Unless you’re in the know, you could easily fail to recognise a cashew nut if you saw one growing on a tree. Most of Liberation’s cashews grow on the ‘homestead’ farms of small-holders in tropical Kerala, deep down in Southern India. The precious cashew nut is disguised both by a very thick shell and by the large ‘cashew apple’ that it grows snuggled up next to.
Cashew apples also go by the Spanish name marañón, and can be made into juices, chutneys and jams. The ripe red and yellow apples are also used in Indian cooking to sweeten up a curry. Unless you’re lucky enough to be in tropical climes and see a cashew tree close to harvest time, you’re very unlikely to see or taste a fresh cashew apple as they have an extremely limited shelf life in their fresh form. I can reliably inform you that they are sweet and juicy but have that astringent quality that makes your mouth feel a bit like a well-squeezed tea bag – yum! However, cashew apple stewed with a bit of sugar and lots of spices tastes like Christmas pudding but with a fraction of the fat and calorie content – now you’re talking!
Lucky for us, cashew nuts travel a lot better than their apple – it just takes some doing to get them out of that super-protective shell; and dried or roasted ready for us to munch. The trickiest part of the process is prising off that shell. Not only is the shell very hard to break open, but when you do break it open you soon encounter a sticky black liquid that can damage your skin if you’re not very careful.
Liberation has gone to great lengths to find and work with cashew processing factories that are as expert at looking after their workers as they are at looking after the cashew nuts.
But before that it’s back to the farms where cashew nuts are gathered as soon as they fall off the tree and take them to their nearby closest depot of their co-operative Fair Trade Alliance Kerala. There the nuts are dried for a few days before being transported to the factory.
The simple yet brilliant trick on arrival at the factory is blasting the nuts in a steam boiler which softens the outer shell. After cooling, the shell is removed with a mechanical nut cracker much like a bigger version of the one we might use at Christmas to crack open a brazil nut.
The expert people doing the shelling use castor oil or gloves to protect their hands from the caustic liquid that comes out of the shell. Discarded shells are used to fuel the steam boiler. Believe it or not there’s also a market for the cashews shell liquid (AKA CNSL) which is used in the manufacture of chemicals and plastics.
Mother Nature protects the nuts themselves from the CNSL with a secure thin ‘skin’ or testa around each nut. After shelling, still safely tucked in their skins, the nuts are roasted in a big oven to get them nice and crunchy – this process of removing moisture also means that they keep for a good long time.
Last but not least, once cooled each nut is gently removed from its skin by hand, graded by size and sent to be vacuum packed ready to be shipped to us in the UK. We like to think about the exciting journey a cashew nut has made each time we munch on one…or two or actually usually the whole darn bag! Any food that has had that much care bestowed upon it can only taste as good as cashew nuts certainly do.
Peace, love and peanuts (or cashew nuts!)