Today it is the turn of the cashew nut, a native of the part of the New World that includes what is now Venezuela and Brazil. The first mention in print comes from our old friend, the adventurer and privateer, William Dampier, in 1703:
“The Cashew is a Fruit as big as a Pippin, pretty long, and bigger near the Stemb than at the other end‥.The Seed of this Fruit grows at the end of it; 'tis of an Olive Colour shaped like a Bean.”
The Oxford English Dictionary has this to say on the cashew tree:
“ ... a large tree (Anacardium occidentale) cultivated in the West Indies and other tropical countries, bearing a kidney-shaped fruit (cashew-nut) placed on the end of a thickened fleshy pear-shaped receptacle (cashew-apple), popularly taken for the ‘fruit’. The shell of the nut consists of three layers, of which the middle one contains an extremely acrid black oil, which is rendered harmless by roasting the nuts before eating. The oil is sometimes used in India to protect floors from the attacks of white ants. The receptacle has an acid flavour.”
This acrid oil had another, rather alarming use, according to by Maria Woodley Riddell, the author of Voyages to the Madeira and Leeward Caribbean Islands (1792). She says:
“At the top of the cherry [the fruit] grows a naked seed, shaped like a sheep's kidney, called the cashew-nut; the kernel is eaten when roasted, and has a very fine flavour. It is enveloped with a thin shell that contains an oily inflammable fluid, which is very caustic. The ladies in the West India islands make use of it to extract the freckles from their faces. They sometimes spread it all over their hands, neck, and face; and, in a few days, the skin peals off in great flakes, after which the complexion appears for some time exquisitely fair, but is more liable to sunburn than ever; beside the pain of this operation is excruciating.”
Uses of the cashew were still being explored in the nineteenth century. The author of Our Viands (1893) says: “The cashew nut, also a product of the West Indies, strongly resembles the walnut, and is much used in flavouring various dishes. In India and the Philippine Islands it is roasted in the husk and eaten with salt, and the husk itself produces an indelible stain used in the manufacture of marking ink, and also for burning warts and ulcers.”
The ‘fruit’ itself is virtually unknown outside of the areas where the cashew is grown. It is highly perishable, but contains a refreshing juice which can be sucked or squeezed away from the fibre; it may be preserved in syrup as any other fruit; it may be used for animal fodder’ and of course, it may be fermented and distilled to make an alcoholic beverage such as the feni of Goa, in India.
As for the cashew nut itself, one of its earliest culinary uses was as an addition to chocolate– the two ‘nuts’ being ground up together to make an excellent drink. Recipes for the nut are difficult to find in early cookery books - they are most often mentioned as an acceptable substitute for other nuts. Here is one that specifies the cashew:
Cashews à la Diable (Acajoux à la Diable)
Take some cashew-nuts, allowing about a dozen to each person, and throw them into some clarified oil or butter in a stewpan, and fry them till a nice golden colour; put them into a strainer to drain from the oil, season with a little coralline pepper and salt, dish them up on a dish paper, and serve for hors d’oeuvre, savory, or dessert.
Mrs. A.B. Marshall’s Larger Cook Book of Extra Recipes (London, 1891)
Quotation for the Day.
Mellow nuts have the hardest rind.
Sir Walter Scott.