Every now and then I have come across some nuts in the market, tied into plastic bags. In León it’s rare to find them. They have a brittle brown shell and are wet, clearly boiled, and the inside is creamy and dry and tastes vaguely like a chestnut. People sell them as castañas, which actually is the spanish word for chestnut. They are a rare treat to find here – one of a handful of traditional fruits that don’t really have a market and many people are unfamiliar with.
I recently discovered the tree that the nuts come from at a place that I’ve been to frequently. One of the sesame coops that I work with through the Social Business Network founded a local vocational highschool. All the agricultural coop offices – and the school – have gardens with carefully selected ornamental and edible plants: hibiscus flowers, roses, plantains, mangos, avocados, achiote, mint, and almond. I have always admired this one tree in the front of the yard. It has huge, beautiful glossy green leaves with scalloped edges, and a straight tall trunk. I assumed it was an ornamental, until I once saw a spiky green round fruit the size of a small melon.
At first I mistook it for a breadfruit tree, which I have seen on the Caribbean coast. Actually it’s an Artocarpus camansi tree, cousin of the breadfruit known as the breadnut, and produces those hard-to-find nuts. I found that out when the secretary of the cooperative took some of the brown, fallen fruit and dried it to get the seeds out and bring to some friends who liked the tree and wanted to plant some. As we tore open the spiky fruit, I recognized the seeds, and collected some to cook. The woman who lives at the school and cooks had heard of castañas but had never seen them before, and was a bit sceptical but game to try them. We boiled them for a half hour and then cooled them down and they were exactly like the ones in the market – creamy nutty flavor. Not exactly like chestnuts – but I bet they would be good roasted.