Yet another palm tree has blessed us with its highly nutritious fruits during our stay. Juçaras [Euterpe edulis], sometimes also written as Jussara are the most abundant natural food source here (with the Indaía) and best of all they grow all year around. Here in Capijuma (Dark Stone Bromelias) we have several thousands of them spread around various concentrations, especially close to the lakes and other water sources.
You might have heard of Juçara’s sister palm tree, Acaí. In the West there is an ever growing multitude of foods that have Acaí as an added ingredient, especially those marketed as “health foods.” In Brazil you can find Acaí primarily at supermarkets as a frozen concentrate, which restaurants mostly use to make a kind of sweetened ice-cream like pudding. Juçai and Acaí are in color and taste virtually identical, at least to my taste buds but there are differences. The main ones are that Juçai isn’t commercially exploited for making fruit juice concentrates but rather for their palm hearts and another difference has been found in studies that have shown Juçai to be even more nutritious than Acaí, which is already considered a super food (extremely high iron). Amazingly, in some areas of the Amazon, the home of the Acaís, it is so abundant that some tribes consume up to 42% of their food by weight from it. We would have enough trees to do the same once we overcome the challenge of climbing them as well as spotting where the ripe ones are.
For us it all started at the beginning of this year when someone brought us a few liters of Juçai, which had inspired me to go collect them from our own trees. I learned quickly that it was easier said than done. Still there is no better way to find out than giving it a try. I put on my shoes and looked for the nearest Juçaras and gave it a go. It didn’t take me long to realize that I better use some aid to help me overcome the lack of grip due to their smooth barks, their obvious lack of branches, and heights of up to 25 meters.
For the next few weeks, with a lot of practice, I spent developing an effective and safe way to climb the palm trees. By far the most important part is the thick looped rope around the feet. The exception being after it has rained or at dawn when the bark is wet but other than that the rope makes it a breeze to climb most Juçaras as long as the length of the rope fits the tree trunk’s width. Now with the challenge of getting up the tree being overcome, I got our very first two Juçara branches. The main downside was that after sawing of the branch most ripe Juçara coconuts would dislodge from the branch upon impact and it can take well over an hour even for two people to collect all the little grape looking balls. And these were trees out in the open on mostly flat ground covered by grass. Inside the jungle on a slope hillside this method of just letting them fall could mean losing many.
The next challenge was how to be able to stay up on the tree long enough to put a rope around the branch, saw it off, and slowly lowering it into a box/crate or bag on the ground. With some trial and error I ended up with two parts. Part one is a smaller hard piece of wood with a thick rope that can be secured around the tree (tourniquet style) and a longer dual looped thick rope that hocks into it and holds me around my chest. Part two is a wider hard piece of wood that acts as a seat after it is secured with a thick rope around the tree (again tourniquet style). After some successful practice runs I put it to the test on a Juçara with three branches. Everything worked smoothly and after 50 minutes we got all three of them. Then also Antonio and Guilherme started to practice and climb Juçaras.
The Making of Juçai
Even though on the outside their fruits look like 1cm dark purple grapes huddling together in the hundreds (typically 500-900) on a single tress, on the inside they are like a miniaturized coconut but several magnitudes harder. It is not their shell that is so hard but the coconut like meat that has the consistency of a rubber bullet. And as you might have guessed this is not the part we eat nor does it seem like as if any other animal in the jungle is able to digest this part, as it is apparent from animal excrements. All our attempts of soaking them, boiling them, or drying this part have further corroborated this initial observation.
So what we are left with is the exocarp, the outer most layer of the fruit, which is at best 1mm thick. Now off course that seems very little but in the hundreds it does add up nicely. We put all the coconut balls into a big 15 liter metal pot, fill it with water, and let them soak for a day or two. Then we batter them until most of the exocarp is dislodged after which we separate the hard coconut part from the dark purple exocarp enriched water.
At the beginning we blended the ticker parts before filling up the containers ready to be put in the freezer. Later we used our juicer to create a more clear Juçai juice. The leftover thicker separated fibrous part we dried and use it later as a replacement for the flour fiber that we added to the bread dough for making browner more European looking whole wheat bread, which isn’t possible with the local commercial Brazilian light colored whole wheat flour.
Our first batch of Juçai was around 11 liters, the second time we had made 13 liters, and the rest is history. We have been eating it daily for breakfast as the liquid water replacement for our oats, sometimes drank it, while Guilherme prefers to soak his bread and plate of food with the Juçai. Whichever way you prefer it, it truly ads color to the food!
Since the beginning of this journey we have climbed many Juçara palm trees, some taller some shorter. Most climbs end up in us reaching the top and realizing they are not ripe. Those are the filler climbs that make good practice opportunities and keep us on our toes. We have come to love Juçai very much and now that we are moving we are preparing to take a good number of seeds from different palm trees and plant them at our new home in Abadiânia. If they don’t like the Cerrado (Savanna) climate, then we’ll have to say good bye to them for the time being but we hope that with enough water they will be able to thrive there as well.