The Umbu (also known as the Imbú) is native to northeast Brazil, where it grows in the Caatinga, a semi-arid scrub typical of the region (the Sertão). The name of this tree and its fruit comes from the indigenous phrase y-mb-u, which means ‘tree that gives drink’. The productive cycle of this wild tree begins after ten years of growth, whereafter it bears fruit once a year, producing up to 300kg in a single harvest once it reaches maturity. Due to its robust root system, composed of a great network of tubers that can store liquid throughout the Sertão’s dry season, the Umbu tree can hold up to 3,000 liters of water during the dry months.
This tree is an important resource for one of the poorest and driest regions of Brazil, where local agriculture is based on corn, beans, sheep and goats (dried and salted goat meat is one of the most important local foods). The fruits of the Umbu tree are collected by hand—gently, as they are easily damaged—and set in baskets and bags (in the past these fruits were also collected by beating the branches with long poles, to the detriment of their quality). The small, firm fruits are round and vary in size: they can be as small as cherries or as large as lemons. They have a smooth peel which ranges in color from green to yellow when the fruit is ripe. The fruits are juicy and flavorful, and their succulent flesh hides a large dark stone.
The Umbu can be eaten fresh or made into jams or other sweetened preserves. In the Sertão, it is cooked until the peel and pulp separate. The liquid is then drained off, mixed with sugar and cooked for another two hours. After the pulp has been reduced to a glossy gelatin (called geléia), it retains a slightly astringent flavor. In addition to the thick paste made by this long, slow boiling process, the Umbu is also used for fruit juice, vinegar (the juice pressed from overripe fruit) and jam (made by pressing layers of dried Umbu together). Another delicacy is the compote made by mixing the fruit and sugar together in jars. The fresh pulp, or—if the fresh fruit is not in season, the vinegar—is mixed with milk and sugar to make umbuzada, a rich beverage that is a common substitute for a full meal.
Sertão do São Francisco area