The Umbu (also known as imbú) is native to northeast Brazil, where it grows in the Caatinga, the chaparral scrub that grows wild across dry lands of the Sertão. The name of this tree and fruit comes from the indigenous phrase y-mb-u, which means ‘tree that gives drink’. The productive cycle of this wild, spontaneously growing tree begins after ten years of growth. It bears fruit once a year and can produce up to 300 kilos of fruit in a single harvest when it reaches maturity. Due to its robust root system, a great network of tubers that can store liquid throughout the Sertão’s dry season, the Umbu tree can hold up to 3,000 liters of water during the dry months.
This tree is an important resource for one of the poorest and driest regions of Brazil, where local agriculture is based on corn, beans, sheep, and goat (dried and salted goat meat is one of the most important local foods). The fruit of the Umbu tree is collected by hand—gently, as it is easily damaged—and during picking the fruits are set in baskets and bags (in the past these fruits were also collected by beating the branches with long poles, to the detriment of their quality). The fruit of the Umbu are round and can be of varying size: they can be as small as cherries or as large as lemons. The peel is smooth and green or yellow when the fruit ripen, the small firm fruits are juicy and flavorful and their succulent flesh hides a large dark pit.
The Umbu can be eaten fresh or made into jams or other sweetened preserves. In the Sertão, it is cooked down until the peel and the pulp separate. Then, the liquid is poured off, it is mixed with sugar and cooked for another two hours. After the pulp has been reduced to a glossy gelatin (called geléia), it retains a slightly astringent flavor. In addition to the thick paste made by this long, slow boiling process, the Umbu is the base of fruit juice, vinagre (the juice pressed from overripe fruit), and jam (made by pressing together layers of dried Umbu). Another delicacy is the compote made by mixing the fruit and sugar together in jars. The fresh pulp, or—if the fresh fruit is not in season, the vinagre—is mixed with milk and sugar to make umbuzada, a rich beverage that is a common substitute for a full meal.
Until a few years ago, no one paid much attention to this fruit. But the work of various organizations (the NGO IRPAA/PROCUC, the Austrian KMB Linz diocese and Austrian Horizon 3000) has enhanced the profile of Umbu.
These groups have worked to improve the public reputation of Caatinga products and in 2003 supported the formation of the COOPERCUC cooperative, which produces processed Umbu products without added flavors or colors. With support from the Slow Food Foundation and Horizon 3000, the first of 13 small workshops were opened at the beginning of 2006, where the fruit can now undergo an initial processing before being passed to the cooperative.
The Presidium has drawn up a production protocol to ensure the artisan quality of the preserves made from these fruits and is working to raise the profile of the products on the local, national and international markets.
Canudos, Curaça e Uauá Municipalities, Bahia State, Northeast
144 gatherers and processors from the Coopercuc cooperative
Jussara Dantas de Souza
tel. +55 7436731428