Pods of Prosopis alba, a variety of mesquite tree grown in South America, produce a
sweetly spicy flour that tastes of nutmeg and cinnamon.
Attention culinary trend spotters. Here’s the next new thing: cinnamon- and nutmeg-scented flour from the ancient mesquite tree.
Of course, you know about mesquite-grilled fajitas, baby back ribs, butterflied shrimp and all the other delectable foods cooked over the fragrant wood of the tree once known as the “scourge of the Southwest.”
But maybe you don’t know about the extraordinary flour that’s milled from the slender yellow pods that dangle from mesquite’s feathery green boughs in summer. It’s sweet and has a flavor redolent of cinnamon and nutmeg, maybe even coconut and mocha. It transforms ordinary pancakes with maple syrup into a breakfast of champions. In some dishes the flour has a fruity flavor, with chocolate it tastes more like a spice. The aroma that wafts from the kitchen is said to be irresistible.
Pastry chefs, are you listening?
This news came to me from Peter Felker, an old friend whom I met when I was working on Beinhorn's Mesquite Cookery, a book about the wonders of grilling with aromatic mesquite wood. Peter is a meticulous and deeply generous plant scientist who has spent the last 20 years traveling the world getting people to pay more attention to the genus Prosopis. In South Texas, where I grew up, mesquite is regarded as a pestiferous, thorny, water-sucking weed. But the pods, rich in protein and sugar, provided nourishment to Indians--not to mention starving explorers and traders--for centuries. Even today cattle munch on the beans in times of drought.
The finest mesquite flour comes from Argentina and Peru, where there are forests of enormous trees with sweet, sugary pods. In Argentina, the flour is milled in the Diocese of Anatuya, one of the poorest districts in the country. In the food journal Gastronomica, Peter writes that cakes made of ground algarobbo [the word used by the Spanish explorers for mesquite] and water, shaped and left in the sun to dry, are a ancient staple that is still sold in bus stations and food shops in northwestern Argentina.
In Peru, the flour is produced by a team of local villagers, with the help of a professor at the Universidad de Piura. In Gastronomica Peter observes that in the coastal deserts of Peru, a “molasses-like product known as algarobbina is made from the boiled down pods. The thick syrup is widely used for a refreshing cocktail composed of one large cup of milk, one half cup of algarobbina syrup, six jiggers of pisco (a type of grape brandy), four small packets of ground cinnamon and four eggs. The mixture is beaten and served over ice.” What happens next is anybody’s guess.
In both countries, the mesquite groves are certified organic. Flour production from the pods aims to stave off massive deforestation which is rapidly stripping the land of venerable stands of trees. In the province of Chao, Argentina, for example, over 100,000 tons of mesquite hardwood is cut down every year for furniture manufacturing. Because the tree is a legume that enriches the fertility of desert soils through nitrogen fixation, it is integral to the ecosystems of these desert-like areas. As Peter notes, “the economic future of the region may lie in the processing of mesquite flour.”
So here's the next cutting edge ingredient: An exotic imported flour with an ancient past and a fruity-spicy flavor that works magic in pastries and other baked goods—and that is also helping to boost sustainable agriculture in some of the world’s poorest regions.
When my sample arrives, I’ll let you know how the pancakes turn out.