La Castaña Amazónica
Mater Iniciativa's work with Bertholletia excelsa.
The primary dispersal of Bertholletia excelsa, best known as the Brazil Nut, is through forest rodents, like the agouti. The large fruits, which can weigh as much as 2 kilos each, are broken open by these animals to reveal the roughly twenty nuts inside. Some are eaten, while others are taken across the forest and buried to eat later. With much on their minds, the animals often forget the nuts and over time they grow into trees that can reach as high as 50 meters. These trees, which are only found in healthy forests that contain the large bees that can pollinate them, are symbols of Amazonian biodiversity.
Lima, Peru based Mater Iniciativa, the research arm of the restaurant Central, recently created a series of mini-docs that describe the life cycle and culinary potential of this fascinating nut with filmmakers Docuperú. The first video literally shows its dispersal from the mouth of a rodent locally known as añuje, as it navigates the forest floor.
“It’s an extremely important plant because we can conserve the forest thanks to this species that works as an umbrella for others,” says Jan Brack, the director of Mater Iniciativa at Mil in Moray. “By conserving the Peruvian castaña, we are conserving the integrity of the Amazon Forest.”
Despite its name, the tree is found throughout the Amazon Basin. In Brazil, they’re called castanha do pará, after the state where they are most often found. In Peru, where Mater is doing its research, they are abundant in the southeastern Amazon state of Madre de Dios, where they are called the Nuez de Madre de Dios, or Castaña Amazónica.
The process of gathering these nuts for consumption has gone on for as long as humans have lived in the Amazon basin. Unable to grow in plantations, it relies on low yield management that does little to disturb the forest. The minimal impact generated by its collection is particularly special, as it allows local communities to benefit from it economically while also protecting the diversity of the ecosystem.
The subtitled videos show the supply chain from the harvesters to the women that crack the nuts to the bags of them shipped by river and then by land. There is a video documentation of a recipe of ají de castañas, as well as scenes back in Mater’s lab in Lima and Virgilio Martinez and Pía León’s methods for using them at Central and Kjolle. It’s one of the most in depth looks I’ve seen available publicly of their process of working with an ingredient.
“I see a lot of potential in the castaña,” says Mater Iniciativa director Malena Martinez. “I see the potential as an input, as a resource, as a means.”
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