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Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Thursday, 17 July 2008 11:37 UK

First taste of a magical fruit

Baobab nut with the powdery fruit and jam
The nut is hard with a powdery fruit and the pulp can make jam
It's being billed as king of the superfruits - the baobab fruit has just been given EU approval to be used in smoothies and cereal bars. But what does it taste like? The Magazine's Tom Geoghegan got hold of one.

With its velvet skin, the baobab feels like a coconut in the flush of youth - minus the long hairs.

And inside its flesh is crammed full of vitamin C, calcium and antioxidants - it packs a nutrition punch that makes so-called "super-fruits" like pomegranates and cranberries green with envy.

The taste is something of a disappointment after the tactile pleasure of the skin that encases it. The white, powdery fruit looks like sherbet and in parts of Africa is mixed with water and made into a drink, has an alien texture that seems rather tasteless.

But baobab - pronounced bay-oh-bab - jam, which is made from the pulp, is more appetising. It looks like dark honey. The taste is tart - akin to lemon curd - and the texture gritty like a tangy pear.

More than 10 times the antioxidant level of oranges
And six times more vitamin C
More than twice the calcium level of milk
Soluble fibre in fruit pulp has pre-biotic qualities and stimulates good bacteria in gut
High in potassium, important for brain, nerve and muscle function
And phosphorus, which helps bones

Approval this week by the EU means that within months the baobab will be available in the UK for the first time.

It won't be seen on supermarket shelves as a furry nut, because it cannot be easily taken home and eaten. Not only is the skin very hard - it feels as if it could withstand a whack from a meat cleaver - but the fruit inside is a dry and sticky powder.

So baobab is better suited as an ingredient. It is most likely to be added to smoothies and cereal bars as food manufacturers target the health-conscious shoppers.

Super food

"The main market that we see it for in the immediate future is the healthy snacks and drinks market," says Cyril Lombard of Phytotrade Africa, which has campaigned for EU approval.

Baobab picker in front of a baobab tree
Demand for baobab in Europe can help poor African communities

"Cereal bars and smoothies are a particular target because they are the big products among healthy foods.

"And because of the nutritional properties of baobab, we think they are ideal markets for it. In time though, you could find baobab on the shelves in a wide range of different products such as baked goods and jams."

It's rare for calcium to be found in large quantities in fruit and vegetables, he says, and even kale does not have this amount. Hence its popularity in parts of Africa among pregnant and breastfeeding women.

"Super-food is a term that many people frown upon so we would hesitate to use it. But it's a fruit with extraordinarily high levels of the key nutrients."

If demand in Europe takes off, it will benefit some of the poorest people in Africa, says Mr Lombard. People without land or money to plant seeds can pick baobab in the wild and sell to producers.

Mythical tree

The adansonia digitata, which is the only baobab species in Africa, provides many forms of nourishment, says Paul Smith, head of the millennium seed bank at Kew Gardens, where one baobab tree has been grown under glass.

Southern, central, western and north-eastern Africa, on savannah
National tree of Madagascar, where there are seven species
Western Australia, where one tree was used to imprison Aborigines

The fruit is mixed with water and drunk as lemonade, the seeds are roasted and made into coffee, the leaves can be made into spinach and the children suck the seeds.

The baobab tree is iconic and wrapped in mythology, he says, but the tree is not as old as previously thought.

"Livingstone, who famously carved his name on a number of trees, said it was likely that these trees were grown at the time of the Great Flood, 4,000 years ago.

"But science suggests that they are not as old as that. One with a diameter of 14.4m was carbon-dated to about 1,000 years old. That is still old, about the age of some oaks in Great Windsor Park."

Baobab fruit
The fruit is not easily edible

The tree bark is very unusual in that it regenerates itself. In Zambia, some baobab trees continue to grow with spears through their trunks. The Ngoni people believed the enemy Bisa tribe could turn themselves into baobabs, so speared some of the trees.

The bark is stewed to wash newborn babies to give them strength, but some people in Zambia believe eating baobab attracts crocodiles and therefore fisherman may avoid it.

The trunk is hollow and stores water, and is often home to bats and snakes, and even humans. A district commissioner in Zambia once set up his office inside, and a tree still standing in Western Australia was used to imprison Aboriginal convicts in the 1890s.

Below is a selection of your comments.

The world's biggest baobab is in South Africa at 42.5 m in circumference and reportedly 3,500 years old. An amazing tree with many uses, from clothes to bags. This could really help African communities in baobab areas, if they are given the opportunity.
Vince Mehers, South Africa

Amazing to see the "Baobab" fruit make the headlines in the UK. When I was just a kid in Primary School in Southern Africa, we'd love a nibble of "muhuyu" and we'd even try "blagging" our mates that we actually eating chalk! I'd love to try some again, in its original form though and not as an ingredient.
Suhael Darsot, Bolton, UK

I used to eat it when I lived in Zimbabwe in the 80s. It was nothing special. Tangy and powdery. It was certainly low down on the list of fruits. Guava and paw-paw were much sweeter and succulent and in demand by Zimbabweans.
Andrew Spencer, Valencia, Spain

This fruit is probably perfect for those who prepare it in the traditional ways, in Africa. When it appears in this country, you can almost guarantee it will be laden with sugar, chemical preservatives, and a hefty mark-up on very little actual fruit-content.
Phil Easton, South Wales, UK

This sounds very good for Africans and the health of Europeans. However, one hopes some large organisation does not take possession of the trees or that the poorer Africans are not prevented form earning a living by picking the baobabs. Also, it would be morally wrong if picking and sending fruit to the Western markets denied Africans their current access to this important part of their diet. Safeguards should be put in place to protect these people.
Vanessa Cato, St Albans, UK

Anyone who has read the novel Roots will remember this fruit is mentioned many times in the first chapters detailing Kunte Kintas childhood in Africa.
Andrea Best

The Baobab fruit is indeed very edible, it is full of goodness and tastes wonderfully tangy. My children grew up sucking these instead of unhealthy sweets and love them, as do I. It is used to make Cream of Tartar.
Alison Collins, Gaborone

Here is another way to eat Malambe (as they are called in Malawi). Crack the casing open by banging the 'lambe' against a hard surface... normally a hard floor does it! out comes the numerous powder coated seeds. Suck on powder-coated seeds, and enjoy the mild sweet and sour taste. After you have sucked the seeds clean, crack the small seeds open. Teeth can do the job, but you risk losing some - teeth I mean. I would advise crashing them with a heavy enough stone, if you are live in the western developed countries, try a hammer. Once you have cracked the seeds open, inside there is a soft nutty-tasting core. Eat that as well. Be warned: eating too much of the white powder makes your teeth numb. God's way of telling you to consume in moderation/ or leave some for others! When in season, that's a delicacy I used to indulge in during break-time in primary school.
Thandi, Glasgow

I've eaten baobab fruits in Madagascar. A very bizarre texture, it's true, but quite a nice flavour. And the seeds are fun to grow too (they germinate into weird little deciduous seedlings that look almost as odd as the adult tree).

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