberries also act on the connective tissue, making it stronger and more stable and have also been recommended for varicose veins. Furthermore, blueberries are rich in anthocyanins, an antioxidant compound also found in wine, which is known to protect the heart. However, wine made from blueberries has been shown to contain 38% more of this compound than red wine, as well as another type of antioxidant that is said to protect against colon cancer. Thus, blueberries are easily not only one of the most delicious fruits, but also one of the healthiest. Scoff as many as you can, while the season is on!

CAUTION:

Blueberry leaves contain oxalates, which, when concentrated in the blood can form crystals that can damage the kidneys. People suffering from urinary problems or kidney disease should avoid oxalate-containing foods. Use blueberry leaves in moderation.

Recipes 

If you are lucky enough to find a plentiful patch, perhaps mixed with other berries, such as wild strawberries, raspberries or blackberries, you can make a cold berry soup – a favourite summer dish in Scandinavian countries, fruits of the forest ice cream, sorbet or yogurt cream, which, when stabilized with vegetarian gelatine, makes an excellent cake filling. Blueberry milkshakes are equally delicious. Not to mention jams and syrups for later use. In short, there is no limit to blueberry delights.

Blueberry juice:

Mash about 1 cup of blueberries. Add 1 cup of water (or more if you like it thinner). Simmer briefly, add sugar or honey to taste, strain through cheesecloth and cool.

Blueberry smoothy:

Add one cup of blueberries to 1cup of milk and a ½ cup of yogurt. Whizz in a blender. Add sugar and/or lemon juice to taste.

Blueberry Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup blueberries (fresh or frozen)
  • 1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¾ tsp. salt
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • ¼ cup butter

Procedure:

Preheat oven to 400°F. Grease muffin cups.

Tumble blueberries with a little bit of the flour, enough to coat them. Combine the remaining dry ingredients: flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside.

Cream the butter with the eggs and buttermilk; stir into flour mixture until just combined (batter will be lumpy). Stir in blueberries until evenly distributed. Fill muffin cups full with batter. Bake about 20 minutes until golden

Blueberry Pie

There are gazillion delicious recipes for blueberry pies and cheesecakes. To maximize the healthful properties of this delicious treat forget the cheesecake and just fill a pie crust with a slightly cooked blueberry mixture.

Preheat the oven to 375°F.

Crust:

  • 1½ cup graham cracker crumbs (or digestive biscuits)
  • ½ cup melted butter
  • cup of water

Crumble the Graham crackers and mix with melted butter. Add just enough water to create a dough that sticks together. Press into a deep 9″ pie tin.

  • 8 cups of blueberries
  • 7 Tbs corn flour or tapioca
  • 3 Tablespoons water (or grape juice)
  • 2 Tablespoons lemon juice
  • Cinnamon to taste
  • ¾ cup of sugar

Wash the berries. Combine corn starch, sugar and optional spices in a mixing bowl. Add lemon juice and water and blend well. Gently combine blueberries with the cornstarch mixture and fill into pie crust. They may overfill the tin, but the volume is reduced during baking.

If you like, add a crumb topping:

  • ¼ cup of sugar
  • ½ cup flour
  • ¼ cup butter, flaked
  • Rub together until it becomes a crumbly mixture and spread all over the pie. Cook for about one hour at 375°F or 190°C.

Serve with fresh whipped cream.

Blueberry cream

  • 2 cups of blueberry
  • 2 cups of quark (smooth cottage cheese or fromage frais)
  • ½cup whipped cream
  • Sugar
  • Lemon juice
  • Cassis

Clean and slightly bruise the blueberries, pour a little cassis over them and some sugar.  Marinate for a few hours until the sugar is dissolved and the blueberries have turned a little mushy.

In another bowl blend the fromage frais with the lemon juice and some sugar until smooth. Fold in the whipped cream and stir in the blueberries. If you add a little gelatine to the quark (follow instructions on the package) you can also use this cream as a filling for a pie crust.

Cold Blueberry soup:

Wonderful dessert/dish for a summer’s day.

Take a quart of blueberries, bruise or mash. Add the same amount of water and a little lemon juice. Simmer, add sugar to taste. If you don’t like the seeds and skins, you can strain the liquid through a fine sieve or cheesecloth. Dissolve a little cornstarch and add to thicken, but take care not to use too much. Simmer a little while longer, then allow to cool and put in the fridge. Whip some cream. When the blueberry soup is cold enough, serve with dabs of fresh whipped cream. Some people like to refine this recipe by adding a little cassis to the soup.

 

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Annatto (Bixa orellana)

Description:

Annatto, or Achiote, as it is commonly called in Latin American countries, is a tropical shrub that can grow up to about 20 meters high. The pinkish-white flowers develop into a bright red, heart-shaped and exceedingly bristly fruit, which is inedible. When ripe the fruit capsule breaks open and reveals an abundance of seeds embedded in an orange-red pulp. Achiote produces a prolific amount of fruits: a single tree can yield up to 270kg.

Distribution:

Annatto is widespread throughout tropical regions of Central and South America, where it is native. It has also become naturalized in other tropical regions, such as the Philippines.

History and Mythology

The Latin name ‘Bixa orellana’ does not give much of a clue regarding its properties. Some believe that the genus name is derived from the Portuguese ‘biche’, meaning ‘beak’, which may allude to the beak-shaped seedpods. Others believe it is a phonetic rendering of a Carib word for the colour red, which makes more sense. The species name is far more straightforward – it is given in honour of Francisco de Orellano, a Spanish conquistador of the 16th century, who accidentally ‘discovered’ the Amazon.

The tree has a wide range of surprising uses that are mostly of local significance. Although Annatto fruits are inedible, the fruit pulp yields a bright red dye, which has a long history of use, both as body paint and as a dye for textiles or food. The ancient Mayas and Aztecs regarded it as a symbolic substitute for blood and thus held it sacred. It was also used to make ink. Virtually all ancient Mayan scriptures were penned in annatto juice. Indigenous people still use the pulp for ‘cosmetic purposes’, as hair dye or lipstick, hence the English common name ‘Lipstick tree’. The pulp is also said to repel insects and to protect against sunburn due to the UV-filtering properties of the carotenoid pigment known as Bixin.

Annato seed pods

Rigues [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Its use as a food dye is just as ancient and persists even today. In fact, it is probably one of the most ubiquitous of all food dyes used by the food industry. It lends its reddish tint to cheeses, butter, and spreads, candy, and custards. It is also still used as a traditional food dye for meats. (The bright red colour of Chinese poultry, however, is due to treatment with a caramelised malt solution.) This use is most prevalent in the Philippines and in Central America and Mexico. The Aztecs were known to add Annatto to their sacred xocolatl brew and other foods.

To process the fruits, the seed pods are washed in order to separate the pulp from the seeds, which are used separately as a mild spice. A spice paste, known as ‘Achiote Recado,’ is a popular flavouring in Yucatecan cuisine (southern Mexico). Meats are marinated in the paste and wrapped in banana leaves. Fish, chicken and especially pork, or suckling pig can be treated this way.

Annatto is one of the most widely used food colouring substances of the food industry, which is somewhat problematic as many people appear to be highly allergic to. There are campaigns to get it banned, but the FDA considers it exempt from regulation. The way in which commercial annatto is processed as a dye involves hexane extraction, which just may possibly have something to do with these reported allergic reactions. Furthermore, the colouring agent, known as Bixin can now be produced by bio-engineering. Scientists have figured out the biochemical pathway and manipulated E.coli bacteria to produce Bixin. It might be interesting to conduct a comparative study of a) completely naturally processed annatto (see recado recipe below), bio-engineered bixin or commercially extracted annatto dye.

Annatto dye is also used in hair-oils, shoe polish, floor polish, nail-gloss, furniture, brass-lacquer, soap, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical ointments as well as for textiles, wool, leather, and calico.

Medicinal uses:

Parts used: Seeds, leaves, bark, roots, shoots

Although commercially only the seed and seed paste are available, in tropical regions where Annatto is grown, other parts of the plant are also used for medicine. Particularly the leaves have a wide range of applications. The shoots and young leaves are used for feverish infections including gonorrhea, dysentery, and hepatitis. They are believed to protect the liver and reduce cholesterol. The leaves and seeds are also used to soothe irritable indigestion caused by excessively spicy food. An infusion of the flowers is said to be a useful expectorant for newborn babies. In some parts of the Amazon Annatto is used as a treatment for snakebites. Internally it is given as an anti-parasitic that can reduce pain associated with intestinal parasites. Externally the seed extract is applied as an insect repellent and to protect the skin against the ultraviolet rays of the sun. It is also used as a general skin tonic and to heal skin conditions.

The leaves have a marked effect on the urinary system. They increase the volume of urine in cases of renal insufficiency or cystitis. They are also said to reduce benign prostate hyperplasia and are thought to have anti-tumor activity. These are believed to be due to the high antioxidant activity of the carotenoid compounds Bixin and Norbixin, which are also the source of the red pigment Annatto is known for. These carotenoids have also been found to lower blood sugar levels and are used in the treatment of diabetes in traditional medicine systems of the tropics.

Recipes:

To obtain an orange-yellow food dye simply heat some cooking oil and stir in some annatto seeds. Remove the seeds from the oil before adding other foods for stir-frying. While the seeds would not spoil the taste, they would not add much flavour either. For flavouring, they are best when processed as a recado paste – see below:

Achiote Recado

‘Achiote recado’ is a typical spice paste of southern Mexico that is used to marinade meats, poultry, and fish. This recipe is based on a traditional recado recipe that utilizes the juice of bitter oranges (Seville oranges). As these are difficult to get this version is an improvisation.  A ready-made product is available at most Mexican stores. Making it from scratch takes time and effort, but, one can taste the difference

  • 2 tablespoons annatto seeds
  • ½ cup of water
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground allspice
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup ancho chile powder
  • 4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 tablespoon toasted and ground dried Mexican oregano
  • 3 cloves garlic, whole, pan-roasted until brown and soft, then peeled
  • ½ medium-sized white onion, thickly sliced, pan-roasted until brown and soft
  • ¼ cup pineapple vinegar or apple cider vinegar
  • 1½ cups freshly squeezed orange juice
  • ¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Makes about 2½ cups

In a small saucepan combine the annatto seeds and water. Bring to a boil, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Take off the heat and allow to steep for 2 more hours or until soft. Discard excess water, place in a food processor along with the remaining ingredients. Whizz until smooth. Use immediately or cover tightly. It will keep in the fridge for about 5 days.

To dye textiles

For best results use oxalic acid or tartaric acid to get golden yellow, with alum mordant, yellow, ochre with copper mordant, brown, with iron mordant, orange, with tin mordant. Best on cotton, linen, and other cellulose fiber. Fair light-fastness. Also known as Achiote, or Lipstick Tree. [Mexico] (SW: 4 oz)

Acorns

Acorns

I don’t know why I have been ignoring acorns all this time. But this year, out of nowhere, it suddenly struck me that I should give them a try. Oaks are quite plentiful in my region and thus acorns are not in short supply. And so, I unexpectedly found myself filling my pockets with acorns a couple of weeks ago. Acorns actually make for easy foraging – they are plentiful, not prickly and big enough to fill bags without too much effort.

But before you start picking, it may be worth your while to acquaint yourself with the different species that grow in your area. Different species are often found in the same habitat. Oaks (and acorns) come in many different varieties, shapes, and sizes but not all are terribly tasty, (in fact, some taste terrible).

Acorns are rich in tannins, a bitter, acrid substance that was once used for tanning animal hides. Tannins are very astringent and in large amounts, they are toxic to the kidneys, liver, and the entire digestive tract. They also interfere with iron absorption. This is why foragers prefer to search out varieties that are a bit sweeter and lack high levels of tannin. Fortunately, in most parts of Europe, the species that has the lowest tannin concentration is also one of the most common. In the US there is a wide variety of species and all of them, even the bitterest have been used for food.

In the eastern United States, Quercus alba, or common white oak, was generally considered the preferred species to gather, since it is naturally quite sweet. In the Southwest, gamble oak was used, although the acorns are not big. But, just about every kind of acorn has been utilized for food – bitter or not. To make the bitter varieties more palatable, the tannins must be removed. Native people have been very innovative in finding ways to accomplish this task. They used many different methods to render acorns more palatable and to preserve them for later use.

Some indigenous peoples stored the nuts in underground vaults that they would dig near a river. Stored in such vaults the nuts turned completely black but could be kept fresh for years (unless the squirrels should find them). But a more common method is to thoroughly dry or roast the nuts and to store them in jars for later use.

The dried nuts can then be ground into flour as needed. The flour is placed into a finely woven cloth and carefully rinsed to remove the tannins until the water runs clear. Any flour that is not used immediately must be thoroughly dried (e.g. at low temperature in the oven) to prevent it from getting moldy. The flour will ‘cake up’ and must be ground again before use.

Alternatively, you can boil the acorns in several changes of water and then dry them. Gentle roasting will dry them completely. Once thoroughly dry, they can be ground.

acorn biscuits

Acorn biscuits 

Acorns are very nutritious. They contain not only fat and carbohydrates but are also rich in proteins and B vitamins.

 

There are a surprising number of recipes out there for making acorn goodies – acorn grits, cakes, bread, and soup. Coarsely ground acorns (grits) can be used to replace nuts in many recipes, although they may add rather a lot of crunch. Acorn flour can be used to replace a portion of regular flour in just about any recipe. Mix flours in a ratio of 1:1 or 1:3, depending on how nutty a flavour you want to achieve. Experiment to create your own favourite recipes.

My experiment was based on a savoury biscuit recipe that normally calls for cashews. These crackers came out great, except that I should have ground the flour much finer. I used grits, but they turned quite crunchy in the oven. Still, on the whole, they were quite tasty.

Savoury Acorn Biscuits:

Ingredients:

  • 150g Acorn flour
  • 150g wholemeal flour
  • 100g cold butter
  • 1 tsp. curry powder
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 tbs. creme fraiche
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 2 – 3 tbs ground parmesan cheese

Place the flours into a bowl. Add the cold butter, in small chunks, and add the curry powder and salt. Add 1 egg yolk and the creme fraiche. Blend all ingredients to create a smooth shortcrust dough. Cover and put into the fridge for 1 hour.

Line a cookie sheet with baking paper and preheat the oven to 200°C (392°F).

Divide dough into two parts and roll out thinly (to approx 3 millimetres) between two layers of cling film.

Cut 4cm cookies (e.g. with a water glass) and transfer to cookie sheet.

Mix second egg yolk with 2 spoons of water and glaze each cookie

Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese

Bake on the middle rack for 15 min until golden brown.

 

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Açai (Euterpe oleracea)

Description:

A slender, graceful palm of the Arecaceae family, Açai is native to the seasonally inundated lowland forests of eastern South America, especially Brazil. Several stems sprout from its base and it can grow to about 15-25m high. It takes 4-5 years to mature. The roots are perfectly adapted to the seasonally inundated and waterlogged conditions of its habitat, by developing special root structures known as pneumatophores, better known as aerial roots, although some prefer to call them aerating roots. These vertically erect, pencil-like shoots grow from the submerged horizontal roots that are below the soil. They not only help to stabilize the plant and protect the soil from erosion, but also help the roots to obtain oxygen as they will be exposed to the ground above the mud or flooded ground.

 

The leaves of the Açai palm are typical, pinnate palm fronds that arise from a reddish crown. In the course of a year, it produces 4-8 bunches of fruit, with yields being heaviest during the dry season, and most flowering mostly occurring during the wet season. The fruits form bunches of small, purple-black drupes, each with a large stone in its center and a minimal covering of purple-red pulp. Bunches can weigh up to 6kg each. The fruits are an important food source for rodents and birds, thus helping to spread the seeds. Thanks to its general usefulness this palm is often planted near human habitations.

 

History

Açai juice and smoothies are all the rave among health-conscious consumers in the US. But in the Amazon it has long been a staple – it is so ubiquitous and consumed in such large quantities, especially among the indigenous people and ribereños, the river communities of the lowland rainforest, that it is often referred to as ‘poor man’s food’.

 

Recently its superfood properties have been hailed, and successfully marketed to the young fitness crowd. Amazing qualities are ascribed to it – like most superfoods it is said to improve everything from the tone of your skin to your sex drive and have anti-cancer properties, too. No wonder it sells like hotcakes. If you google Açai you will instantly get a return of 5 million (!) pages – mostly advertising some novel product based on the magic berry. There is no end to the hype. But is it really true? Searching for solid evidence that is based on actual studies, one is baffled to find – precious little. There has been almost no research on this fruit at all. The hype appears to mostly be marketing froth. A new food fad is born.

 

Not that the fruit is bad for you, far from it. It does indeed have quite an impressive amount of anthocyanin, the antioxidant substance that gives it its colour – the same compound that achieves this effect in Bilberries. The actual amount of this substance is said to be twice as high in Açai than in blueberries, which does seem impressive. However, it comes in a very unstable form, which rapidly deteriorates after picking. The berries also contain protein, calcium, Vitamin B1, A, and E, as well as a good amount of calories – but despite the superlative claims its overall profile is not that remarkable. In the Amazon, although widely popular as a food/drink stuff, the berry has never been used medicinally.

 One of the most common ways to consume it is as a kind of porridge. The berries are soaked in water in order to soften the outer skin so that the pulp can easily be separated from the seed. The resulting mash is a deep purple, shiny thick mass, which may be mixed with the pulp of manioc, a starchy vegetable, to make a filling porridge. The mash is also frequently eaten with granola and other fruits as an energizing ‘health food’. Or, it is diluted with water or other fruit juices to make the famous energy drink that has recently become so popular among urbanites throughout the Americas.

 

The rapid nutrient deterioration is not of great concern in the Amazon, where it is eaten pretty much right from the tree. But to preserve any of its potential benefits for consumers on the other side of the planet, it is necessary to preserve the fruit pulp for export. The usual method is to pasteurize it, which, however, is not terribly gentle and destroys some of the more fragile compounds. It is then frozen or freeze-dried, which further reduces any potential benefits. Thus, it seems like Brazilians are reaping most of the benefit, providing the juice is made in clean condition with clean water and equipment, compared to the processed derivatives found in juice bars or on supermarket shelves thousands of miles from the Amazon.

 But business is booming. Dietary crazes have a way of catching on that defies any rationality. In Belem, the main market town in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon has an area solely dedicated to the sale of Açai berries, known as ‘Feira do Açai’, where more than 100 vendors sell 200,000kg of berries PER DAY during the dry season. And there is talk of substantially increasing business by planting more Açai trees. (One project plans to plant 5 billion Açai trees over the next 10 years!)

Açai is also economically important for other reasons. It is currently the main source of palm hearts, locally known as ‘palmito‘, which is part of the traditional Amazonian diet, although not significant from a nutritional point of view. Palm hearts also have a sizeable export market, mostly in France. Originally Açai’s cousin ‘Euterpe edulis‘ was harvested to obtain the hearts, but since it only grows one stem and the tree has to be cut and killed in order to obtain the precious ‘heart’ harvest from this species proved highly unsustainable. Euterpe oleracea, on the other hand, produces several stems and cutting one or two encourages the growth of new shoots. Thus, Euterpe oleracea has now largely replaced E. edulis as a source of palm hearts.

 The species is also important as a source of palm fronds, which are used for thatching roofs. A secondary product derived from Açai that plays an even greater role is unlikely to ever become a hit abroad – even though it is deemed a delicacy in the Amazon: the grubs of the palm beetle (Rhynchophorus palm beetle), which although highly nutritious and rich in protein is unlikely to win much favour in any of the superfood markets abroad. To encourage the beetle the cut-down stumps of Açai are urinated on, which apparently creates an ideal environment for the beetle to lay its eggs. A few weeks later 3-4 pounds of nice, fat beetle grub larvae are harvested and consumed with relish.

 Some environmentalists welcome the growing popularity of Açai, as they see it as a sustainable non-timber forest product that can be successfully marketed to bring much needed economic benefits to poor forest and river-dwelling communities without threatening the forest. However, whether the production will, in fact, be sustainable in the long run remains to be seen. The habitat of this palm is limited to riverine locations and although it occurs naturally and prolifically, forming extensive groves, it is not clear where plantations will be established. Will established forest have to be cleared in order to grow this superfood for export, or will existing soy fields be converted to Açai? Also, as yet there is little evidence that sustainable management and harvesting methods actually much employed. Instead, palm heart harvesting is still often done by clear-cutting large areas instead of just taking out individual trunks. There is some hope that Açai berries will eventually far outweigh the market for palm hearts, in terms of their economic importance, but it looks as though there will always be a market for them, both locally and abroad.

 As for the current Açai craze – it is doubtful that it will last. Marketing buffs are very good at creating a buzz – preferably by throwing some sex into the marketing spin. The technique is not a new one. Even tobacco was once hyped and marketed along the very same lines. That particular craze had a long-lasting effect, mainly thanks to the addictive nature of tobacco, but exotic fruit crazes come and go – noni, mangosteen, kiwi – they all were once perceived as nutritional miracle bombs. No doubt they have their virtues, but are they really worth the money that millions of consumers are prepared to pay for the promise of ‘youth in a bottle’? Personally, I would prefer the local heroes – wild blueberries for example, fresh from the bush, no processing required and all nutritional benefits intact.

 

Medicinal uses:

 Constituents:

 1-4% protein, 7-11% fats, 25% sugar, 0.05% calcium, 0.033% phosphorous, and 0.0009% iron. It also has some sulphur, traces of vitamin B1 and some vitamin A and E. It also delivers 88 to 265 calories per 100 grams, depending on the preparation method. In addition to the standard vitamins and minerals found in most fruits, the main plant chemicals in Açai fruit include epicatechin, p-hydroxy-benzoic acid, gallic acid, (+)-catechin, protocatechuic acid, ellagic acid, p-coumaric acid, ferulic acid, vanillic acid, cyanidin, and pelaronidin 3-glucoside. (source: rain-tree database)

Medicinal uses:

In Brazil the oil of the fruit is obtained and used to treat diarrhea; a decoction of the roots is considered beneficial in cases of jaundice and boosts blood production. The grated fruit rind is infused to make a wash for skin ulcers, and the seeds are crushed and prepared as an infusion for treating fevers. In the Peruvian Amazon, an infusion of the crushed, toasted seeds is used to ally fevers, and a decoction of the root is used for malaria, diabetes, hepatitis and jaundice, hair loss, hemorrhages, liver and kidney diseases, menstrual pain, and muscle pain. (source: rain-tree)

 

 References:

Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A%C3%A7a%C3%AD_palm

Rain-Tree database https://www.rain-tree.com

 Total oxidant scavenging capacities of Euterpe oleracea Mart. fruits, International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, Volume 56, Issue 1 February 2005 , pages 53 – 64

 Farbatlas Tropenpflanzen, Andreas Bärtels, Eugen Ulmer Verlag 1996