by P. Arana
There I was driving on the Northern Highway when the biggest cashew I had ever seen caught my attention. It was actually a sign that read "Crooked Tree Cashew Festival". However, I envisioned a thick tree trunk with sprawling serpentine branches covered with thick leaves. Hanging upside down from the branches of this tree were kidney-shaped knobs ranging in color from brown to green. The distended end of each knob held vibrant yellow, orange or red waxy smooth skins enclosing plump juicy, stringy pulp. Next I thought about the mango-like taste of the sweet yet tart juice that squirts when one bites into a cashew, slightly drying one's throat and leaving its tell-tale aroma on the breath. This was enough to convince me to join the happy bandwagon of vehicles and buses carrying visitors to the island of cashew.
Even though Crooked Tree village is on mainland Belize, it is considered an island because it sits in the middle of a network of lagoons, creeks, streams and marshes that drain into the Belize River. The Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, as it was declared in 1984, provides habitat for over 250 species of resident and an unknown number of migratory birds as well as other wildlife. The birds are especially visible in the middle of the dry season when thousands of wading birds forage in ankle to knee deep waters filled with small fish and snails. As I crossed the bridge over the Northern Lagoon, entrance to the island village, my eyes scanned the flocks of storks for Crooked Tree's most famous migrant, the Western Hemisphere's largest flying bird the Jabiru stork.
While exploring the village I was greeted with smiles and waves. Whether villagers were taking a break from work, escaping the sun under tall mango trees or being serenaded by suitors, a hammock was well-suited for the occasion, making it a permanent fixture in most of the yards I passed. Also common to all yards were cashew trees, which resembled Christmas trees with their red, orange, pink, yellow and green appendages illuminated by the sun. There were so many cashew trees that the air was saturated with their distinct fragrance.
One yard in particular attracted my attention. It was obvious I had missed the cashew roasting but two men were shelling nuts for the festival. None could say how the cashew tree, indigenous to Brazil, had come to be a permanent resident in Crooked Tree but both agreed that cashew is a gift from God. For one thing it doesn't have to be planted, doesn't need to be watered or fertilized. The wild cashew grows where the seed falls, survives droughts, and grows in sandy soils too poor to support other crops, making the broken pine savannah and pine ridge forests of Crooked Tree ideal for its cultivation or rather, self propagation.
Besides this, every part of the cashew tree can be used: the root is a cleanser (purgative) while the light, water resistant bark is used to make canoes; the antibiotic property of the fruit juice, which is also rich in vitamin C, cures symptoms of the common cold, sore throat, flu and dysentery; the fruit itself treats premature aging of the skin and the nut alleviates cough, hiccup, depression and lowers blood cholesterol; the gum from the fruit stems is a natural repellent against insects and ants while the oil in the shell of the nut is used commercially for varnish, paints, shampoos and conditioners. Furthermore the medicinal properties of cashew have been evident against diabetes, tumors, and kidney problems. And if one needed further incentive who could forget the delectable nut that feeds a 650 million dollar market worldwide.
I was considering a change in career when Mr. Wade began to describe the labor intensive preparation of the cashew nuts. First the seeds are roasted in metal pots the bottoms of which are punctured to allow for the highly caustic cashew nut oil to drain. After a few minutes of stirring and avoiding the irritating fumes, the nuts are removed from the fire and left to cool. Each is then cracked individually before it can be baked. After 30 minutes in the oven, the nuts are left to cool for the second time before being shelled and bagged for sale.
I had become so wrapped up with Mr. Wade that I hardly noticed the sun slipping in the West but soon realized that I would need a place to spend the night. My search lead to Mrs. Verna Samuels of Bird's Eve View Lodge. Located on the Northern Lagoon, the lodge provided an ideal setting for the end of a day filled with discoveries; but as I was to soon learn, the cashew lessons had not ended. Mrs. Samuels was only too willing to pick up the session where Mr. Wade had left off.
With the cashew fruit itself, nothing is wasted. The ripened cashews are plucked from the tree and the stalk or peduncle are removed to make stewed cashew, preserve, jam or syrup. The stewed cashew can then be used for cookies or cakes. The cashews that fall to the ground are roasted for cashew nuts, processed to make ice-cream, or squeezed for cashew juice. The cashew nuts, which are the true cashew fruits, can be used to make fudge and other pastries, cashew spread or cashew butter while the refreshing cashew juice is the precursor of the ever popular anti-depression agent cashew wine. Since the preparation of the cashew must be so delicately balanced, there are bound to be a few errors such as sugar being added at the wrong time or a drop of water touching the fermenting juice. Not a problem, the resulting cashew vinegar is the tastiest I've ever had. Of course villagers who in recent years have begun supplying cashew wine to a local distillery would cringe at the thought of losing the more profitable barrel of wine to vinegar.
Crooked Tree has always been cashew country but only in recent years has cashew come to be seen as a sustainable, income generating crop. In fact, efforts to increase its yield have lead to the introduction of a hybrid species that bears earlier and produces bigger, more colorful cashews. Approximately one hundred families that once harvested cashew for home consumption have now formed a cooperative and are pruning and cultivating trees, actively seeking new products and markets, and receiving training to move from kitchen bottling and canning to large scale production. The cooperative has learnt that marketing is key to getting the word out and have come up with a strategic two-day event dedicated to attracting visitors to Crooked Tree and promoting their cashew cow.
As the sun set on the Northern Lagoon I found my excitement growing. Tomorrow I would get a chance to sample all these delicacies while being treated to demonstrations, live music, and delicious cashew platters at the Crooked Tree Cashew Festival. One thing is certain, I will never look at cashew the same way again.
Special Thanks to:
Bird's Eye View Belize
Images Courtesy of:
Tony Rath Photography