(Bertholettia excelsa – Family Lecythidaceae)
noix du Brasil (French), Paranufs (German), noce del Brasile/del Para (Italian), nuez del Brasil (Spanish)
Brazil nuts are one of the most favoured of all nuts despite having a high oil content (65%), as shown in their unusually tender texture and rich mild flavour.
However, harvesting them is an extremely dangerous occupation, but knowing the process may help ease the pain when contemplating their price in the supermarket.
The diameter of the tree can measure six feet and grow to a height of 150 feet with a spreading crown of 100 feet.
Growing in the dense jungles of the Amazon basin, brazil nut trees, like most tall jungle trees, have branches only at the top, making them impossible to scale to gain access to the nuts. Harvest comes by waiting for the fruit to ripen and fall to the ground. That part sounds easy; but the round fruit, the size of a coconut, can weigh almost five pounds, making it more akin to a cannonball.
Often, there are 300 pods to a tree. These extremely large and heavy pods develop in groups of three or four on a 12-inch stalk. The shell is thick and woody and contains about two dozen nuts arranged like segments of an orange, with each having its own woody covering.
The force of the fall not only breaks open the shell to release the nuts, but drives many of them deep into the ground. Thus, sometimes, it is possible to purchase brazil nuts with bits of earth still attached.
Needless to say, the fall of the fruit can be a potentially lethal event. Every year there are reports that some Castanheiros (a name given to the Indians and migrant workers who gather the nuts) who have been killed or badly injured from the falling fruit.
Most wisely stay clear of the trees during rain or wind; but, occasionally some will continue working, wearing only a round wooden shield over their heads. In addition, many of these workers bring their children, who also help with the work.
They all canoe up the rivers into the jungle where the trees grow. Adding to these discomforts is the fact that the workers are constantly fending off wild animals which have also come to feed on the harvest.
The workers divide their time between gathering the nuts on safe days and preparing them on dangerous ones. Preparation means that each of the pods (ouricos) must be opened with a few blows of a machete and the nuts dipped into running water.
This not only washes them, but also separates the bad ones from the good as the bad ones usually float while the good nuts sink. When the harvest and cleaning are complete, the nuts are hauled through the steamy jungle and back down the river in their rickety canoes.
The related Cannon-ball fruit, in spite of its name, never functions as a projectile; but, when the fruit does drop from the tree, the momentum behind the weight causes them to become imbedded in the ground just as it does with the brazil nut fruit.
Other close relatives are trees of the genus Lecythis, which produce Sapucaia nuts.