Cashew fruit, or marañon, in an orchard in León. The nut encased in its shell forms first (the skinny unripe fruit with the large green nut) and as the fruit matures the shell darkens to blueish gray.

Entering the town of Somotillo traveling north on the newly re-done highway there is a lone gas station on the left.  Across the street is a green building, set back, with a small sign that most likely goes unnoticed by travellers passing by in bus or interlocal.  Actually, it is worth stopping at that gas station that feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere, because the building across the street is one of the best discoveries an agricultural and organic food fanatic can find in Nicaragua.  It’s a completely unassuming but very impressive cashew nut processing plant, started by CIPRES and run by a cooperative of women.  I stopped and then wondered if it was even open; the first offices inside the gate were shut and locked.  But I heard some voices, and followed them to find Flor, one of the managers, who warmly invited me in to see the whole process.Cashews grow on a fruit tree, and the nut is encased in a hard acid shell and hangs hilariously from the bottom of an avocado sized red or yellow fruit.  The fruit is sweet and bitter at the same time, and the juice leaves a funny itchy feeling on my tongue.  I’m not crazy about it, but Nicaraguans love it both fresh and in juice.  The nuts are harvested and can be stored for a year raw in their shells.  The nuts I saw being processed were harvested in 2009.

Artesenal processing in the countryside homes is simple but requires precision.  The nuts with their shells are thrown into a fire, where they begin ‘popping’ as they roast.  When they are thoroughly charred and blackened, they are pulled out and the burnt shell smashed away with a stone pestle or rock.  Not enough time in the fire and the shell won’t leave – or the strong acid can scar your hands.  Too much time and the nut inside is burnt.  But just right and the hot roasted cashews are delicious.

Shelling the boiled cashew nuts.

The processing plant ensures an evenly lightly roasted nut, export quality.  The nuts are first boiled inside their shells, then cracked open with a special blade that the cooperative purchases from Brazil.  The blades slice the shells but not the nut, which is extracted whole.  The boiled nut has a tough pink skin on it.  The cashew nuts are then lightly roasted in an oven, which dries the pink skin out so that it can be cracked and peeled off.  There are about thirty women that work in the processing plant, running the whole process of boiling, shelling, roasting, peeling, and then finally sorting into grades A (whole), B (halves) and C (peices).  The grade A nuts sell for about US$5 a pound.

Rosa, who shells nuts while monitoring the large oven that roasts them.

I was very impressed with the quality of the cashews as well as the organization of the women, and left with over two pounds of nuts.  This week Nicholas and I are going to BIOFACH, the world’s organic product fair, in Nürnberg Germany, and we are going to display some on our Nicaraguan products table along with sesame seed, sesame oil, and coffee.  At the moment the cooperative is not producing their maximum volume.  Once the nuts are shelled and processed, they have a much shorter shelf life, and so they only fill orders as they come in.  At the moment, they are operating around seven months out of the year, on a completely random schedule.  Flor said when they fill the orders and there are no more, the women stay in their villages and work out of their houses.  When the next order comes in, the managers have to go to all the villages to round the workers up again.  Their biggest buyer at the moment is OXFAM Spain, who purchase the nuts packaged in little snack sized bags.  They purchase a thousand pounds of nuts a year – which doesn’t even nearly reach the maximum production capacity for the plant or the farmers.  The missing piece in the puzzle to me is the marketing – why aren’t the beautiful large organic cashew nuts that benefit rural women a hot commodity, both locally and internationally?  Clearly this unassuming small plant on the side of the highway to Honduras is a well kept secret in Nicaragua, but I don’t think it should be.