(Mainly species of Bactris, Guilielma, and Euterpe – Family Palmaceae)
The most important vegetable of the palm family is hearts of palm which are obtained from about twenty different species of palm, but mainly from the Assai palm, the only species cultivated on plantations in Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay for this purpose. Otherwise, they are obtained by chopping down the tree.
After a coconut palm is felled, whether by accident in a storm, or on purpose, the large leaves are chopped off and the coconuts removed. The edible hearts are the crunchy-creamy terminal buds or growing tips from which all the new leaves will emerge. This is chopped out, and the fibrous husk is removed. Most edible palms have one heart, and, when harvested, it literally kills the tree (as happens with any “heart-ectomy”!). For some, it ranks right up there with killing a buffalo for its tongue, or a rhino for its horn, or an elephant for its tusks. The heart of a 32-foot coconut palm will weigh between four and seven pounds; but usually it requires two trees, ten to fifteen years old, to obtain two pounds of hearts. In the 1980s, at least 100 million wild palm trees were destroyed annually in Brazil alone.
The delicate white heart is characterized by a crunchy consistency and an intensely nutty flavour. It is particularly popular eaten raw in salads. Canned hearts of palm are widely available in most supermarkets; and the market for the canned hearts is growing. When the hearts of palm are cooked together with the unopened young leaves that surrounds them, they are referred to as “palm cabbage” or “swamp cabbage” (a Florida delicacy). When they are pickled and fermented, they are known as “palm cheese.” While these hearts may be superficially similar, they differ in size, as well as in sweetness, bitterness, tenderness, fibrousness, tendency to discolour, and the ability to regenerate. The variety sold in the US is the peach palm, or pejibaye, which is generally considered to be a native Amazonian plant.
Peach palms (Guilielma gasipae)do not die when their hearts are harvested, but rather sprouts readily produce several new stems. Another advantage it has over other palms is that it does not discolour when sliced. Peach palm has been cultivated since prehistoric times in South and Central America – and the growth is increasing. At present, Costa Rica is the primary source of fresh palm hearts in the US. During the last decade, the tree has also been planted in Hawaii, and is now being distributed on the mainland, but mostly to the restaurant trade.
Harvested very young and trimmed to the quick, the small Costa Rican cylindrical hearts of palm are dense and uniform in texture and completely edible. The flavour and consistency suggests immature almonds or hazelnuts with a legume overtone. Hawaiian hearts are harvested later and are much larger, with each weighing about a pound and a half per cylinder. These exhibit a wide range of textures, shapes, and flavours, all more pronounced than the smaller forms. For commercial purposes, the Hawaiian hearts are divided into three parts: the wide base, the fully trimmed meat, and the slender upper shaft in its bamboo-like sheath. Sometimes tightly furled and pleated, new paper-thin leaves twist around the tip and make an unusual garnish.