Chañar (Geoffroea decoraticans) is an endangered plant of the Fabaceae family accustomed to arid climates. It is found between Regions I and IV in Chile (concentrated mostly in Regions III and IV), and also in parts of northwestern Argentina. In fact, there is even a town with the name of Chañar in Region IV. A large forest can be found in the Valley of Monte Patria. The tree has flaky bark and produces yellow flowers in spring (between September and October), fruiting between November and January. The fruit is fleshy and sweet with a pit or stone inside. The fruit is also used to make a type of syrup and other traditional products.
Chañar syrup is prepared by boiling the fruit for several hours, reducing the juices and pulp to a thick consistency. Locally, it has been compared to honey. It has an intense flavor with a slight hint of citrus highlighting the smoky flavor that comes from the hours of boiling over an open flame or coals. It is viscous and dark caramel in color. Some have mentioned that in the past roasted chañar was used to prepare a type of coffee. Dried fruits were also used to make a flour used in breadmaking. The tree’s bark, leaves and flowers can also be prepared boiled in water to make a cough syrup, or dried for later use. Letting the fruit ferment means it can be used to prepare a drink called chicha, or to prepare aloja de chañar, made from the crushed, boiled pulp. Also at risk of being lost is the preparation of a type of chañar candy, made with milk or water, flour and a bit of fat, a recipe that has been in existence since ancient times. In Argentina, frequently the Maká, Tobas, and Pilagá Indians boil patalcas (so are called the fruit), while preserving the pit and seeds, to create a dough which is eaten with fat or used to prepare ball-shaped breads. Mixing the mashed fruit with milk or water and other flours (like carob) creates a dish called añapa. In the historical production area of northern Argentina (primarily in the provinces of Santiago del Estero, Chaco, and Catamarca), chañar, particularly the variety from the Chaqueño mountains, has always been a source of survival for the numerous generations of natives and immigrants that depended on the fruit for food supply, for mending fabrics, and for preserving the species.
In the Aymara and Atacama areas it continues to be used today, though it competes in popularity with more productive, imported fruits from Europe. Chañar is mainly gathered from the wild for personal use, though occasionally the syrup can be found on the market. The coffee and flour made from chañar, however, are not commercially sold. Increasingly, adulterated versions of the syrup, with water and sugar added, are being found for commercial sale.
Chañar has long been documented as being used by the people of Chile. However, because the tree has been indiscriminately harvested for use as firewood, it has become a protected species (though the fruits may be used freely). Many have lost the knowledge of how to prepare products from the raw chañar. The syrup has started to be recognized for its culinary potential, but recent use of the fruit to produce cosmetics may threaten this development.
Image: Slow Food Archive