Part 1 in getting to my “fields of lucuma” involved meeting with Carlos Escárate, the representative from the company Eco Fields that exports the lucuma powder imported by Prana in Montreal. So I headed to Barranco in Lima to the warehouse from where they ship the (5kg 10kg?) bags of dehydrated organic lucuma powder, as well as maca, purple corn, cacao butter, nibs and bars, and algarrobina (from mesquite). From the mesquite trees they also make a syrup that’s very much like molasses in terms of taste and mineral content, and they harvest a honey from the tree that melts in the mouth like clover honey but has a short-lived richness like buckwheat honey.
But I came for lucuma, and to meet the man behind the magical lucuma I loved in Montreal. He sells the powder at the two organic markets in Lima, which is where I first encoutered it in powdered form two years ago. Carlos was a wonderful host, showing me around the storage area in the two floor home and inviting me into his office to see pictures of their fields, processing plants and workers.
I was floored. Because the products are organic certified they have inspectors coming all the time and they take a million photos to prove to potential buyers that they maintain very strict standards. He also walked me through the process of growing, harvesting, and making lucuma powder.
It all starts outside Piura…
High on terraced mountainsides above unpaved roads, far from the nearest city, live families of workers year-round, tending ambitious trees with gnarly branches reaching up into the clouds. Because of the altitude it’s rather inhospitable land with days of clouds and without the heat of the city. But all these factors make it ones of the best places in the country for growing lucuma. Lucuma do better when they’re higher up where there’s less heat, and more clouds…
Because the clouds water the lucuma trees.
And they’re all organic because it wouldn’t do much good to add chemicals or irrigation. It would pump up the costs and only in the south where lucuma are grown in lower altitudes in greater heat do the trees need any help at all. The maintenance comes in trimming trees, not letting them get too tall or too thick, and in harvesting manually with a cane. The workers pull the branches down with canes (the trees don’t appear to grow past 12 or so metres, judging by the photos but maybe they get larger than that in some areas depending on the clouds) and the bright green, unripened fruit falls onto nets to save the delicate skin from tearing and the flesh from being crushed.
As the fruit ripens the colour inside, visible through the hole left from where the stem connected to the fruit on the branch, turns a rich gold, and it’s at this point that the workers in the processing plants (one is on site and one is in a larger processing plant several hours away) remove the skin and pits by hand and slice the starchy fruit into approximately 1/4″ wide pieces. Then they either dry in the sun or, if it’s cloudy, they dry in a solar powered dehydrater set below 40 degrees C to keep the fruit “raw” for raw foodists. In fact, says Carlos, sometimes the sun tries to heat the fruit above 40, which should be more of a concern than the dehydrating machines for raw foodists.
The workers live on the farms with their families. I have no idea what their day-to-day lives are like, but they are comfortable and well taken care of says Carlos. They are all Peruvians, with nary a fruitarian in sight. These are Andeans used to highland living for generations upon generations, is my guess.
This is a great company. They don’t use massive, industrialized manufacturing techniques, they don’t work a million hours a day and care only about the money, and they’re not trying to force the government to allow them to export the actual lucuma fruit. Because of the geographic indication (the rule that indicates that lucuma is a Peruvian product and can only be grown in Peru), lucuma can only be exported in its powdered form. This way, no ambitious tree-growers can start growing lucuma trees in foreign countries and take away Peru’s product or economic advantage, like Champagne from Champagne, France, or Basmati rice (which is not Texmati, or Basmati-style rice) from India.
Unfortunately, that means that the lucuma grown in Peru is not a lot, and much of it goes to local markets, so what’s exported as powder is very expensive. About $10 for a small bag of the stuff, which is why when I saw the 5 or 10 kilo bags my eyes widened in awe. I’m not so good at math when it comes to estimating weights and values of products, but this bag that Carlos is holding is worth hundreds of hundreds of dollars. SO much lucuma!
I feel so close to those magical fields…