The origins of this naturally sweet melon-flavored root with a pear-like texture are lost in the meanders of pre-Columbian America. The yacón (pronounced ‘shakon’), Polymnia sochifolia Poepp e Endl, contains inulin, a natural sugar substitute and is therefore particularly suitable for diabetics, as well as anyone else who doesn’t want to put on pounds, but prefers to avoid artificial sweeteners. Unlike most roots and tubers, which accumulate carbohydrates such as starch (polymeric glucose), the yacón deposits its carbohydrates as inulin (polymeric fructose).
The roots are left in the sun for several days until the purple skin wrinkles, and then the light-colored, juicy flesh is eaten raw. The leaves and flowers are both used as pig and cattle feed.
This perennial belongs to the family of the composites. It originates from the Andes, where thrives in the alkaline, volcanic soil. It appears that the plant was domesticated in the selvas, or tropical forests, and yungas, or mountains, of northern Bolivia and southern Peru, areas where native cultures were highly developed.
In the Andean tradition, the yacón isn’t eaten like potatoes or other tubers. It is, instead, considered something of a delicacy and has an important ritual significance during the feast of Corpus Domini, which, since the Spanish conquista has overlapped with that of Inti RaymiI, the winter solstice.
Production reached a peak during the drought that hit the Andes during the summer of 1982-83, causing serious damage to the potato harvest. Since then , alas, the yacón has become a marginal crop.
The Presidium was set up to support yacón cultivation in the Quebrada de Humahuaca area in northern Argentina, more specifically at Bárcena, a village of around 600 inhabitants, which forms part of the Comisión municipal, or municipality, of Volcán in the Tumbaya district, in the province of Jujuy. This is a breathtakingly beautiful corner of the world and has been proposed as a Unesco Heritage site.
The yacón, a relative of the sunflower, the dandelion and the dahlia, has large yellow flowers, much loved by bees and beetles, is grown in small kitchen gardens.
Magda Choque Vilca, an agronomist, researcher and member of Fundandes (Fundación Andes) has no doubts about the extraordinary marketing potential both of the sweet substances that can be extracted from yacón and of its candied root.
‘The tuber is generally eaten fresh and raw,’ she explains, ‘cut into pieces and added to salads to give flavor and texture, but it retains its sweet taste when boiled or baked, in the latter case with slightly toasty nuances. In Bárcena, the roots are often grated and the juice squeezed out and filtered through a cloth to make a sweet, refreshing drink. Since the skin may have a resinous taste, the roots are peeled before eating. With dried yacón, it’s also possible to make sweets. A single plant can generate a root mass of around ten kilograms.’
When the General Belgrano railway locomotive used to cross the Quebrada de Humahuaca and the puna, or Andean highlands, yacón was sold by farmers to passengers from the north. ‘The train used to leave San Salvador de Jujuy at nine o’clock in the morning and arrived at Volcán station just before midday. The farmers used to come up with their baskets full of fruit and could sell as many as 15 kilos of yacón a day,’ Magda recalls.
These days, the track is no longer in use and no alternative sales channels have been created, so now there are hardly farmers who cultivate the yacón any more. Those who do, grow it only for domestic consumption.
The aim of the Presidium, which brings together ten farmers, is to promote the cultivation and marketing of the root. A small farm with five sun-drying chambers will be set up to produce sweet yacón preserves, which will be marketed both locally and through an international network.
To bolster production, meetings will also be organized with the local communities and the grandmothers, mothers and grandchildren of the neighborhood families will be asked to exchange and pass on knowhow about the various ways in which the yacón can be used.
Maria Teresa Morresi is an Argentine food and wine journalist
Tratto da SlowArk 38