We have several trees surrounding el campo, both in front of our house and out back. The cashew trees are in full bloom and are starting to fruit throughout our area. Cashews normally grow in areas around 25 ° north or south of the equator and the trees do best when they’ve had a chance to grow a deep root system, then they are able to adapt to our long dry season. But give a fallen seed a bit of rain and it will sprout within four days.
As we drove down the road yesterday to visit with friends in the Veneao area, fruiting cashews trees along the highway reminded me that I wanted to take a look at the trees down the road from us. I’ve noticed that the trees all seem to stay small, they have short little trunks and seem to grow sideways and not up.
When we walked over to take a closer look at the trees in our neighborhood we noticed that there isn’t very much fruit yet but a lot of flowers on them. The flowers are a purple/red color with some white in them. As we approached the trees we noticed the fragrance of the flowers first and when we sniffed them we both agreed they smelled like cinnamon.
The first time I saw a cashew tree I was amazed. It wasn’t what I was expecting at all. But then I’d never really thought about where cashew nuts came from I just knew that they were delicious. In Panama the cashew is called a marañón. And this is what it looks like:
They look pretty cool don’t they? The nut is attached to the lower part of the cashew apple which is narrow at the top and rounded at the bottom. The cashew nut (seed) hangs at the bottom of the apple, and is c-shaped, kind of like a kidney bean. The cashew apple starts off as a little nub with the green nut at the end. As the apple grows it becomes yellow and then red when it ripens. The fruit is not picked from the trees because they are not considered ripe until they fall to the ground. The apples are eaten separately and sold with the regular fruit and vegetables at the supermarket but it’s a little tart and will usually cause the “pucker effect”. When you touch the apple it is kind of sticky, pliable and smooth. The locals sometimes will process the fruit into a fruit juice that is refreshing and a little tart at the same time or they will cook it with some cinnamon and sugar. It can also be used in jam, jelly, syrup or made into wine.
The real fruit of the tree is the seed or stone fruit similar to a peach or plum attached to the apple. The stone or seed has a shell that has caustic oil that causes a rash similar to poison ivy. The seeds have to be roasted to destroy the toxin but the person doing the roasting has to be careful because the smoke created by the roasting can cause the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat to be irritated.
To roast the nuts the nuts are placed in a shallow pan with large holes drilled in the base. The pan is placed over an open fire and as the shells begin to burn the cashew nut shell liquid drips through the holes and catches fire, giving off the fumes. The nuts are stirred to make sure they are evenly roasted and after a few minutes, water is sprinkled over the burning nuts to extinguish them and they are thrown out to cool. The nuts are then shelled with rubber gloves to avoid injury from any remaining caustic liquid. The nut is then cracked and the kernel is taken out of the skin. The last process is roasting the kernel in coconut oil.
The cashew nut shell liquid that taken from the shell is used as a waterproofing agent and as a preservative. It is used in insulating varnishes, lacquers, inks, brake linings, and in cement and tiles. And here’s an oxymoron for you; cashew apples and cashew nuts are excellent sources of nutrition. The cashew apple has five times more vitamin C than an orange and has more calcium, iron and vitamin B1 than other fruit such as citrus, avocados and bananas. It’s weird how something so toxic in one form can be so good for you in another. I think I’ll just enjoy looking at the lovely trees with their “funky” fruits for now and the surprises they contain and stick to buying my cashew apples and marañón at the tienda.