.. how to get to them
Very characteristic of Auroville's environment
and life is the cashew tree (Anacardium occidentale) which dominates
large areas of the landscape and contributes substantially to the impression
of the Auroville area being now largely reforested. For the villages
in Auroville's immediate surrounding, cashews are a major financial
crop. They play an important role for most families in providing supplementary
income, but at the same time do little for the environment: nothing
grows beneath them, their leaves and fruit have an acidifying effect
on the soil, and local farmers persist in spraying them with poisons
We here visit such an Auroville farm and, on a more positive and enjoyable note, give you a description of the tricky but delightful struggle and pyrotechnics required to get to the heart of this 'fruit & nut' offering of nature.
Aurovilian cashew farmers
The road to Jana and Perumal's pioneering Auroville outpost winds precariously through low-slung grabby cashew branches. It's cashew season, and Jana sits on a log 'twisting' cashews to separate the large pear-shaped fruit from their bulbous undercarriage. Next they're laid out and dried in the sun to be sold, depending on the season, for between Rs 20 and Rs 50 a kilo. At the end of the season, cashew farmers have to work extra hard to salvage the tail end of their crop from the insidious ubiquitous 'scratchers' from the adjacent villages who come to scavenge after the official end of the season. "The lazy ones arrive at dawn", says Perumal, as he dumps a squelching basket-load of still-joined fruit and nuts, momentarily obscuring Jana behind a juicy mountain.
How to get at them
Beneath a glossy-grey armoured veneer, an inflammable acidic-soaked sponge protects the cashew from animals and humans. To get the oil on your skin or tongue burns uncomfortably, making the raw cashew close to inedible for anyone without industrial cracking gear. For amateurs, the easiest path to the relatively small bean compared to its massive shell, is by fire. However this method brings its own hazards. In accordance with physical laws, along the road to incineration the well-contained oil heats and expands. By the time the outer shell has carbonised sufficiently to compromise structural integrity, the oil, by this time pressured by heat to a few atmospheres, escapes at ballistic velocity through the first available opening. Here the inflammable quality of the oil comes into its own, and as the high-speed escaping jet encounters the surrounding fire, it ignites with such great force that the cashew, shell and all literally skyrockets out of the fire. Although no known text exists, if Bush Cashew Cuisine were ever written, it would recommend standing back from the fire at this point, because it can get dangerous.
Generally a handful of cashews added to fire at the same time achieve critical explosive mass simultaneously, producing a pyrotechnic display worthy of Bollywood. With a flash and audible 'pupf!' often two or three flaming cashew-flavoured incendiaries will simultaneously rocket from the fire. Trailing acid vapour on their return to Earth, these smoking, red-hot embers land just as easily in your hair as your pocket, if you're not careful.
The perfectly cooked cashew
Once the blackened shells have cooled enough to touch, they're easily cracked open to reveal varying levels of success. Some collapse into a small mound of black dust without a nut in sight. Some still contain enough acid to send the hardened cracker running to the tap in a vain attempt to wash off the seemingly insolvent oil. Some fall open to reveal the golden-brown crescent of the perfectly cooked cashew, normally eaten immediately before anyone else notices. The taste comes as a final pleasure, a delicious, hot, crunchy reward for the now-starving amateur cashew-cracker. If you get one-third edible cashews from your efforts, you've done well, and if it's your first time you know now why those little nuts are so expensive.
Every year before cashew season, local cashew farmers begin by spraying trees with the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan, banned in many countries. Although Auroville has embarked on various efforts to persuade the farmers not to spray poisons, both educational and by offering alternatives, the practice continues, often on lands bordering Auroville roads and communities. We hope to one day eliminate the use of poisons around the community and villages, offering bacterial-based biodynamic replacements, friendly to animals and the environment.
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