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January 7, 2010

“A fruit is a vegetable with looks and money. Plus, if you let fruit rot, it turns into wine, something Brussels sprouts never do.”

-P. J. O’Rourke (1947 – )

On our way to DOM this morning, we discovered that every Thursday, the street is closed to traffic so that the neighborhood Farmer’s Market can take over. These markets are one of the things I’ve come to love most about São Paulo – every neighborhood has a farmer’s market at least one day of the week, so shopping locally is actually easier and more convenient than going to a grocery store. Markets are so important to the culture here that the days of the week – from Monday through Friday – all end in market. For example, Monday is Segunda-Feira, which literally means second market – the second day of the week, and a market day. We’re lucky to be staying near the Ceasa (the produce distribution center for the city), so we have local markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Anyway, while browsing the produce on the way to work, a box of purple-black fruit that sort of looked like large grapes caught my eye. I pointed them out to Alex, who smiled and said “Oh… jaboticaba season is here…”



Jaboticaba – sometimes spelled Jabuticaba (I couldn’t find a source to say which was the correct spelling) is a fruit tree native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, but it apparently originated in Minas Gerais, the same state pão de queijo is from. There are several species of jaboticaba trees, but the largest and most prominent here in Brazil is called the Sabara. The jaboticaba tree  is an incredibly slow growing tree – it can take up to 40 YEARS to reach maturity and produce its first fruit. Because of this, it’s not widely farmed (a farmer would have to make a 40-year commitment before he’d see any return on his investment, after all), so almost all the jaboticaba in the markets come from private properties. It was introduced into California (in Santa Barbara) in 1904, but isn’t widely cultivated.  It reaches a height of 10 – 15 feet in California and 12 – 45 feet in Brazil, depending on the species. The trees are profusely branched, beginning close to the ground and slanting upward and outward so that the dense, rounded crown may attain an ultimate spread as wide as it is tall. The thin, beige to reddish bark flakes off much like that of the guava. The jaboticaba makes an attractive landscape plant, and it’s considered by many to be a sign of luck if a jaboticaba grows in your land.

Jaboticaba tree

Jaboticaba Tree - some English sources call it the "Trunk Cherry"

The name is derived from the Tupi word Jabuti (tortoise) + Caba (place), meaning the place where you find tortoises.

The tree may flower and fruit only once or twice a year (October and January-February being the largest harvests), but when continuously irrigated it flowers frequently, and fresh fruit can be available year round in tropical regions. The fruit is about 1-1.5″ in diameter and has a thick, purplish-black skin with a very gelatinous, white pulp. On our lunch break, we bought half of a kilo for a snack on the bus ride home. Eating them was bizarre to me – you’re supposed to squeeze them between your fingers until the pulp and seed pop into your mouth. I don’t know if I’m special or if I just haven’t done it enough before, but this resulted in a horrible mess with pulp flying everywhere and juice running down my hands and face (good thing the pulp is white, because I would have looked like a stained trainwreck by the time we finished the bag :p) . I figured out that if you bite the skin to puncture it, the pulp squeezes out a lot more cleanly and predictably, haha. The pulp contains from one to four small seeds (swallowing the seeds whole – also weird to me) and has a flavor that’s sort of similar to muscadine grapes – slightly sweet and low-acid. For a first-timer like myself, the texture of the pulp was the most memorable. You can’t really chew the pulp – you have to roll it around your mouth and savor the flavor before you swallow the pulp and the seeds. The skin is really tannic, and while it doesn’t exactly taste bad, I wouldn’t eat them on their own.

Health Benefits

After lunch, our bag of jaboticaba sparked a rather spirited discussion between our coworkers – they disagreed on whether jaboticaba “loosened you up” or “plugged you up”, per se. After doing some reading, I found out that many herbal doctors sun-dry the skins to make an astringent, which is used to treat hemoptysis, asthma, diarrhea, and gargled for chronic inflammation of the tonsils – so, to solve their debate, I guess it probably “plugs you up” if you eat enough of it. Several potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory anti-cancer compounds have been isolated from the fruit. Jaboticaba is rich in iron and contains calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin C, which make it good for building up resistance to infections. It also contains niacin and B vitamins, which, in addition to facilitating digestion and helping to eliminate toxins, can help prevent skin problems, rheumatism and hair loss.

Culinary Uses

The most popular way to eat jaboticaba is exactly as we did on the bus – just pop it into your mouth and swallow. It starts to ferment 3-4 days after it’s picked, so some use it to make jams, jellies, tarts, liqueurs, and strong wine. I’ve also seen it used in many of the ice cream shops  here. Today at DOM, I tried their specialty jaboticaba-wasabi ice cream. It was surprisingly good – I can imagine it would be even better with other components.

It’s not widely cultivated in the US, but sources say you can find it once in a while in specialty markets in California, Florida, and Hawaii.

Jaboticaba Bonsai

Jaboticaba Bonsai Tree

One last random fact that I discovered is that jaboticaba is gaining an increasing popularity in – of all things – bonsai. I have to say, the pictures were pretty cute, and the idea of having a mini jaboticaba tree when I eventually go back to the USA is somewhat appealing – I’m sure my cat would love it.  =)

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