The Slow Food Presidium for the Brazil nut was set up in March 2003 in Pando (northwest Bolivia-Amazonia). The nut is kidney-shaped, ivory-colored and coated by a red-brown skin. It has a woody shell and is enclosed in a coccus. Its official name is Bertholletia excelsa, a native species endemic to the Amazon forest.
The tree is magnificent, growing to 40 meters in height, with thick foliage that shades the undergrowth from the sun and protects it from the rain. It survives only in the primary forest, where an indigenous species of bee passes across various layers of vegetable material to pollinate the flowers on the highest branches.
The locals have always harvested the nuts but perilous deforestation by landowners is progressively transforming the primary forest into pasture for livestock. Since the survival of the people of Pando is dependent on the survival of the forest, the Presidium will be setting up a program to safeguard and promote the nut.
One of the main stages in the development of the project was a technical survey of the nut’s production chain. This made it possible to determine the best ways of handling it for local and international markets and to supply basic training to a group of representatives of the harvesters.
This taxing task fell to a young pastry chef, Federico Molinari, owner of the Laboratorio di Resistenza Dolciaria in Alba (province of Cuneo). He spent ten days with the pickers, going into the depths of the forest with them to follow the various stages of the harvest, and helping the women prepare their traditional sweetmeats.
He set up a workshop in the town of Porvenir, the last outpost before the forest becomes really dense, with a simple four-burner gas cooker, an electric beater, a multi-speed food grinder, an oven thermometer and a digital thermometer, two plastic spatulas, some cutlery and a few other utensils.
For four days he literally schooled 14 pupils (including two men), introducing them to the secrets of western patisserie, at the same time encouraging them to use of exclusively local ingredients.
Hence confectioner’s custard became a banana cream and the traditional recipe for Bolivian brigadeiro (walnuts covered with cocoa powder and sugar) was adapted to make the most of the skills of the cocineras in caramelizing sugar. Pan del Pando was created too: a sweet, soft, slightly spongy raised bread, based on eggs, chestnut milk, and chestnut and wheat flours: a surprisingly good meeting of typical Pando ingredients with the skills of the Piedmontese pastry chef.
In short, as Molinari commented, this is a “cultural-gastronomic exchange with strong ethical overtones that underlines the necessity of making the best use of the natural resources of one’s homeland.”
The Presidium is now planning a study period of several weeks in Piedmont for a group of Bolivian women, who will work in Federico Molinari’s pastry shop, and the setting up of a small workshop in the heart of Amazonia.
Ilaria Morra works at the Slow Food Presidia Office
Adapted by Maureen Ashley