Brazil Nuts can be found in most supermarkets in Britain, in nut mixes, covered in chocolate, or as a traditional Christmas treat. Probably not so familiar is what kind of tree produces the nut or the extrordinary journey the nuts make before arriving in our supermarkets. Most of the Brazil Nuts in the UK are actually harvested in the Bolivian and not the Brazilian Amazon. The segment-lik nuts that we see are the seeds of a much larger and remarkable fruit produced by a towering canopy tree whose scientific name is Bertholettia excelsa.
The tree grows to 45 m and is a canopy emergent, its flowers are pollinated by tropical bees that only live in the Amazon Rain Forest and who, for their own reproduction, depend on an orchid, Coryanthes vasquezii. It is the dependence by the pollinator on this orchid, which grows high up in the canopy but not on Brazil Nut trees which has made attempts to grow Brazil Nuts in plantations almost impossible.
It is this reproductive triangle that has ensured that the Brazil Nuts we buy are harvested from wild trees growing in intact tropical rain forest. And in turn it is our willingness to buy these relatively expensive nuts that has protected significant parts of the Amazon in Bolivia, Brazil and Peru as the Brazil Nut trees they contain represent a regular and significant income to many of the rural communities nearby. In Bolivia Brazil Nut trees are protected by law and a day’s harvest can generate up to $150 making harvesting the main income for rural people in the area.
The nuts are harvested between December and March, the wet season, and during this time many people camp in the forest following well established trails that lead from one tree to another. The fruits are cut open with a machete in the forest and the seeds placed into sacks which then need to be taken out on foot to the nearest road or river. Here they are bought by merchants who then transport and sell them to a cracking factory. At the factory the nuts are dried in a three-stage process before being sterilised using steam in a giant autoclave. Once sterile, the nuts are then cracked in a giant machine that you wouldn’t want to fall into and the shelled kernel is then subject to several manual screenings, two of which take place under ultraviolet light in which damaged, rotten or fungus infected nuts are discarded. The result is pristine nuts vacume packed and shipped to the UK.