Jenni Avins

Miracle in the Jungle, Gourmet

You might think you’ve heard it all about açaí, the Amazon rain forest “superfruit” that stormed North American shores a few years ago—that it has omega–3 fats sufficient to make a salmon blush, antioxidants to put pomegranates to shame, and grows wild in Brazil. It was in 2002, before most people here had heard of açaí, that I fell in love with this little berry. Eventually, I followed it all the way back to its source in the jungle, where I witnessed the wild journey it has to undergo to become my juice of choice. BY JENNI AVINS

Photo: Jenni Avins

As a student abroad in Rio de Janeiro I knew nothing of açaí, but I had a good teacher: Marcos, a Brazilian boyfriend who wasn’t afraid to order on my behalf. “Açaí com banana e mel,” he said to the man at the yellow–and–green juice stand on the corner. A few minutes later, we each held a Styrofoam cup containing an opaque, frozen, velvety concoction in the deepest shade of royal purple. I gave it a cautious stir and brought a little to my lips. It was frosty, rich, smoothly sweet, and tasted somewhere between chocolate, blueberries, and Concord grapes. I looked at Marcos, starting to smile with the spoon in my mouth. What was this? Banana, of course, is the same in English, and mel, I knew, was honey. But açaí? I knew nothing of açaí, except that I needed to know how to order it again.

“Ah–sigh–ee,” Marcos repeated, enunciating each syllable. He told me açaí was a little berry with seeds hard enough to break any blender. So, he said, Rio’s juice–stand vendors used not the berries, but rather frozen packets of pulp they mixed with guarana, a syrup that added sweetness and a kick of caffeine to the subtle-tasting fruit. He told me surfers favored the blended drinks for replenishment after a long day on the waves, and that there was even a song about a girl with lips the color of açaí.

In the eastern part of the Amazon açaí is as essential and basic as rice and beans. And yet most Brazilians outside the region, just like their North American neighbors, have never seen the actual fruit. That’s because it almost never leaves the Amazon in its whole form.

Upon my return to the States, I sorely missed Brazil. I sought out Portuguese speakers, samba shows, and, of course, açaí. I can’t remember the freezer section where I first found the little plastic pouches of the pulp, premixed with guarana. But once I sliced open that frosty purple block, no bigger than a deck of cards, and dumped it into my blender, I had my source: Sambazon, a California–based company.

Curious, I got in touch with Sambazon’s founders, and was inducted into a bicoastal world of health-conscious hedonists who danced all night in samba clubs, had Sunday afternoon feijoada gatherings, and saved their vacation days for South American surf trips. Like I had, Sambazon’s founders discovered the drink while traveling in Brazil and returned to the States with a craving. Now they’d built an entire açaí community of artists, athletes, and blissed-out businesspeople. I promptly joined it, converting my coworkers with afternoon “lattes” of açaí blocks melted and stirred into cups of hot milk; my sister, who poured powdered açaí into her morning yogurt; and one roommate, who consistently requested my signature smoothie (an “Original Style” frozen packet, blended with a banana, honey, ice, and a splash of soy milk) to combat her hangovers.

We weren’t alone. Within a few years, açaí was everywhere. Oprah’s doctor anointed it a superfood. Flashing banner ads linked it to weight loss. I saw it on the labels of everything from body wash to vodka. But I still hadn’t seen a berry. So, in 2008, six years after that first sweet spoonful in Ipanema, I decided it was time to go back to Brazil.

Brazilians who live on the shores of the Amazon refer to it as o Rio Mar, “the River Ocean,” and through the window of an airplane, it’s easy to see why. Even from an altitude where the clouds below looked like tiny white pieces of popcorn, the brown river completely enveloped the landscape, its tributaries squiggling out through the jungle–green distance. These created the floodplains of the northeast Amazon: the source of my smoothies.

Sambazon’s jolly, bespectacled Brazilian business manager, Miguel Jorge Hauat, picked me up at the airport, and pointed out the small city of Macapá’s creeks and canals, and a sawdust factory grinding açaí seeds, as he drove toward the facility. Once we arrived, he led me through offices, warehouses, and clipped lawns, down a dirt path to a wooden dock, where a flurry of activity surrounded an old-fashioned white ferry.

Just a few hours earlier, baskets brimming with marble-size indigo berries had been stacked to the boat’s ceiling. Now nesting upside–down, empty, the baskets formed several towers taller than the men who rushed around them, pouring the last berries into white plastic crates, and stacking them onto pallets. The berries sounded like pebbles rather than plump fruit. This is because 80 percent of an açaí berry’s volume is its seed—a hard sphere that resembles a Tibetan prayer bead. Miguel plucked a berry from the top of a crate, scraped its surface—slightly dusty like a blueberry’s—against his tooth, and held it out. Under the dark skin, a delicate source of antioxidants and vitamins, was a shiny lime–green layer of omega–rich fats. Hiding inside the fat, he said, were tiny veins of fiber.

“It’s the milk of the Amazon,” he said. “It’s very nutritious. It’s cheap. It’s available.” But like milk, açaí is also highly perishable. The second açaí berries, with their high fat content, are picked, they stop ripening and start spoiling. That’s why these men were working so fast.

We followed the berries into a huge, hangarlike building. Two workers wearing white scrubs and surgical masks flanked a conveyer belt covered in berries. Lucy–and–Ethel–style, they picked out stems, branches, green berries, and bugs before the fruits bounced into a rushing river of rinse water, down a grate, and up a towering escalator to a dumpster-size softening bath, kept just above 100 degrees. From here the berries passed through a blender and three finishing machines, to separate precious skin, fat, and fiber from seeds and grit. The pulp was then pasteurized at the lowest time and temperature possible to destroy bacteria but not antioxidants, and poured into clear plastic pouches.

Between the months of June and December, the plant receives around four ferries per day, each carrying some 20 tons of açaí from hundreds of registered suppliers—a network of 3,000 landowners across the floodplains who harvest the açaí growing wild on their property. The endeavor would be impossible without a local liaison, an insider to work on the company’s behalf. For Sambazon, that man is Manoel Belem dos Santos, better known as Belem. Belem agreed to take me up the river to see the harvesting.

The river, swollen twice a day by 18-foot Atlantic tides, was the color of chocolate milk. Belem used no paper maps or digital instruments to navigate, relying instead on intuition and a lifetime of experience as he steered us into the main channel. The river ran wide and fast with tall, feathery palms lining its shores: açaí trees laden with billions of berries. Beneath them, the jungle floor was dense with bushes and mangroves. Occasional Moratinga trees shot up toward the canopy. As the river narrowed to the width of a two-lane road, we came upon an assembly of small white clapboard houses on stilts above the water’s edge. Belem tethered the boat to a wooden dock, and we disembarked.

At the edge of a clearing, a young man in a red T-shirt and white cotton pants tucked into rain boots waited, holding a weathered machete the length of my arm. He led us into a sun–dappled grove of palms, stepped up to a tree, its trunk no fatter than a telegraph pole, and produced a shredded white ring made of a twisted and knotted old plastic potato sack. Stepping both feet inside the ring, the machete blade in the back of his waistband, he grabbed the tree with both hands, and hoisted up his legs, leapfrog style, pressing the ring against the trunk for leverage.

I kept an eye on his red shirt as he crawled up the willowy açaí. When he reached a dizzying height, he stopped and let go with one arm to pull out his machete, then, after a thwack and a rustle, he suddenly came sliding down the trunk, holding the trunk with one hand and a branch in the other, stopping himself when he was just low enough to hand it to Belem.

Photo: Jenni Avins

At its core, the branch was pale green and tough like a cactus. At one end was a crescent-shaped stem—a handle for it to clasp the trunk. It looked like the spine of a fish, with scores of woody brown bones extending from its spine, each of them covered in berries. Belem brushed these off the branch into a basket, catching runaways with a tarp.

And that is how açaí is harvested—branch by branch, basket by basket.

As we followed the boardwalk back to the boat, we peeked into the only open building aside from a small church—a white shack with a screen window. Inside, affixed to a splintered wooden countertop, was a rusty pipe with two gears on top, an arm extending into a silver cylinder, and an empty bean can waiting underneath. It was a miniature, rudimentary version of the behemoth processor I had seen that morning: the community blender, a fixture in practically every village.

By the time we returned to the plant, lunchtime was long over, but a glass pitcher remained on one of the break-room tables, its sides covered in opaque purple liquid—fresh pulp processed that morning. I poured some into a bowl and slurped it up with a spoon. It was rich, a tiny bit gritty, and not at all sweet. Pure açaí.

Back in the States, I changed my recipe. Rather than sweetened smoothie packs, I now swear by Sambazon’s frozen blocks of plain, unsweetened açaí pulp. I stir it into my oatmeal on rainy mornings. I blend it with frozen blueberries, pear juice, ripe avocados, and ice for creamy shakes. Once in a while, I still sweeten it with banana and honey.

Am I drinking the Kool–Aid? Maybe. But it’s delicious.