Jaracatiá is name from the Tupi-Guarani people's words Yaca rati a, meaning "one with fragrant fruit" due to its intense aroma. It refers to trees of the Jacaratia genus that are related to the papaya tree (Carica papaya) and are distributed throughout many South American countries. Jacaratia spinosa and Jacaratia corumbensis are the main species occurring in Brazil. Both the fruit and trunk are used to make compotes and conserves in syrup. Native populations also used the latex from the tree and the fruits for their medicinal quality of treating parasitic worms, and this knowledge was transmitted to the new settlers.
The state of São Paulo is where the jaracatiá is more widely used for cooking. The fruits of the Jacaratia spinosa are used to prepare jaracatiá in syrup, dried jaracatiá (dehydrated in the sun), and candied jaracatiá. In the past the fruit was considered the symbol of the São Pedro, as it ripens in February, the birth month of Saint Peter. According to local legend, whoever ate the fruit compote would be considered a child of the land of Saint Peter. In the last few years, the town's residents have been trying to revive this tradition. Nowadays, the local schools teach the importance of the fruit and the compote to the town. In 2011, the Jaracatiá Gastronomy Festival was organized, along with cooking courses and activities centered on the jaracatiá.
Jacaratia spinosa is a typical plant that grows in fertile soils and humid forests. It occurs mainly in the Atlantic Forest biome, and sparsely in the Amazon. It has a wide geographic distribution, occurring in all the states of south-eastern Brazil, spreading towards the north along the coastal region of the northeast, to the west through the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, and in the southern states of Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. It can also be found Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador and Peru. The fresh fruit of J. spinosa has an elongated oval shape, with yellow skin that turns orange as it ripens. It is a small fruit, approximately 10 cm long and 3 to 5 cm wide. As the tree is very tall and the trunk is fragile and prickly, the ripe fruits are collected after they fall on the ground. Highly perishable, the fruit has to be processed immediately after the harvest.
Research has shown that the fruit of Jacaratia spinosa is an important source of potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber. It has iron and copper levels twice as high as those of the conventional papaya (mamão) with three times less sodium. Only 8% of the original natural habitat of the J. spinosa survives in Brazil. The situation is critical in São Pedro, where only 5% of the native forest remains. While the conservation of this forest is essential for the survival of the jaracatiá, preserving the local knowledge and the culinary tradition of this fruit is an important incentive for the protection of the environment. A current project for the promotion and conservation of the tree, its fruits and their culinary uses is being developed in São Pedro, including documenting the production of jaracatiá in syrup and safety requirements for small producers.
Unlike the Atlantic Forest trees, Jacaratia corumbensis, occurs in drier environments, like the Caatinga and Cerrado ecoregions in Brazil. It occurs mainly in the Central-West Region of Brazil, especially in the states of Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and Goiás. It also occurs more sparsely in the state of Minas Gerais and in the southern portion of the semi-arid northeastern region. Animals of that region eat the fruits and stalks of the jaracatiá, as they contain a great deal of water. The trunk of this species has no thorns. The fresh fruits are light green with reddish or yellowish stripes and very tasty.
The variety specifically growing in the Cerrado region is known as mamão-de-veado (deer papaya). Both its underground stems and trunk are used for making compote. The piece of the plant is grated and washed, and cooked in water sweetened with rapadura (solid piece of whole sugar cane) or sugar cane juice until it reaches the right consistency. The trunk of this kind of jaracatiá is rich in copper, magnesium, potassium and vitamin C.
As the entire plant is usually cut down to make the compote, the management of existing trees and the planting new ones is essential for the conservation of the mamão-de-veado and the traditional foods associated with it. The usage of the plant for making conserves and compotes is being lost with the loss of traditional doceiras (or confectioners). Jaracatiá can be found fresh or in syrup at the farmers market in São Pedro, especially during the harvest season between January and March. The 500 g jars of jaracatiá in syrup are sold for are very popular with locals and tourists alike. In São Pedro, each tree produces an average of 400 to 800 fruits. With approximately 100 trees, the estimated production is 6000 kg of fresh fruit per year. In a joint effort, producers and the city hall planted many seedlings in and around the town. Considering how quickly the trees grow, production should increase by 2014.
Photo: Evanilda Prospero