In the semi-arid state of Bahia, licuri palms (Syagrus coronata), with their hanging bunches of thousands of green fruits, are easy to spot from a distance. The imposing licuri palm is also known as the solitary palm of the Brazilian caatinga, the characteristic ecosystem of the northeast of the country, running from northern Minas Gerais to southern Pernambuco, through the states of Bahia, Sergipe and Alagoas. The palm was once an integral part of the landscape and its fruits a common food. There are records of the fruit dating back many centuries: O Tratado Descritivo do Brasil, published in 1587 by the Portuguese explorer Gabriel Soares de Sousa, contains a description of the flavor and quality of the licuri palm fruits.
In the Piemonte da Diamantina region, in the heart of the Bahian Caatinga, the main harvest takes place between January and May. The bunches are cut using a knife or a scythe, collected in a typical basket made from woven lianas called a balaio and transported on the backs of mules or on women’s heads. The women both pick and process the fruit. Sitting at home or in the shade of a tree, they use a stone to break the shells of the small nuts.
Birds love to eat the outer flesh of the licuri palm fruits. The flesh surrounds a shell that in turn hides a kernel with a very intense coconut-like flavor.
Also known as ouricuri, aricuri, nicuri, alicuri and coquinho-cabeçudo, the licuri plays a fundamental role in the local economy, and for many families it represents the only source of income. The fruits can be eaten unripe or ripe, raw or toasted. They can also be pressed into milk or oil. Children use them to make necklaces that they wear while playing so that they can have a snack whenever they like.
The licuri is still an essential ingredient in traditional Easter dishes, served with fish or chicken, while the milk is used to flavor rice
In 2005, the creation of Coopes (a production Cooperative in Piemonte da Diamantina, based in Capim Grosso) brought together a number of licuri harvesters and established rules about the harvesting and processing of the fruits. The cooperative unites 129 women from 30 different communities. They harvest and break the fruit and use them to make different products like cookies, sweets, milk, bars and oil, and they also make palm straw crafts.
As well as identifying possible new markets, the cooperative is fighting against deforestation and for the protection of the palms from fires. Many local communities depend on the palm tree for their livelihoods, and they are essential to the survival of one of the region’s most beautiful birds, the hyacinth macaw which feeds on licuri fruits and is now at risk of extinction.
Since 2008, Coopes has been organizing a licuri festival, held under the palm trees, with typical foods, a shell-breaking competition, live music and dancing. The Presidium, in collaboration with Coopes, is promoting the product on the local and national market and in Bahia gastronomy. Between 2014 and 2015, thanks to support from IFAD, Slow Food organized an exchange with the Umbu Presidium (Coopercuc Cooperative) and training on improving product quality and communication (labeling and packaging) and iniziatives to promote the licuri fruit in Bahian gastronomy (at festival and fairs, through competitions and contact with cooks from the Slow Food network).
Piemonte da Diamantina region, Bahia state, northeastern Brazil
129 women from 30 different communities