Brazil nuts

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Brazil nuts borne by the tree Bertholletia excelsa, are among the finest of all nuts, and commercially the most important of the many kinds which grow in S. America. Yet they are hardly cultivated at all. No one has managed to grow the tree on a commercial scale outside Brazil; while in Brazil, although there are a few plantations, the bulk of the crop comes from wild trees, harvested by local people using unsophisticated methods.

The tree is enormous, up to 50 m (150') tall and with a crown as much as 30 m (100') in diameter. It grows in the dense jungle of the Amazon basin and, like most tall jungle trees, has branches only near the top. For practical purposes it is unclimbable, and the nuts are harvested by waiting for the fruit which contains them to ripen and fall to the ground. The fruit is round and large, about the size of a coconut. It weighs up to 2 kg (4.5 lb) and has a thick, woody shell. Inside are the nuts, arranged like the segments of an orange, and each having its own woody covering. There are one or two dozen in each fruit. When the fruit is ripe they come loose from their fibrous attachments and rattle about inside. Brazilians call the nuts castanhas (chestnuts) and the gatherers castanheiros. Other names are ‘Para nuts’, because much of the crop comes to market through the state of Para, and ‘cream nuts’ because of the flavour.