The origin of this ancient Andean melon-flavored root is lost in Argentina’s pre-Hispanic past. In Aimarà, the region's indigenous language, the root is known as aricoma or aricuma, while in Spanish it is called Yacón (pronounced sha-kohn), arboloco, chicama or jiquimilla. The plant is cultivated using ancient techniques and tools such as the taclla, a wooden tool that can be traced back to the Incas. The taclla is first used to prepare the land for planting and then to place the bulbs in the furrows.
Yacón is cultivated in rotation with corn or potatoes, and is best harvested from August to September. The shrub has a thin trunk and green leaves, and can reach one-and-a-half meters in height. The edible part of the plant grows below ground, where the root, after loosing its dark brown skin, boasts a sweet and succulent pale yellow flesh, similar in texture to that of a pear.
If handled gently and stored in a cool, dark place, Yacón will remain fresh for months. With time, the root sweetens further as the starches transform into sugars (a process that is accelerated by exposure to light). Once the root has been left out in the sun long enough for the skin to shrivel up, the flesh can be enjoyed raw. The people of the Quebradas also use Yacón to make juices, jams and fruit jellies. The plant’s dried leaves are used to to prepare a very aromatic tea.
The cultivation of Yacón requires a great deal of water and well-fertilized earth. It grows well in the southern Argentine area of Quebrada de Humahuaca. The towns most noted for the production of Yacón are Barcena and Volcan. Volcan also serves as the primary market. Here, farmers offer baskets of Yacón to train passengers traveling south, mostly workers from the sugarcane fields.
Yacón has great potential: it is wholesome, versatile and has important dietary properties. The fruit contains inulin, a natural substitute for sugar, making it suitable for diabetics.
In 2004 Slow Food, together with the association Fundandes (Foundation for the Natural Environment and Development), launched a project aiming to promote knowledge and awareness of yacón. The producers work land previously abandoned (or used for other crops) and produce yacón with excellent organoleptic properties, selling it fresh or transforming it into juices, infusions, jams, jellies and escabece (a vinegar-based marinade).
This has been aided by the construction of a small processing workshop, set up with the support of the Barcena local authority. The workshop organizes training activities for producers on harvesting and processing techniques. Since the Presidium was set up, the producers have also joined the Cooperativa Agrícola Portal del Patrimonio.
What is a Slow Food Presidia?
The Slow Food Presidia are projects sustaining quality production at risk of extinction, protecting unique regions and ecosystems, recovering traditional processing methods, safeguarding native breeds and local plant varieties.
Check out our website: http://www.slowfoodfoundation.com/presidia
Photos — Nicolás Rapetti