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Heather & Alex, 1/1/11

Bacuri & Cupuaçu

March 7, 2010

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”

-Groucho Marx (American Comedian, 1890-1977)

When we arrive in any new city, our first task is always to immediately hit the farmer’s market. In Belém, the mercado central is not like most markets – it’s the size of two city blocks that has an outdoor and an indoor section. The indoor section houses all of the fresh meat and Amazonian freshwater fish, while the outdoor section has a labyrinth of unique herbs, vegetables, medicinal remedies, food stands, juice shops, artisan craft vendors, and a fruit section unlike any other place in the world. The market, which sits on the very edge of the Amazon river basin at the bay of Guajará, is named ver-o-peso (“see-the-weight” in portuguese), following a colonial era tradition – the tax collector’s main post was located there (called “Casa do Haver-o-peso” or “measure the weight house”), and all goods brought from the Amazon forests, rivers and countryside were taxed by the Portuguese crown in the “Haver-o-peso house” , but only after their weight was measured – hence the name. Most of the products found in this market are completely exclusive to this area;  you will not – and can not – find them anywhere else in the world.

Among the dozens of fruit displays, two of the most exclusively Amazonian fruits are Bacuri and Cupuaçu.


While walking through the market, a woman called our attention and offered us a slice of one of her products. It was orangeish-brown on the exterior and slightly oval shaped, about the size of a common orange. She sliced it around the center and removed the top half, revealing an opaque white oval surrounded by a yellowy bark. She then cut off a thin slice of the white pulp, which further revealed a large brown seed underneath. We were sold.

bacuri fruit

a Bacuri fruit - whole (left) and cut open (right), with the seed in front.

After the first bite, I thought I have never tasted anything like this before in my life. It’s a semi sticky pulp with a soft texture, and it’s incredibly fragrant. It’s very sweet but with a slight sour/acidic kick at the end – it’s absolutely delicious, and the rich flavor lingers in your mouth long after you swallow the pulp. After a few more bites, I had a vivid childhood flashback and immediately realized what flavor I was tasting – Fruit Loops! I could never figure out what fruit Fruit Loops actually tasted like until now. I know it’s a stretch (and I’m not sure that Alex totally agrees with me on this comparison) but I’m convinced that someone came to the Amazon, saw a colorful bird eating this fruit, tried it, had an epiphany, and sold the concept to Kellog’s. Coincidentally, the bacuri is actually pollinated by the white-bellied parrot. :p

It’s a little bizarre to eat – I’d guess that 80% of the fruit is inedible (the skin, bark, and seeds). A bacuri fruit usually contains two main seed compartments (filled with 1-5 seeds each), which most locals refer to as the “father”and the “son”. The “father” is the larger seed that has more pulp surrounding it, while the “son” is the smaller seed that is covered with only a very thin layer of pulp. The pulp of a bacuri doesn’t peel off – you either have to cut it with a very sharp knife, or you have to suck the seed and sort of extract the pulp with your saliva. Biting it really does nothing.  The pulp is stringy, yet matted down against the seed; when you bite it, the pulp feathers out but doesn’t completely come loose.

Bacuri (pronounced BOK-ur-ri) contains notable amounts of phosphorus, iron, and vitamin C, and is mostly eaten raw or blended into juice. I’ve seen it used a lot in  candies and confections (mainly in chocolate bon-bons) and as the base for artesinal ice creams here. Sometimes it’s sold preserved in sugar (“doce” in portuguese) – we acquired a kilo of “doce de bacuri” to take home 🙂

Bacuri is common (wild) in the Amazon region of northern Brazil from Maranhão to Goias. It’s abundant in the State of Pará, especially around Marajó and Salgado. Its native territory extends across the border into Colombia and northeast to the humid forests of Guyana. It’s seldom cultivated, but when the Indians clear the land for planting or pastures, they always leave this tree standing for the sake of its delicious fruits. The latex derived from the bark is also used in veterinary practice in Guyana, and the seeds contain an oil that is mixed with sweet almond oil to treat eczema and herpes.

You can’t really find bacuri anywhere outside of where it’s grown – I don’t remember ever seeing it in São Paulo or Sobral. Tasting fresh bacuri is definitely a good enough reason to come back to Belém!


One of the first juices I tried in São Paulo was cupuaçu (pronounced koo-poo-wah-SUE). Shortly before the new year, I got an email from a culinary newsletter touting cupuaçu as the “NEW superfood of 2010!” This made me slightly nauseated, because it’s almost certainly going to mean the exploitation of the native people in the regions where it’s grown so that American consumers can have watered-down juices and pills and powders and creams made from overpriced fruit overmarketed with superfluous claims of instant youth, beautiful skin, and an increase in sexual prowess (all sold by horribly written websites riddled with spelling and grammatical errors). Every time I google search in English, I run across the phrase “pharmacy in a bottle”… oh, please.

However, there’s a happy ending to my little tirade. A fellow cook from São Paulo told us that after speaking to a cupuaçu vendor in Belém, she learned that many of the vendors dilute the pulp they sell for exportation with cheaper fruits like banana and jaca – because people in other states and other countries will never know the difference unless they have actually traveled to Pará and tried the fruit fresh. Consumers, beware! 🙂


a whole and opened cupuaçu fruit

Anyway, Cupuaçu is a fruit native to the Amazon region that’s a cousin of the cacao (where chocolate comes from). The name comes from the Tupi words kupu (“that which looks like cacao”)  + uasu (“large”).  The fruits are oblong, brown, fuzzy, and hard like a coconut – they’re about 8-9″ long and fairly heavy (2-4lbs each). The inside contains a fragrant white pulp that surrounds 35ish seeds – it smells like a tart pineapple misted with chocolate and lime. It’s absolutely delicious, creamy, and unique – once it’s sweetened. By itself, cupuaçu is a little too sour and too acidic for my taste. Once again, you will almost never see cupuaçu fresh outside of this region – elsewhere in Brazil it’s sold almost exclusively in purees, juices, and “sweets” preserved in sugar syrup, which are used to make juices, cakes, ice creams, sorbets, candy fillings, jellies, liquor, cocktails, and the like. At ver-o-peso, we watched as a vendor separated the pulp from the bark – she took a large piece of wood and smacked the shell several times until it cracked. She then peeled the bark and separated the pulp into a bowl, weighed it, and bagged it for sale for the locals.

Cupuaçu at ver-o-peso

One of the many cupuaçu displays at ver-o-peso market in Belém

cupuaçu pulp

Cupuaçu pulp ready for sale

Health Benefits and uses

The fruit contains 11 known flavanoids, at least 9 antioxidants, and claims to lower blood pressure and improve circulation. It contains high levels of phytonutrients which add to its powerful antioxidant properties. The cupuaçu fruit is also rich in the types of fatty acids that support a healthy cholesterol level. The fiber content of the cupuaçu is high and it also contains the B vitamins as well as vitamins A and C.

Cupuaçu fruit has also been linked to providing a healthy immune system (vitamin C) and healthy-looking skin. Others claim it increases stamina and libido while naturally providing jitter-free energy since it contains theacrine  instead of the xanthines (caffeine) found in cacao. The pulp, which hydrates similarly to cocoa butter, is also used in cosmetic products such as body lotions and facial creams. For centuries, cupuaçu seeds were traded along the Rio Negro and Upper Orinoco rivers – the indigenous people drank cupuaçu juice after it was blessed by a shaman to facilitate difficult births. The “beans” are utilized by the indigenous Tikuna people for abdominal pains.

Alternative uses

The bark of the cupuaçu, which is usually discarded or used as fertilizer, can actually be used in power generation. Projects using the shell as a source of biomass for energy production are currently being tested in a community in the state of Amazonas. By using a process called “incomplete combustion”, the shells can produce a gas instead of just smoke. When mixed with diesel-powered engines,  this gas can reduce diesel consumption by up to 80%. The energy generated is used to fuel an agro-processing of the fruit which, before, was sold fresh. The costs are still higher than the generators that use diesel fuel only, but compensates by using abundant raw materials from the region, which generates many social and environmental benefits.


There are initiatives throughout Brazil to develop Cupuaçu Chocolate, called “Cupulate”, which is already being produced and commercialized in Japan. There are a series of patents on the extraction of the fat from the cupuaçu seeds and the production of cupuaçu chocolate- almost all of which were registered by the company ASAHI Foods Co., Ltd. from Kyoto, Japan.
The “inventor”, Mr. Nagasawa Makoto, is both director of ASAHI Foods and owner of the US company “Cupuaçu International Inc” – which holds another world patent on the cupuaçu seed. Besides the patents, ASAHI Foods Co., Ltd. has registered the plant name “Cupuaçu” as a Trade mark for various product classes (including chocolate) in Japan, the European Union and in the US.

As a result, the cupuaçu was at the center of an international dispute  for about six years. Brazilian organizations such as the GTA (Amazonian Working Group) and led a campaign which resulted in the cancellation of the trademark in Japan and in a law which confirmed cupuaçu as a Brazilian national fruit in May 2008. At the height of the conflict, the lawyers of ASAHI Foods threatened a company that sells cupuaçu jelly in Germany (another holder of the trademark “cupuaçu”) with fines exceeding $10,000 because of the use of the name “cupuaçu” on the label.
There is still a dispute going on in the EU over the rights of the use of the word “Cupuaçu” for certain products. When checking out export possibilities for sweets and other Cupuaçu products to Germany, was told to let the word “Cupuaçu” under no circumstances appear on the product.

I find this disturbing and ridiculous. Some things are just… not meant to be shared with the entire world. There’s a reason why everything doesn’t grow everywhere – it makes traveling exciting, and it gives communities and countries a distinct form of cultural identity. I’m sure I’ll crave many of the foods I tasted here when I return to the United States, but I won’t be buying them in any form – it won’t be the same, and frankly, I don’t want to drink all of the oil and fossil fuel that it would take to get it into a neatly packaged juice bottle in a commercial grocery store 4,000+ miles away from where it was grown.  Without going off on too much of a tangent, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Michael Pollan (as I am rather fond of doing :p);

“The idea that any corporation could own a food crop, you know, is a very new idea. And it wasn’t until the 1980s that the Supreme Court said you could patent life. And that opened the flood gates. Efforts to patent the most valuable parts of life, which is to say, the crops on which we depend. […] When you genetically modify a crop, you own it. We’ve never had this in agriculture.”

-Michael Pollan, from an interview in the movie Food, Inc.


Making our way to the edge of the Amazon

March 5, 2010

View of the city of Belém

The time has come to leave Sobral and carry on our journey looking for interesting tropical ingredients. We boarded a bus to Belém do Pará, a 20 hour ride leaving the state of Ceará and going through Piauí and Maranhão before arriving in Pará. After the first few hours of our journey, we noticed during one of the rest stops that another passenger on our bus was clearly foreigner and feeling very out of place. He was pointing at items in the rest stop and speaking in a mixture of English and broken Spanish. After exchanging a few words, we decided to help him out. We quickly became friends with him. Bernie Pociask is a very friendly traveler from Connecticut. He was a little lost in Brazil because his trip was re-routed last minute. His original vacation plan was to go to Chile, but when the earthquake happened he had to change plans on the last minute. After talking with Bernie we found out that of all things he is also a graduate from The Culinary Institute of America, class of 1962, way back when the school was still located in New Haven. For the remainder of the trip we exchanged anecdotes about working in kitchens, traveling and culture. I think it was very insightful to meet someone like Bernie, who is almost 70 years old and is still enjoying life and exploring new places on his own and without any plan. After finishing our 1300km journey arriving in Belém we helped Bernie find a hostel for the night and get directions to carry on to Marajó island the next day.

Northern Coast of Brazil

Bus route from Sobral to Belém

The main reason why I wanted to come to Belém is because I wanted to see all the unique tropical products that are used regionally, and also the ones that are imported from here to the world. I first became enthralled with this city when I met a chef from Belém at the Terra Madre Slow Food conference in 2008. In São Paulo we also learned a lot of things about Belém while working at D.O.M.. The state of Pará actually has the most unique cuisine in all of Brazil in the sense that it is to date the only regional cuisine that has kept a predominant root based on the native indigenous cultures — little European or African influence is present in the local cuisine.

Our host in Belém is Maria de Lourdes da Costa (she is my good friend Valério Fiel da Costa’s mother). On our very first night in town, she took us on a quick drive to show us all the spots of interest so we could figure out how to get around and explore in more depth on our own.

The main places for us to see in Belém are:

Estação das Docas, which is part of the old boat docks that were converted into a gastronomic and craft shopping center.

Ver-o-peso is the main market where we will further explore all the tropical fruit and produce as well as Amazon fish and pretty much anything else locals buy for their kitchens.

In addition there are several museums and nature preserves within the city. The thing with the city of Belém is that it is the main capital city in the whole area. It is the last beacon of modern civilization before you go deep in the Amazon jungle — any travels further into the Amazon must be done through the waterways on very slow boats. I believe that Belém has a unique Amazonian-metropolitan culture and it will be the perfect introduction to the cuisine and the ingredients that chefs from all over are starting to focus all their attention towards.

We said our goodbyes to Bernie at the end of the night and from tomorrow on we will carry on with our crash course in Amazon culture.

improptu CIA alumni gathering

Jaca (jackfruit)

March 1, 2010

“Everyone who enjoys thinks that the principal thing to the tree is the fruit, but in point of fact the principal thing to it is the seed. — Herein lies the difference between them that create and them that enjoy.”

-Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

The first time we went to the Municipal Market in São Paulo, I witnessed two men struggling to hurl a giant greenish-yellow ball (easily over 2ft in diameter) up onto their fruit display. They propped it up with a wooden plank, and proceeded to grab a scimitar and whack it to pieces in front of all the onlookers. It was a good show – and it definitely made me curious to learn more about this fruit. I never got the opportunity to try it while we were in São Paulo – it’s only sold in specialty markets and isn’t common in southern Brazil. Fortunately, jaca – known in English as jackfruit – thrives in the northern tropical environment of Ceará, and Alex’s dad actually has a jaqueira tree on his yard.

heather & the jaca tree

Heather standing next to an unripe jaca fruit

The fruit in the photo was nowhere near maturity – and it was already the size of my head. The jaca (pronounced JAH-ka) is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, and although it definitely looks like it’s from the Amazon, it actually originated in India. Each fruit can reach up to 80 pounds in weight and up to 36 inches long and 20 inches in diameter. The exterior of the compound fruit is green or yellow when ripe. The interior consists of large edible bulbs of yellow flesh that encloses a smooth, oval, light-brown seed. The seed is about 1″ long and  3/4″  thick and is white and crisp within. There may be 100 (or up to 500!) seeds in a single fruit. When fully ripe, the unopened jaca emits a strong odor, resembling that of decayed onions, while the pulp of the opened fruit smells of pineapple and banana. The fruit is covered with hard points. Jaca is ready for harvest when the single small leaf above the stem withers. Like most fruits, ripening continues after it’s picked. Alex’s dad’s neighbors showed us how to test the ripeness of the fruit by tapping on the exterior – when it’s ripe, the fruit softens and will give a little when tapped.

We picked a nearly ripe jaca from the tree and let it ripen indoors for a few days. It has a very bizarre, sweet, unusual flavor that I couldn’t immediately compare to anything else – then I realized that (to me) jaca tasted exactly like bubblegum.

Varieties of jaca are distinguished according to the characteristics of the fruits’ flesh. In Brazil, three varieties are recognized. These are: jaca-dura, or “hard” variety, which has firm flesh and the largest fruits that can weigh between 30 and 80 lbs. each; jaca-mole, or “soft” variety, which bears smaller fruits, with softer and sweeter flesh; and jaca-manteiga, or “butter” variety, which bears sweet fruits, whose flesh has a consistency intermediate between the “hard” and “soft” varieties.

The fruit is covered with a sticky latex – a lot of people suggest coating your hands and knife in oil to make the cleanup easier. The inside of the jaca is pretty bizarre looking. The seeds are surrounded by ear-shaped bits called arils, which is the main edible part of the fruit. Between the arils is a fibrous part called rags – aptly named, since it looks like the edge of a frayed rag. The rags can be saved and frozen – numerous sources say it’s an excellent jam-setting agent because of its high pectin content. The seeds themselves are actually edible and very nutritious. It’s a shame we didn’t research this before we ate it – we just threw them out. To use the seeds, boil for several minutes and then roast them in a pan with a little oil, microwave them in a bag (they tend to pop) or roast them in the hot coals of a dying fire. Several sources say that they have a flavor similar to chestnuts.

In India and most of Southeast Asia, jaca is traditionally used in many curry recipes.  The rags are chopped and sauteed with vegetables, cumin, coriander, turmeric, and coconut milk, and served over rice.

The jaca is considered an invasive species in Brazil, especially in the Tijuca Forest National Park in Rio de Janeiro. The Tijuca forest is mostly an artificial secondary forest, whose planting began during the mid-19thcentury, and jaca trees have been a part of the park’s landscape since its founding. Recently, the species expanded excessively, due to the fact that its fruits, once they had naturally fallen to the ground and opened, were eagerly eaten by small mammals such as the common marmoset and the coati. The seeds are dispersed by these animals, which allows the jaca to compete for space with native tree-species. Additionally, as the marmoset and coati also prey on bird’s eggs and nestlings, the supply of jaca as an easily available source of food has allowed them to expand their populations, which has negatively impacted the local bird population. Between 2002 and 2007, 55,662 jaca saplings were destroyed in the Tijuca Forest area  by the park’s management.

Jaca isn’t common outside of the tropics. About 12 trees exist in Florida, but they’re mainly used as a novelty decoration. I read that once in a while, you can find fresh jaca in some Asian markets in the US during peak ripening season (summer) when the supply in Asia is overabundant. You can probably find it preserved in syrup or dried in most Asian or Brazilian markets year round.

While looking for information, I came across this website, which has a “How to cut and serve jackfruit” video at the bottom. It’s really cool – describing the jaca is hard, and the video makes it a little easier to visualize. The jaca in the video isn’t exactly like the one we ate, but it’s close enough.

Jackfruit & Apple Pie

  • 1 baked pastry pie crust
  • 2 c.  jackfruit
  • 1/2 c. dates
  • 1 c. seeded white grapes
  • 12 oz. can unsweetened pie apples (or 3-4 raw, peeled, thinly sliced apples)
  • 3 T. butter
  • enough apple juice to cover fruit
  • one stick of cinnamon
  • 3 T. arrowroot powder (can substitute with cornstarch if needed)

Dice the jaca into small cubes and chop the dates and grapes.
Melt butter in the pan. Place all fruit in saucepan and stir to coat. Add enough apple juice to cover the fruit by at least 2″. Add the cinnamon stick.
Bring to boil, then lower heat and simmer until fruit is cooked and soft. Remove the cinnamon stick. Taste and adjust the flavor with sugar or other spices if necessary (cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, allspice…)
Mix arrowroot with cool water and add to mixture (If you’re using cornstarch, you’ll probably need more than  3 T to thicken the liquid and you’ll need to bring the liquid to a boil after you add the cornstarch). Stir until thickened. The liquid should be thick enough that it clings to a spoon like a warm pudding.
Pour into pie shell, cool, and then refrigerate.
Serve with ice cream or custard.

Cashew, the fruit.

February 28, 2010

One of my all time favorite fruit juices, ever since I was a little boy, is suco de caju or cashew juice. When I moved to the United States I was astonished to find out that no one knew that cashew is a fruit, the “nut” is actually the single seed that comes from the cashew fruit. Attached to the fruit is a bigger pseudocarp, or false fruit, which is sometimes referred to in English as the cashew apple. These are the botanical definitions of the cashew but gastronomically speaking we refer to caju (cashew) as a fruit and we distinguish the nut by calling it castanha de caju. Here in Ceará cashew trees are found everywhere. The state is the biggest producer in the country. My dad’s property outside of Sobral has several trees.

Before roasting, the nut must be dried and peeled. Most locals roast cashews in an open wood fire (using  the cashew tree trimmings as fuel), which gives it a different flavor from the oven roasted cashew nuts that are sold in the big markets. After roasting, the nut can be served plain or salted or also used in culinary applications. Most cashew production in Ceará is targeted for the cashew nut export market. According to the state’s agricultural department almost 90% of the cashew apples are discarded, unused, after the fruit is harvested for its seed.

My main goal is to show you some of the many ways in which you can try the cashew apple. Unfortunately it is a fragile product which does not ship well, so the false fruit must be processed locally.

The first thing you can do with the cashew apple is to make juice with it. You simply blend it with water and then strain. I think this juice is delicious with a little added sugar (by itself it can sometimes be a little too tannic tasting).  The good thing is that the juice concentrate is easy to find in ethnic stores through out the USA.  In Ceará and its neighbor state of Piauí a traditional drink is cajuína. It consists of the cashew juice that is clarified with gelatin to remove all the tannins, giving it a sweeter taste and also purifying it to prevent fermentation. The juice can also be used in many dessert applications. It is also fermented into alcoholic liquor, something that has been consumed by local natives long before the arrival of the Portuguese.

The false fruit can be dried whole which preserves it and also concentrates the sweetness. Mel de caju is a syrup made by boiling the juice with sugar. It can be used in desserts or as topping to your pancakes. In the beach of Canoa Quebrada we tried a melosca, which is a caipirinha sweetened with cashew honey.

The remaining sediment that is strained from the juice process can also be used as a vegetarian meat replacement. It is high in fiber and said to have the texture similar to chicken. It takes well to savory seasoning and can be used in lots of creative dishes.

First drawing of a cashew tree, by French Franciscan priest André Thevét, circa 1590.

In addition to having a high fiber content the cashew apple is also rich in vitamins A, B, and C. It is a potent anti-oxidant; it boosts the immune system, and it helps heals wounds and scars. It is rich in  calcium, phosphorus,  zinc, magnesium, and iron: minerals that are essential for healthy muscle contraction. The pseudo fruit has high lipid, protein and carbohydrate content (hence its use as a meat replacement). It is also rich in unsaturated fats that help to reduce the bad blood cholesterol.

The fresh leaves of the cashew tree can be used against stomach cramps and as a laxative. The bark of the cashew tree can be used to make an astringent tonic.

Here are a few quick and easy recipes that use cashew apple:

Cashew Hamburguers

  • 4 cashew apples, thoroughly rinsed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, minced
  • 1 tablespoon scallions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon achiote
  • 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour

First you have to juice the cashew apples in a blender with a little water. Strain the juice (reserve for drinking or for some other use) and save the leftover pulp.

Sweat the garlic and onions until aromatic, add the herbs and the cashew pulp. Season with the remaining spices and cook for about ten minutes. Spread on a sheet pan in order to cool. Mix the cooked cashew with the flour until you obtain a dough like substance. Roll the mixture over a surface dusted with flour. Cut out the hamburgers with a ring mold. Saute with vegetable oil and serve with your favorite type of roll and garnishes.

Cashew Vinaigrette Salsa

  • 1 cashew apple, peeled and diced
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1/2 cup scallions, chopped
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 4 tablespoons cashew juice
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1/4 cup bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 tablespoon jalapeño pepper, minced (may be omitted or replaced with another type of hot pepper)
  • 5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

Mix all ingredients and reserve in covered bowl for 30 minutes before serving. Serve with a salad, chicken, fish or meat.

Cashew Cake

  • 1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
  • 4 yolks
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/2 cups cashew juice concentrate
  • 1 cup chopped cashew nuts
  • 4 egg whites

Beat the butter with the yolks and sugar to a cream consistency. Gradually add the flour and baking powder previously sifted together, alternating with the cashew juice. Fold in the cashew nuts and lastly the whipped egg whites. Bake on a previously greased and dusted bundt pan in an oven preheated at 350F. After about one hour check if it is done by inserting a toothpick which must come out clean.

Share your comments if you try any of these recipes or have anything to add. Thanks!

The Lamb Slaughter

February 23, 2010

“The science which feeds men is worth at least as much as the one which teaches how to kill them.”

-Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826)

This weekend,  Alex and I were invited to a very special event. One of Alex’s dad’s acquaintances is a farmer, and when he heard that we were cooks, he generously invited us for dinner. Through the course of the conversation, we learned that he was planning to slaughter one of his 120-day old lambs for a dinner party with a medium-sized group of family and friends. Alex and I both jumped at the opportunity to go a day early to assist with the slaughter, and we volunteered to do the cooking as well.

Neither of us had ever done anything like this before. In fact, the first time I had actually seen an animal slaughtered was in a video made by one of our professors at the CIA,  Johann Sebold (one of the last remaining Master Butchers in the world). He shot and fully cleaned a calf in under 10 minutes – needless to say, we were all a little intimidated when we saw him in class. The more I read about food and food politics, the more I began to want to actually kill an animal myself – not in any sociopathic way, of course, but as a meat eater, I feel that we all have a moral responsibility to fully realize every consequence and every result of every decision we make, especially when it comes to sustaining ourselves. If you can’t bring yourself to look an animal in the eye before you eat it, then maybe you shouldn’t be eating meat. This also ties in with my main goal of this entire trip – I don’t want to mindlessly taste fruits and foods or buy little remnants of an animal at the supermarket and have them for dinner. I want to look at everything I do and learn from the inside out; from every angle.

The Farm

the farm in sobral

The farm - the sheep and lamb line up for dinner.

The farm lies on the outskirts of Sobral, and from the doors you’d never believe there was a city even remotely nearby. Our farmer started out as a dairy farmer. He went organic to up his profits, and then stopped producing dairy altogether because he could never take a day off (cows need to be milked, even if it’s Sunday or Christmas!). Afterward, he decided to start developing a particular breed of specialty lambs by breeding a local species with an European species to create a type of lamb whose meat could bring in high profits in the local restaurants. The lambs graze on the land all day long, drinking from the pond and playing in the sunshine. The farm is tended by the farmer’s children, one hired maid, and her children. It’s a really simple place with a ton of dogs and cats around, and the porch is lined with hammocks. The pasture is lined with olive and fruit trees, and the entrance has a breathtaking view of the sunset behind the mountains. It’s exactly what comes to mind if you think about an idyllic farm setting.

The Slaughter

We arrived at the farm shortly after noon on Saturday. The farmer’s son (about 17-18) was executing; the maid’s son (just 9 years old!) was assisting as his apprentice. We took a brief tour of the farm, sat and talked for a while before they brought the chosen lamb out. I have to admit – he was cute. Really cute. A 3-ft tall, 120-day old little black and white lamb. I petted him, and then they fastened his collar tightly and stunned him cleanly in the forehead with a wooden plank. He collapsed instantly, and you could see that he was not feeling anything.  I didn’t feel nauseated like I had expected to.

If you’re curious, view the slideshow that follows – if blood makes you sick, don’t click the arrow 🙂

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The boys tied a rope around his ankle and hoisted him up so that he was hanging from the rafter of the porch. The maid’s son got a bucket and placed it under the lamb’s head. The older boy made two small incisions in the neck to cut the main veins – a gory slash across the whole throat wasn’t necessary. The blood drained cleanly into the bowl, and the farmer’s son began removing the skin. He started by making incisions around the first joint of every leg, and then made a long cut from the groin to the neck. He carefully peeled it off (skinning the lamb took him at least 15 minutes), and then removed 3 of the legs (all except the one he was hanging from). Next, he cut the belly from the groin to the throat using a very dull, shallow cut – a sharper knife would have punctured the intestines and organs, causing an unpleasant taste in the meat. The innards (along with the head) were placed in a bowl, and the maid began diligently rinsing the intestines and cleaning the rest of the organs.

At this point, our lamb no longer looked like a lamb – he looked like a side of meat hanging from a store window, or a carcass in a movie freezer – ready for market. It was hard to believe we had looked him in the eye and physically felt his heart beating less than a half hour prior.

deboning the lamb

Heather & Alex deboning the lamb

The farmer’s son sawed the carcass in half, and then Alex and I went to work portioning and deboning the entire lamb. We each took a side, and since neither of us had ever broken down a whole lamb before, we kind of guessed at the cuts and learned from each other. We took out the obvious: the tenderloin (tiniest we have EVER seen!), the lollipop chops, the shoulder, and the legs. We decided to totally debone the legs (all our meat class information seemed totally inaccessible at first, but it came back to us pretty quickly), french all of the chops (maybe 1/4 oz each – super tiny!), and leave the shoulder whole. We soaked the shoulder and the legs in a very basic vinaigrette (salt, oil, vinegar, garlic, and some dried herbs) and left it in the refrigerator to marinate overnight. We cooked up the tenderloin and the chops for a light dinner that night – it was amazing how delicious the meat was with just a little salt, pepper, and a quick sear in the pan. The maid took the bones and meat scraps and made a delicious broth as well.

The Meal

The next day, we went to the market to get the finishing ingredients for our dinner. We couldn’t find butcher’s twine anywhere, so we took a few strands off of a new mop (it actually worked perfectly!), stuffed the legs with cilantro, garlic, butter, and an herb/spice rub, and tied it like a roast. We seared it until it was nicely browned, then put it on a makeshift aluminum foil rack, covered it, and roasted it for about an hour and a half, basting furiously every 15ish minutes. We seared the shoulder in a hot oven and then braised it in white wine, stock, garlic, and herbs for about 3-4 hours. Everything came out incredibly tender and all of the guests raved about our dishes.

The maid made a stew out of the stomach, and Alex said it was the best tripe he had ever eaten (I didn’t try it – the smell while it was cooking was so strong that it almost made me vomit). She also made a traditional dish called sarapatel using all of the offal and blood. Sarapatel is a Portuguese dish that uses all of the “nasty bits”, and since that was our goal – not to waste any part of this lamb – it worked perfectly. She first coagulated the blood into nice little cubes. She then par-boiled the heart, liver, tongue, etc. to remove most of the “off” flavors and then sauteed them in a hot pan with oil. Everything was combined into a pot and seasoned liberally with spices and vinegar (again, to make it more palatable) and cooked for several hours. The result was a spicy, vinegary stew that went over generally well with the guests.


All in all, it was a really enjoyable weekend. This is not something that everyone gets the opportunity to do – and it’s certainly not something that just anyone wants to do. Many people prefer to be as far removed from their food as possible, buying their skinless, boneless, genetically modified, corn-fattened Tyson chicken breasts in a neat little styrofoam container from the grocery store with absolutely no idea what a live chicken really looks like or how it lives its short life; that’s not me, and that’s not Alex.

Part of me thought I should be really uneasy about this experience – petting an animal and then eating it several hours later; however, I’m glad I didn’t get nauseated at any point. I was able to prove to myself that I am indeed capable of being a carnivore without any regrets. It didn’t feel barbaric at all – it felt natural, like I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing. As Michael Pollan describes, it’s wonderful to “eat in full consciousness of a meal.”

PETA’s slogan is “Does your food have a face?”

I think ours should beCan you face your food?”


February 21, 2010

“If life is a bowl of cherries, then what am I doing in the pits?”

-Erma Bombeck

Acerola is a plant native to Southern and Central America – specifically the Yucatan. It produces small edible fruits which look a lot like cherries, leading to the common alternate names of Barbados Cherry, Puerto Rican Cherry, and West Indies Cherry (…guess where else they grow? :p). The fruits are widely consumed in South America in fresh and preserved forms. In the United States, acerola is used as an decorative tree in the southern Florida and the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. It can be found in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and South America as far south as Peru and Bahia in Brazil. It is cultivated in the tropics and subtropics throughout the world.

Acerola Tree

Acerola growing on Alex's Dad's land in Sobral

We’ve been learning a lot about the indigenous fruits here in Sobral. Alex’s dad actually has several fruit trees in his yard (two of which are acerola), and we spent the better part of a recent afternoon swatting at fruit flies and craning our necks picking an enormous amount of fresh acerola. They’re so abundant here that most of the people who have trees on their yard see them as a nuisance – they produce so much fruit because of the tropical climate that it’s way too much to use, so a lot of it falls on the ground and either rots or gets eaten by bugs and animals.  We had the neighbors help us choose the ripest ones – the reddest, most even fruits with the fewest bug bites possible.


Acerola that we picked

We didn’t want to cook with the acerola – we wanted to process it as minimally as possible so we could get the full taste of the fruit. Eating them raw was…not that great, actually. They’re pretty sour and a little tannic; cross-breeders in the United States have actually recently developed sweeter varieties, including Florida sweet and Manoa sweet. We decided to blend them into juice along with a few ripe mangoes we picked – it was delicious! In most of the juice shops we saw in São Paulo, acerola is almost always blended with orange juice and drunk for breakfast or as an afternoon pick-me-up.

Health Benefits

Acerola is known for its extremely high vitamin C content. Analysis has shown that the acerola is the richest source of vitamin C of any fruit. In the 1940’s, large commercial plantings were established in the US for processing, particularly for making Vitamin C tablets. However, some time later, synthetically produced vitamin C became more economical to produce, but some companies still prefer to use acerola rather than artificial ingredients. There is 1677.6 mg of vitamin C in 100 g of fruit, making it one of the highest natural sources of ascorbic acid (only exceeded by rosehip). Acerola has 32 times the vitamin C of an orange – over 3000% more. This table has a side-by-side nutritional comparison of acerola, orange, and apple juices.

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps promote collagen, which gives the skin its elasticity and keeps it from breaking apart.

  • Acerola is used as an ingredient in skin care products to stop or reverse the aging process.
  • Early uses for the fruits were to treat dysentery and to enhance the function of the liver.
  • Because acerola is high in vitamin C, it is used in a supplement to boost immunity. These are generally in tablet form by themselves or in a multi-vitamin. But be careful… overdosing on vitamin C supplements can lead to diarrhea.
  • The juice and the fruit are both used to reduce inflammation, flush water out of the system, heal wounds, support the function of the heart and to reduce the symptoms of rheumatism, diabetes, anemia and tuberculosis.
  • Acerola is also used to replace vitamin C lost when taking certain Tetracycline-based antibiotics.
  • In herbal and homeopathic medicine, acerola is also used in the management of both Parkinson’s disease and Herpes.

In the 1950s, a manufacturer of baby food decided that apple juice was milder for infants than orange juice. The company claimed that a drop of acerola juice in an 8 oz. can of apple juice provided the amount of vitamin C of an equal amount of orange juice. A detailed nutrition facts analysis supported the claim.

Acerola can be made into jelly, jam, preserves, puree, pie, sherbet and wine, and the pulp is delicious when blended with toasted mate. Acerola flavor is also used in Tic Tacs. The most interesting recipe I saw was an acerola and mint jelly using hot-pressed acerola juice and peppermint extract; there was also an acerola-habanero jam that sounded delicious, too – but then again, I’m a sucker for any type of pepper jelly or jam.


Bolthouse Farms' C-Boost

I had actually heard about acerola while I was living in New York – for the better part of 2008, I worked as a field representative for Bolthouse Farms, a juice company based out of California that specializes in all-natural, super-healthy juices and smoothies. In my opinion, one of their best products is called “C-Boost” – it’s made with acerola, camu-camu, and several other fruits, and it’s marketed for immune system support. If you’d like to try acerola, I recommend their products. It’ll never be as good as if you picked it and juiced it yourself, but it’s good for a general idea of the taste (plus it’s good for you!) 🙂

In his book, Alex Atala has a recipe for pigeon and foie gras capeletti (the bellybutton-shaped stuffed pasta) in a port wine infused broth with cured acerola as a garnish.  First, he fries the fruit to blister the skins. While they’re still warm, they’re peeled, halved, and pitted. He then “cures” them in a mixture of salt and sugar – for every 100g. of acerola, use 10g. salt and 10g. sugar. They’re left to marinate in the cure for at least an hour, and then they’re put into the hot broth. It’s not on the current menu, but it sounds delicious – it’d probably work with regular fresh sour cherries, too.

Have you tried acerola in any form? How have you seen it marketed in the US?

Chef Faustino

February 20, 2010

In Fortaleza we had the great pleasure of meeting with Chef José Faustino Paiva.  Faustino, as he is known in the industry, is the most celebrated chef of Ceará — not only does he have the highest rated restaurant in the whole northeast region of Brazil but he is also a leader in the Slow Food movement. He is a great supporter of the local sustainable agriculture and seafood industries. Recently he has closed his renowned restaurant Cantinho do Faustino, a humble spot in the bohemian neighborhood of Varjota, for remodeling. His restaurant although humble had great acclaim, having received two stars from the Quatro Rodas guide (Brazil’s version of the Michelin guide). A group of restaurant investors saw his hiatus as a great opportunity; they called Faustino to run a large spot in Beira Mar (the ocean front avenue), thus creating Faustino Fortaleza. This new location is very elegant and caters to the local elite and wealthy visitors. He has already received one star in his new location and people are very eager to the re-opening of his humbler spot in Varjota.

Faustino’s story is a beautiful story of a typical immigrant worker from Ceará who became very successful but retains his humility and simple demeanor. He was born in Reriutaba a very small town in the  Sertão region of Ceará. His parents were farmers. When the family could not support itself anymore due to the massive droughts in the region, Faustino left to look for a better life in the big city. He was eighteen years old when he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, planning to work as a street vendor, but fate took him to the famous Hotel Gloria where he found work as a dishwasher.  While working mornings he would volunteer at night as an apprentice. Promoted as a cook he went on to work at the Sheraton and Intercontinental Hotels. Home was calling him back though, and he returned to work in Fortaleza as a chef in the Praia Verde and then Othon Palace hotels until he decided to open his own restaurant, Cantinho do Faustino.

At Cantinho do Faustino the business philosophy is one of resourcefulness and creativity. Faustino grew all his herbs and vegetables on an organic garden built right above the restaurant; this not only provides him with the freshest produce but also the garden right above the dining room works as a climate control keeping the temperature cool at all times (Fortaleza is a rather warm city). Anything he can’t produce himself (which is close to nothing) he buys from organic producers. Outside of town he owns a small farm were larger crops can be planted, organically of course, for the restaurant. He recycles materials — all the soap used to wash dishes was made from the leftover cooking fat; all food trimmings are used for compost on Faustino’s crop, and any leftover food is saved to feed his pigs and other small animals. All his employees receive full health benefits, meals, and clean uniforms, without any deductions from their paychecks. The restaurant uses fruits from Faustino’s farm to produce handcrafted liquor to offer as a courtesy digestif to the customers; special bottles (aka the empty bottles that the restaurant would throw away and are sanitized  for liquor production instead) are also used for gifts for special clients.

Faustino's rooftop garden (all the planters are built of recycled wood)

Faustino is also a leader of the Slow Food movement in Brazil. He represented Brazil in the Terra Madre conferences of 2008, and 2006. He will be attending the 2010 conference as well. More recently he attended the Terra Madre Brazil conference in March, where he met with Carlo Petrini to discuss the state of sustainable food production in Brazil.  With the Slow Food movement Faustino works as an advocate for the cashew farmers and roasters of Ceará.

Chef Faustino with Heather and Alex

I found a recipe that Faustino shared during an interview in 2006. He tells the story for this traditional recipe from his hometown:

“In my village, when a woman becomes pregnant, the husband castrates a chick and feeds him his own testicles. When the woman gives birth the capon is ready to slaughter, with a tender and healthy meat. The reason is that since the capon does not have the hormones found in roosters, the meat is considered healthier.”

New Mother’s Capon

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, diced
  • 1lb capon meat
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 quart water
  • 2 tomatoes, large dice
  • 1 bunch parsley, chopped
  • 1 bunch cilantro, chopped
  • 1 cup manioc flour
  • 2 free range chicken eggs, hard boiled

It is preferable to use a clay pot, if not available just use a heavy bottom pot.

Heat the oil and sweat the garlic, onions, and the bell pepper. Add the capon meat and season with salt and pepper. Cook in its own juice for 20 minutes. Add the water and tomato; let simmer for 30 minutes.  Turn the heat off and add the parsley and cilantro.

Remove the broth a separate pan and mix with the manioc flour. Stir constantly over medium heat until the mixture thickens. Add the 2 eggs to the pot with the capon meat and cover with the thickened sauce.

Serve with white rice or any garnish of your preference.

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