The Umbu (also known as imbú) is native to northeast Brazil, where it grows in the Caatinga, a Brazilian semi-arid scrub typical of the region (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 growing tree begins after ten years of growth. It bears fruit once a year and, when it reaches maturity, can produce up to 300 kilograms of fruit in a single harvest. 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 goats (dried and salted goat meat is one of the most important local foods). The fruits of the Umbu tree are collected by hand—gently, as they are easily damaged—and 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 small, firm fruits are round and vary in size: they can be as small as cherries or as large as lemons. They have a smooth peel which is green or yellow in color when the fruit is ripe. The fruits are juicy and flavorful, and their succulent flesh hides a large dark stone.
The Umbu can be eaten fresh or made into jams or other sweetened preserves. In the Sertão, it is cooked until the peel and the pulp separate. The liquid is then drained off, 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 also used for fruit juice, vinagre (the juice pressed from overripe fruit) and jam (made by pressing layers of dried Umbu together). 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 the NGO IRPAA/PROCUC, with international cooperation (European Commission and the Austrian cooperation - KMB Linz diocese, Austrian government, NGO 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 transformed 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 artisanal quality of the preserves and is working to raise the profile of the products on the local, national and international markets.
Canudos, Curaça and Uauá municipalities, Bahia state, Northeast
144 gatherers and processors from the Coopercuc cooperative
Jussara Dantas de Souza
tel. +55 7436731428