20 Aug 2013

This Full Moon: The “Nance”

by Jorge Ventocilla

Genus Byrsonima has over 135 species; however, depending on how useful they are for human beings, there is always one species that stands out. In this case, it is the crassifolia species.

Byrsonima crassifolia, scientific name for the nance (Savanna Serret), is a flowering plant native to the American continent, with a natural range extending southern Mexico to Peru and Brazil. Undoubtedly, this is very popular in Panama. It is frequently found on the Pacific coast, close to either urban or rural areas and, in less numbers, in mature forests.

Besides mainland America, it is also found in islands of the Caribbean region as Trinidad, Barbados, Curaçao, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Dominican Republic and Cuba. And, of course, there are many popular names for this tree: changugu, chi, nance agrio, nanche, nanchi and nantzin, in Mexico; nancito or crabo in Honduras; crabo also in Belize; doncela and maricao in Dominican Republic; peralejo in Puerto Rico and Cuba; tapal in Guatemala; chaparro (meaning short in English…maybe they use this word because of the size of the tree), mantequera or noro, in Colombia; mirixi or muruci-da-praia, in Brazil; and so on…

Its yellow flowers grow in clusters or racemes. The small fruit is green when it first sprouts, and then turns yellow. It is abundant during the month of August. The fruit has a strong scent when ripe. Its skin is very delicate and the pulp is white and juicy, and it ranges from very sweet to flavorless. There are two types of fruits, one is very small, acidic and good for beverages (chicha) and desserts (pesada de nance). The other is larger, sometimes too sweet, not suitable for beverages or pesada, but kids like to eat the fruit right from the tree.

On its natural habitat, its propagation is by seeds; however, it is easy to make it germinate by cutting. David Fairchild, a botanist who worked in Panama during the early years of the Canal Zone, wrote that he took some nance seeds to the United States Department of Agriculture. I have read that a few specimens exist in special collections in southern Florida; although, due to how easy its propagation is, I am pretty sure it has now spread to even more places where it is easy for nance to grow. It was introduced into the Philippines in 1918.

I will mention other uses for nance, besides the popular “chicha de nance” (beverage) and the famous “pesada de nance” (dessert prepared with nance fruit, sugar and flour). The fruit, when green, is good for dyeing cotton fabric: the skin gives a light-brown hue. The bark is used for giving leather a light-yellow tone. Branches are cut into small pieces and then grinded and spilled into the water to stupefy fish and make it easy to capture them. In Magdalena, Colombia, the fruit is boiled in water in order to extract an edible fat.

Nance is also used for making ice cream (I don’t want to post any free advertisements here, but I think many of you know where you can get this ice cream in Panama City). A nance liquor is also made in Costa Rica.
It also has medicinal uses: the bark infusion is used to halt diarrhea and also as an anthelmintic treatment. The wood is not highly durable, but it is used for making tool handles and small items. In some countries, it is used for making charcoal.  

Nance is, certainly, one of those fruits that has a large number of fans on one side, and a large number of people who would tell you “thanks, but no thanks”, on the other side.  

My recommendation is to give nance a chance. I must say I am one of those people who learned to value nance at an older age. I have to thank Maritza Samudio, Mary, for that. She makes a delicious “pesada de nance, with cheese and evaporated milk”. At home, we switched sides since we tried Mary’s pesada.

Here are some of Mary’s recipes:

“Chicha de nance”
Squeeze the fruit (use your hands if no blender is available). Use a strainer to get rid of the seeds. Add raspadura (unrefined cane sugar), mix together, add ice and voilà! If you use a blender the texture is more like that of a smoothie, and it even tastes better.

“Pesada de nance”
Squeeze and prepare nance, just as if you were making chicha. Dissolve corn flour (maicena) in water, separately. Then, mix these two together, add raspadura and cook in medium heat, mixing with a spoon (a wooden spoon works best) for about 25 minutes. Don’t leave it unattended. Simmer after it has thickened, uncovered, for half an hour, mixing every 5 minutes.  Serve with grated cheese (white Panamanian cheese) and evaporated milk.

As we can see, biodiversity is not only found in our museums, forests and oceans. It is also present at our table.

English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

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