When I roll up to the Academy of Cookery & Other Pleasures in Paraty, a perfectly preserved colonial town 150 miles west of Rio, I don’t quite know what to expect. Fresh from the fleshpots of Leblon and the golden beaches (and bodies) of Ipanema, I wonder what these ‘other pleasures’ might be.
Over the next three days, I find out — and they are of the innocent kind. My hosts, the Brazilian cookery writer Yara Castro Roberts and her French-American husband Richard (pronounced Ree-shard), take me on a hedonist’s tour of the Costa Verde. Dominated by lilac mountain ranges, this glorious stretch of coast, with 300 outlying islands, rises up from an emerald sea. We taste cachaça (fiery sugar-cane spirit) at one of Brazil’s most acclaimed distilleries, swim before a sumptuous seafood lunch on an islet accessible only by boat, and take in the cool mountain air at the Michelin-standard Le Gîte d’Indaiatiba, a restaurant whose helipad allows its wealthy clientele to literally drop in for a takeaway.
But the main event, at the couple’s house, is a cookery class followed by dinner — an introduction to the regional cuisine of this vast country. If you thought Brazilian food was just barbecued meat and feijoada (the famous slave dish of beans stewed with beef, smoked sausage and the salted ears, tail, snout and trotters of a pig), think again. From the self-consciously extravagant dishes of Minas Gerais — the region inland and north of Rio, which is to Brazil what Emilia-Romagna is to Italy — to the herbs, river fish and mouth-tingling flavours of the Amazon and the African-influenced palm-oil stews of steamy Bahia in the tropical north-east, Brazil’s food is as diverse as its population.
The first dish I learn to cook is lombo de porco (pork tenderloin) from Minas Gerais — the corner of the Portuguese empire where gold was discovered; hence the name, Minas (mines). Laying a sheet of ham over a huge marinated pork steak, Yara studs it with apricots, raisins, sultanas, juliennes of carrots, black olives and red peppers. Deftly, she rolls the slab of pork into a cylinder packed with fruity, spicy nuggets, before tying it together with string. Seared in olive oil, it’s baked for 20 minutes with a splash of orange juice and a dash of cinnamon.
Golden on the outside, the steaming lombo is sliced thinly so everyone has a little of each ingredient.
Next is the turn of Bahia, the region around Salvador in the tropical north-east, where voodoo and African influences prevail — the indelible footprint of slavery in the sugar plantations, abolished as recently as 1888. “This is a refined version of moqueca,” says Yara. A fish stew on menus across Brazil, this one uses roasted yellow and red peppers, tomatoes and coriander, whizzed in a blender and simmered to make a vibrant amber poaching liquid. Into it are placed fillets of corvina (a local fish) that have been spread with shredded, spicy crabmeat, then rolled into a paupiette and trussed.
Finally, we cook Amazon duck with tucupi, a sour, yellowish vinaigrette made from grated manioc (cassava) strained through a tipiti — a long tube of woven palm fronds that Amazonian Indians hang from rainforest trees. The essential ingredient is jambu, a herb related to the coca family that slightly numbs the tongue. Boiled in a pan with the anaesthetic leaf, the tucupi is spooned over slices of succulent pink duck and mint-green leaves of escarole (similar to spinach) in a bowl, like a Chinese soup. It’s drunk with a tiny glass of neat cachaça. “Wine and tucupi just don’t work,” Yara explains.
It’s proof of how sophisticated Brazilian food can be when elevated from its rustic, ethnic roots. Nowhere is this more artfully demonstrated than at D.O.M, in São Paulo — this year ranked seventh at the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards. Chef Alex Atala travels into the Amazon in pursuit of new ingredients, including pirarucu (a large whitefish) and priprioca (a root used in cosmetics, but here made into an edible essence).
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the affordable, unpretentious restaurants of Santa Teresa — a hilly, bohemian district of Rio de Janeiro. My guide, Fabio Sombra, and I have lunch at Bar do Arnaudo, which has been serving authentic dishes from Bahia for over 30 years. On the same street is Sobrenatural, a family-run fish restaurant.
On the way back to my hotel, Fabio shows me Alda-Maria Doces Portuguea, a confectionery shop that opens its doors only when people knock. Alda-Maria’s custardy cakes and pastries are, in my eyes, among the finest legacies of 315 years of Portuguese rule. I devour three trouxas de ovos (rich ‘convent sweets’ made from sugar and eggs) and, for the first time in Brazil, can’t quite manage dinner.
Five culinary classics
1. Academy of Cookery & Other Pleasures: Its three-day programme includes a cookery demo, dinner, boat trip and tours of a cachaça distillery, manioc mill, island fishery and palm-heart plantation. From around £730. www.chefbrasil.com
2. Cachaça Maria Izabel: Located on the coast near Paraty, this distillery produces one of the best cachaças. T: 00 55 24 9999 9908. www.mariaizabel.com.br
3. Eh-Lahô: Peerless seafood restaurant on a tiny islet (Ilha do Catimbau) off Paraty, accessible only by boat. Anchor, swim in-between courses, and shower in a rock grotto afterwards. T: 00 55 24 9222 8954.
4. Sobrenatural: Run by a fishing family, this unfussy Santa Teresa restaurant specialises in moqueca, though its seafood spaghetti and pasteis de camarão (shrimp dumplings) are hard to resist, too. T: 00 55 21 2224 1003.
5. Alda-Maria Doces Portugueses: Santa Teresa gem, in a private house, selling divine cakes and pastries; it even boasts a small confectionary museum. T: 00 55 21 2232 1320. www.aldadocesportugueses.com.br
Four places to eat like a Brazilian
Academia da Cachaca, Leblon
Sample regional cuisine in tapas-style portions, accompanied by a cachaça, at this 25-year-old Rio institution. Avoid the obvious (feijoada) and opt for escondidinho (‘something hidden’) — dried beef, shrimp, chicken or trout in a bowl, with a purée of mashed manioc folded over it and grated cheese on top. Make a hole in the crust, fish around and extract your prize. Drink cachaça the traditional way: with a tiny cup of caldinho de feijão (‘little broth of black beans’) to line the stomach.
■ How much: £5-£6 per dish. T: 00 55 21 2529 2680. www.academiadacachaca.com.br
Bar do Arnaudo, Santa Teresa
This is the place where I had my best meal in Rio: salty, slow-roasted carne de sol (sun-dried beef) with rice, sweet pumpkin (to counter the saltiness), herby feijoa de corda (‘country beans’) and farofa (toasted manioc flour). Dress the beef with a few drops of manteiga de garrafa (‘butter in a bottle’: a clarified butter-based condiment distilled from milk) and, for your own safety, no more than a dot or two of terrifyingly hot molho de pimenta (chilli sauce). Portions are absolutely huge, so, unless you’re ravenous, be sure to share.
■ How much: Main course for two from £15. T: 00 55 21 2252 7246.
Le Gite D’Indaiatiba, Paraty
High in the mountains above the Costa Verde, Olivier de Corta uses Brazilian produce with a French twist to create unforgettable dishes: ceviche of sea bass, caught off Paraty, with citrus fruit from his garden; or red-hot chilli camaröes (giant shrimp), cooked in a perfumed oil in a risotto of pitangas (tiny rainforest berries). A year after opening, his restaurant (complete with a sauna, two pools and a helipad) won Brazil’s equivalent of one Michelin star.
■ How much: Three courses from £60-£100 for two (all dishes are to share). T: 00 55 24 3371 7174. www.legitedindaiatiba.com.br
D.O.M, Sao Paulo
Brazilian food was once considered too basic to win plaudits, but D.O.M — seventh on this year’s S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list — has refuted that. Chef Alex Atala plunders the Amazon for ingredients — from tucupi and priprioca (see main story) to filhote (a river fish) and pupunha (a peach-like fruit) — for his haute cuisine. Other novelties include canjiquinha (white corn) from the south-east and baru (a nut) from the central-west.
■ How much: Set lunch from £18; four-course tasting menu from £110; eight-course tasting menu from £155.
T: 00 55 11 3088 0761. www.domrestaurante.com.br
Published in the Sept/Oct 2011 edition of National Geographic Traveller (UK)