Delicacies are usually such because they come at a very high price!
So I had just come back from the stunning Seychelles. I have had one of the most unexpected and most marvelous culinary adventures of my life! Yes, I always knew nature was going to be wonderful at the beautiful Seychelles, but I never thought the culinary adventure there was going to be just as amazing! (you can read the full account of my trip to Seychelles on this link).
While discovering the Creole cuisine of the Seychelles, the single most inspiring bit came as a little surprise! It was discovering the fresh heart of palm (aka palmito). While the fresh heart of palm is essentially what we know as palmito, the difference in experience between fresh and canned makes it almost unjust to refer to the canned ones as heart of palm! Once you have the fresh one, you can never settle back to the canned ones! The difference is like that between heaven and earth! With that said, knowing what I know today about fresh heart of palm, and palmito, I choose to stick my feet on the ground and leave heaven to heaven. As it turned out the fresh heart of palm has a sad and unfortunate side that I do not wish to take part in, and recommend that you get educated on the issue so you can make a conscious and mindful decision as to consume it or not. But before we get there, allow me to take you through the story so I can better explain it…
Before this trip, I had never had the pleasure of meeting the fresh heart of palm (palmito)! Yup, like many, I love palmito, I mean what is a salade panache without palmitos, right?! I, like you, had been eating the processed, canned, soured palm hearts! Of course, I knew that they are not the real deal, after all, eggs don’t grow in a supermarket! But I had never known the fresh fruit, nor was I aware of the process of manufacturing (had included a video for you to see where it comes from and how it’s made, in case you are like I was).
So there I was – oblivious to this ingredient and it’s whole story – walking around Mahe island one fine and very sunny morning. Taking in the natural beauty, looking out to the ocean that is a few meters away, walking by fishermen, checking their morning catch, which they are selling at the side walk. As I was walking, I saw a man pushing into the back of his antique truck what looked like white trunks of some tree! I was curious as I always am, and so against my hubby’s advice to let it go, I went to ask him what he was doing and what that trunk was. The man did not look at ease as I approached him and asked what that was. I told him I was not from the island, and very curious to know what those trunks were. He said it’s barks from palm trees. Unaware, I asked him what he was planning to do with them (thinking that perhaps Seychelles inhabitants had special use for such specific looking trunks). I was not way off mark, as it turned out they were in fact extremely special! He hesitated, then said “we use it for food” thinking that would brush me off!! So little did he know, that at the mention of food, that is when he got me all tuned in! I wanted to know… so I asked “Food? what do you mean food? how can this be edible”.. I noticed he was very uncomfortable, but I thought it could be that he does not like talking to complete strangers butting in his business!! (lol) Well long story short, he said “heart of palm, you know like palmito”! I almost dropped! I could not believe that I was meeting Mr. Palmito himself, in the flesh! I was overjoyed. So much so, that I forgot his uneasy attitude, and my questions and everything and became focused on buying one. All I could think of, was taking one back to the Villa so Karl can show me how to deal with it, how to extract the heart and how the heart would taste without the brine usually in the can!!! So I had to convince the guy to sell it to me, which he was very hesitant to do for some reason! Eventually my stubbornness, and I guess he really wanted to get rid of me as he kept saying he had to go, won and I got it! I had a whole trunk of palm and a very upset husband who kept asking how the hell were we going to take it back to the Villa!!! He even refused to take a picture of me with my first palm trunk!! (lol) Anyhow, eventually we called Karl who came and rescued us and our dead palm tree from the side of the road. (PS everyone who passed by was giving us some bizarre looks, making Firas even more furious!)
Finally, we were back at the Villa, Karl never said a word in the car. So once at the villa, I asked him: “Karl, you know this right?” He said: “Yes unfortunately I know!” I did not understand! He then explained that -in Seychelles – it was illegal to cut palm trees in order to obtain the heart! He told me he could not understand why I had it! I explained to him the story and my missing the point and so then he explained to me the whole story of palm hearts:
As it turns out, in order to obtain the heart of palm, the whole tree had to be cut down, as each tree will of course give one heart. The older the tree the more heart or the bigger the heart is. These big pure white logs (hearts) are absolutely succulent and taste so good, much better than the ones obtained from younger, slimmer trees. Therefore these became so highly priced and thus financially rewarding for their owners, especially that they were sought after by the biggest names in the European culinary world! As such, many people started chopping down coconut palms for obtaining their heart and selling them for big bucks! This is where today’s recipe/salad gets its name Salade di Millionnaire as in the Salad of the Millionaire. As this salad has to be made using the premium quality fresh heart of palm and so is a very expensive salad to make and therefore to buy. A Seychelles specialty and delicacy.
The saddest truth though is once chopped, the coconut palm is of course dead. This affected the whole coconut palm tree agriculture and left many trees dead! Not only is this disheartening but it would also have adverse effects on the whole echo system! Again, man’s greed and inconsiderate nature ruins the earth around us. This had become such an issue, that the government in Seychelles banned cutting down coconut palms for obtaining the hearts. Nowadays, dedicated nurseries of small palm trees that are planted for harvesting the hearts are the only source of palmitos. No one goes for the whole tree anymore. Unfortunately, as ever, there are those who go against the rules, such as the man whom I met and bought the palm tree from (now I understand why the guy looked so weird and uneasy when I was talking to him, and that is also why he did not want to sell it to me! I had no idea!!). Then there are always the ignorant, such as myself in this scenario, who will end up buying a product, they have no idea what the story behind it is! Of course, there are those whom according to carl most probably paid the guy to carry out this whole shameful act for them, who are most likely selling it to some fancy restaurants/chefs!! Those are the reason why such actions still take place and why I would randomly find that guy at the side walk and end up with a dead palm tree!
In a way, it is good that it happened, as I learnt this story, and in turn am sharing it with you, perhaps allowing it to reach to an extra few minds. Spreading the awareness about this, means that we ask where the produce we purchase comes from, and most importantly learn the practice of producing it and deciding if it is worth supporting or not. This is the only way to make conscious and mindful decisions. So when it comes to palmitos or the heart of palm, unless they are bought from specific plantations, that are made specifically for this kind of production, we are better off keeping away from the product. I heart palm, and do not wish to hurt the trees or the eco system, and am sure nor would you. Note that these dedicated plantations are very few, and therefore the good quality palmitos are rare and very expensive! The expensive ones are most likely unethical productions.
Since we had the tree! Karl showed me how it is prepared and we made the most amazing Salade di Millionnaire that evening and a few evenings to follow. I am glad I learnt this, and I made sure to thoroughly enjoy the salad and to appreciate it mindfully, so the life of that tree I got did not go to waste. By sharing this story with you, I am making sure that the life of that tree counts, that through its life, it’s brought more awareness to the whole heart of palm issue!