Like many other nuts, cashews grow inside single fruits on large trees found in warm or tropical climates around the world. Vietnam, though once scrutinised for unfair labour practices on some cashew farms, is now the world leader in innovation and cashew production. India, Sri Lanka and the Ivory Coast all produce large amounts of cashews during the single harvest every year, from about February - May.
Believe it or not, cashew trees are members of the same family as Sumac and Poison Ivy! Therefore, they contain a compound called Uroshiol which is toxic and can cause severe skin, eye and lung irritation. For many years many of the hard-working people who harvest and process cashew nuts were often subjected to the harsh effects of constant exposure to this compound, often deprived of protective clothing unless they could afford it themselves. Thankfully the development and refinement of machines which can now effectively and gently crack the caustic outer shells have vastly improved the safety of most workers. It's also great to know that so many governments and labour rights groups have cooperated over the past few decades to protect the cashew workers and raise the health and safety standards in cashew production globally.
And although machines and better practices have really helped to make their jobs safer, the workers still need to do the most delicate tasks by hand. The machine-cracked shells still need to be removed by hand, as do the thin and bitter inner skin of the nuts. This takes years of practice and nuance to perform without breaking the nuts, and reducing their value. Many cashew farmers and processors have passed on their craft from generation to generation.
Why go to all that trouble? Cashews have long been beloved around the world for their rich, sweet flavour, and soft, delicate texture. The are rich in healthy fats, protein and other nutrients, including magnesium which helps fight heart attacks and strokes. Their low-sugar profile also makes them a good choice to combat diabetes. All these factors helped build the nearly €6 billion cashew industry.
And, they're just so yummy!
Cashews sometimes get a reputation for being expensive, but with all the difficult, and sometimes dangerous effort it takes to bring cashews to our tables maybe we should just be thankful that we can enjoy them at all!