</iCassava or manioc (Manihot utilisssíma</i) is an ancient product of the New World and is associated with the early moments of sedentary life in tropical America. Once it was possible for human groups to settle, even temporarily, it was immediately cultivated. The natives were already consuming it regularly and extensively when the Europeans disembarked more than 500 years ago. There is a legend that tells of the daughter of a tribal chief who gave birth to a beautiful girl, named Mani, who died soon afterwards. From her grave grew a plant with very strong and powerful roots. It was named manioc, from 'Mani-Oca' (Mani´s house). But a more reliable explanation for the name manioc is that it derives from the Tupi language 'maniog', tapioca, whereas cassava comes from 'caçábi', a word from the language of the extinct Taino people in the West Indies.
Indigenous to the Amazon, manioc was exported throughout the world in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first European reference to it is by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian explorer who accompanied Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519. There is, however, an earlier imprecise reference by Vicente Pinzon, thought to be an allusion to the manioc, following his trip to the Amazon basin. Ever since everyone that passed through the region has informed of this tuberous root as an essential plant.
The process of production of manioc flour has always attracted the attention of historians, since it constituted the basic substitute for wheat during the colonial period when it became a settler’s staple. The technique to obtain the flour was learned from the natives and appears to have been carried out largely by Indian women; it was picked up by the Portuguese only later. A1557 text referring to manioc tells us that, ‘after being pulled out by the women, it was dried on the fire or grated still fresh onto a wood board studded with pointed stones, which reduced it to a snow-white flour. To prepare that flour the women use a large pottery vessel – also carefully manufactured by them – which they place in the fire. They continue to mix it until the toasted flour has a creamy appearance’.
There were two types of flour, prepared with the root: ‘war-flour’ which after being toasted very dry could be kept for more than a year without deteriorating; and the ‘fresh’, more delicate and with a better taste, but keepable for no more than two or three days. From the rudimentary indigenous process, the Portuguese later improved techniques and utensils, adapting them to their needs. Graters made of broken shells, and later, of iron substituted the stone-grater. The tipiti, a straw basket used to drain the liquid from the manioc, was replaced by a spindle press, a traditional Portuguese agricultural instrument that appears in several 16th century inventories. Large vessels made of iron or copper substituted the original pottery ones. The basic stoves made with simple stones on the ground evolved into the trempe, a trivet fire (a rustic iron frame over the fire), and later into sophisticated clay stoves.
During the famine that followed the gold rush of the 1700s, manioc was a timely resource. Due to its exceptional nutritional value, it was an unrivaled essential in the early days of colonization, as it still is today for the majority of the Brazilian rural population. The manioc is resistant to diseases, needs few nutrients, is rich in minerals, and is still responsible for feeding millions of Brazilians, especially in the underdeveloped parts of the north and northeast. Hence its nickname, the ‘bread of the poor’.
Economically speaking, however, the manioc has never quite received the attention it deserves (some varieties have hardly been researched at all). Nevertheless, it is considered a refined delicacy on every Brazilian table, where it is prepared in a vast number of ways: crisp-fried, a celebrated tapas in every typical Brazilian bar; certainly or cooked in water and served hot with melting butter. In addition, it is used as starch for bread and a large variety of traditional farmhouse recipes for biscuits and cakes. As a flour, it is a necessary ingredient for the celebrated Minas cheese roll, Pão de Queijo, one of the most refined Brazilian delicacies. General Mills recently bought the traditional company Forno de Minas and has started to sell this product on the world market.
Brazil, the second world producer, grows 22 million tons of manioc a year, behind Nigeria with 34 million tons. It is one of the most important crops in the country and two million people are involved in its production network, though historically its full potential as a valuable agricultural commodity has been somewhat overlooked. While the national supply of grains has practically doubled in the last ten years, the production of manioc has stayed on the same level, oscillating only in relation to prices. According to EMBRAPA (National Agricultural Research Company), from 14 to 16 million tons of shrubs and leaves are left behind and are lost during the production process, when, used as feed for cattle and hens they could actually be transformed into meat, milk and eggs. 20% of the total of the produced foliage is used in the replanting process and about 80% is thrown away.
The upper part of the plant possesses high nutritional value, proteins, sugar, vitamins and minerals, and is very suitable as cattle feed; even the highly toxic mandioca-brava can be fed to cattle when chopped up and left to rest in the open air. The foliage has a high protein content, with four times more vitamin C than lemon and double the vitamin A of the alfalfa. On the other hand, since the root is rich in energy but poor in proteins, it should be mixed with cotton bran, soy bran, peanut or other good source of proteins. When used as cattle feed, this formula is capable of promoting a significant increase in animal weight.
Manioc starch, or tapioca, is an industrial agent with a vast list of properties: as an anti-crystallizer, sweetener, thickener, stabilizer and binder. It also retains water and thus helps to make products, such as candies, sweets, chocolates, cakes, breads, cookies, pasta, yogurts, caramels, desserts, soups, sausages and puddings softer.
According to experts, in a near future the cost of using potatoes for the production of starch in Europe will be prohibitive and the rapid, consistent grow of the Brazilian manioc starch industry is aiming at a a 500,000 ton/year export benchmark by 2007.
Thus, both as a fine delicacy and as an agricultural commodity, given its relationship with the historical, social and economical development of the population in the past and future, manioc may be regarded as a genuine Brazilian resource.
Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte>