woensdag 3 februari 2010

Brazil...not quite the taste of paradise

Due to our camper business we are unable to get away from April til October. We spend several months waving other people off on their holidays, so around January-February it's time to make our getaway.
In order to find some half decent weather we have to look a little further afield than France of Greece. This year we opted for some Brazilian sunshine and as always some food inspiration. After my previous holiday, experiencing for the first time a taste of Thailand, I went on to master the most wonderful aromatic Thai curries. I couldn't wait to develop my South American kitchen skills- sadly I was left slightly disappointed.
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world. The people are a diverse mix of colour and race, there is no typical Brazilian face and therefore no single Brazilian cuisine but rather a collection of regional flavours . Local specialities are reflected in the ingredients available as well as influence (Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, German, or African) It seems to me Brazil is the land of plenty. But to be honest I found the food somewhat lacking, perhaps I visited the wrong area. I expected spicy- exotic certainly not unimaginative. We arrived in Natal and travelled South as far as Recife.
The first week we were doing a round trip with a group of 22 so largely I expected buffet. No I'm definitely no fan of buffet, is anyone? I find it mostly uninspiring and often cold! Some of the buffets were just that, others pretty good, Sushi was even on offer and Feijouda/ Feijoada. This is about the nearest Brazil come to a national dish, it is a meat/bean stew. I envisioned this dish as being yummy and rich but was quite shocked to discover (animal) pieces I didn't recognise or care to eat. It certainly wasn't spicy but rather salty. I quickly lost my appetite.
The first week I appeased myself by filling up on desserts and fruit - and these were way better than any I had eaten in Egypt or Thailand. They are made of sweet ingredients like condensed milk and sugar. They also like to make use of coconut in many desserts and Doce de leite (milky caramel). Quindim flan is an example of a typical Brazilian dessert(see photo). Basically as long as it is a creamy milky sweet concoction it qualifies. They also make perfect cakes, these were equally served for breakfast, lunch as dinner and I couldn't make out if they were home-baked or shop bought they were so good. The texture is open but light, it is moist, but non greasy. Bread is another story (very processed).
Our (buffet) breakfast generally consisted of soft bread, cheese, ham, sausages, boiled or fried egg/ omelette. A wide selection of cakes and fruit. Juices. Cereals and milk. Coffee and tea.
At one hotel (at breakfast time) we were treated to Tapioca pancakes- this was a shell with various fillings of choice including ham, cheese, coconut. The preparation was very interesting to watch. A fine layer of Tapioca (cassave) flour was sprinkled in the frying pan and this was cooked until set, the filling was added and then it was flipped making an envelope (kind of like a toasty) delicious and very filling.
Lunch and dinner were almost identical, the Brazilians like the Thais, enjoy their warm meals and take plenty of time to relax and enjoy. They are a social folk and love eating out.
The staple diet is one of meat, beans,(American)rice,(sweet)potatoes or cassave. But all rather plainly prepared.
Frango (Chicken) is mostly served without a sauce, lightly seasoned, moderately salted.
Salted meat is readily available but tough dry and in my opinion unpleasant.
Examples of vegetables on the menu were beetroot, carrot, broccoli and the same salad was served wherever you went(finely diced tomato & onion in a simple vinegarette dressing).
A side dish that kept popping up on the table was Farofa, a toasted manioc (cassave) flour sautéed in butter with various bits i.e. bacon or beef pieces and onion, which you sprinkle over your food.
I didn't once see ‘dendê oil‘(orange/red palm oil)which I had read about, (I have no idea if I have sampled it).
You can forget about spicing up your dish with condiments (it is already heavily salted) and pepper you'll be very lucky to find! Pepper pots are filled- but with cocktail sticks!
We also sampled BBQ or the Brazilian 'Churrasco'- no BBQ sauce in sight! There is an abundance of quality meat mostly cooked on large skewers over a grill. Often the 'servers' bring the large skewers and carve at the table directly on your plate. I was quite surprised to see a little row of 'hearts' being offered- yuk! Not for me- I don't do offal.
A la carte:
Certainly meat in general, was in abundance, in Holland you get a minuscule steak, here you get at least two a piece if not more, of succulent meat! The quality is extremely good, (just ask the happy little 'beach' dog outside Hotel Morro do Careca, Ponta Negra) and they are cooked to absolute perfection.
But how much meat can one eat? I would have preferred a little more tender care with the vegetables.
Our best meal has got to be filets of medallions (of beef) wrapped in bacon and served with Madeira sauce (two each!). Shame it was spoilt by the broccoli ‘pieces’ (not even florets) that was carelessly tossed through the rice. Vegetables seem to be an afterthought.
There is a lot of fish available and we tried a fish menu which was rather uninspiring. Plenty of large fish 'steaks' were served with a tasteless drab 'paste/mash' of something unrecognisable and the coconut milk based sauce was bland (to be kind).
During one meal I thought I caught a faint taste of fresh coriander, but it could have been wishful thinking.
We ate a an Mexican restaurant hoping for spicy- it wasn’t. This was about our worse meal in Brazil.
Once we were shocked to discover instant mashed potato on our plates! This was one of the better restaurants.
One evening our meal was spoiled by two unruly Brazilian children, literally having a food fight in the middle of the restaurant- and being totally blanked by the parents! And I thought Dutch children were the 'free spirits'...
Street/Beach Vendors:
I did eat the famous 'Camarão'(shrimps) from a beach vendor and boy they were the best I have ever eaten! And I didn't get sick!
The street/ beach vendors are amazing, they show such skill in impossible conditions like hot temperatures (32°C)and very limited facilities. I also ate a beach lunch of corn on the cob. And a light lunch of freshly cooked cashew nuts. Everything is brought to the comfort of your relax chair be it chips, fruit, ice-cream, shrimps, fish, skewers of meat or cocktails, or whatever your stomach desires.
Funny how we were easily eating two warm meals (lunch and dinner with dessert) the first week, albeit late (lunch around 2pm, dinner around 8:30pm) and by the second week we were struggling! Sometimes we snacked other times we skipped lunch altogether, forgetting to eat!
One day we couldn't face another warm lunch so opted for a lighter meal. We decided to 'snack' on interesting little cheesy filled balls called Pão de Queijo, these are little puffs of dough (cassave flour/ tapioca starch) to keep it simple- kind of like choux pastry filled with gooey cheese. They are also available sweet, I couldn't resist one filled with doce de leite (dulce de leche). mmm Heaven! You can make your own Dulche de Leche recipes can be found here.
Another day we just ordered a portion of Macaxeira Fritas, no not Batatas chipped potatoes- we opted for 'cassave chips'. A chunky, crispy starchy snack, without mayonaise, or even salt and pepper!
In the evening we carefully selected a restaurant but never made it to dessert! You could negotiate where to eat by bartering for free Caipirinha's.
What Brazil is lacking in food it makes up in the drink department whether it be alcoholic beverages or fruit juices.
Certainly one of the better things about Brazil was the cocktails, available any time, any place, anywhere....
Caipirinha made of a liquor called cachaça, sugar, crushed ice and chopped, 'muddled' limes, (very much like mojito without the mint). They are very easy to drink but must never be underestimated- they contain a potent kick. To cater for the international taste the cachaça can be substituted by vodka making a Caipiroska or (Bacardi) rum and it becomes a Caipirissima. All are simply divine, even when served in plastic cups by the poolside or on the beach!
If you prefer non alcohol, just ask for 'sem álcool' my favourite juice was Maracujá, the yellow variety of passion fruit (larger than the purple ones) which was deliciously refreshing. They often add sugar (or sweeteners) but they don't taste overly sweet.
Fruit juices (Sucos) are very important, generally you have a choice of three types at breakfast time. I believe they use modern juicers to extract the juice as it has a froth on top and the juicers are readily available in the shops there. You can choose from anything ranging from mango, orange, pineapple, Açerola, (a cherry like fruit juice rich in vitamin C), papaya or Cajú (this is the fruit from where the cashew nut grows, the fruit is generally only made into juice and not eaten)
The cashew is very interesting because per fruit only one Cashew 'nut' is produced.
Sometimes the juices can taste rather sour/bitter. I sweetened mine with one or two drops of liquid sweetener which is readily available in Brazil in the hotels/restaurants and much cheaper at the supermarkets than here in Holland. I will just add I normally avoid sweetener at all costs, as a rule no diet drinks for me but in this case it just took the bitterness away without any aftertaste.
Another drink that I particularly enjoyed was Guarana. This is popular fruit flavoured fizzy drink that gives Coca Cola a run for its money in Brazil. It's very refreshing and claims to have many health properties. It is made of Amazonian berries. It contains a stimulant substance very similar to caffeine. I found it to taste a bit like a fruity, sweet ginger ale. It is also available as Zero (low calorie) like cola.*
If you just prefer beer then order a Cerveja, most often than not you will be served a Skol- a light but refreshing lager. To keep it cool it is often served in a polystyrene casing.
Brazilian wine is ok, but nothing to write home about. You can better order import- or stick to the cocktails.

Sometimes there is nothing that can quench your thirst like an aqua de coco. This is 'coconut water' obtained from green (unripe) coconuts. These coconuts are readily available. They are served chilled and 'fresh' (they are skillfully opened in front of you) and you suck out the juice with a straw. My 'first' was in Thailand last year. Similar to my first taste of Dorian fruit, your 'first' is an experience that lives with you- nothing can prepare you! It tastes a little bit like what you would imagine oral rehydration salts would taste. Let’s just say it's an acquired taste- it grows on you. And it hydrates you like nothing else.
Brazilian coffee is served as a potent shot of espresso, any time of the day. I don't normally take sugar in my coffee (or tea) but I did there! It is a match made in heaven. Drink it when you need to be 'picked up'.
To counteract the lacking of the dish, you may well find the 'surprise element' on your bill:
'Couvert' is a small appetizer which is offered at the start of a meal. It can be very good, we had a aubergine dish which was excellent. It can be simple like a portion of olives or elaborate. However it is not complimentary. You can refuse it- just ask the waiter to take it away. If you eat it you will be charged, usually per person! So just like you may see 'coperto' (bread) as an extra on your bill in Italy, here you will find the word 'couvert'.

At river beach Jacaré,Cabedelo, João Pessoa there is a daily performance by Jurandy do Sax, who arrives at a restaurant playing “Bolero de Ravel” with his saxophone, as the sun sets. This promises to be a very moving, unfortunately on this day it was rainy!
Or 'couvert artistico'; If there is live music (be it one performer or a band)you will almost certainly be expected to make a small contribution- you will be charged for it per person (around 4 Brazilian Real) on your bill!
You will however not be expected to leave a tip- simply because you will have already have been billed for it! 10% service charge is nearly always automatically included at the end of bill.
Often they work on minimum wages so tips are appreciated.
To be fair you do get value for money and in general you can get a 'good' meal for two for 25euro.
Perhaps I am being rather unkind. I do think the weather had something to do with our lack of appetite. But when faced with a string of restaurants and I start yearning for my own home cooking then something isn't quite right. When oversized meat dishes are on offer and we sneak off to an Italian for a pizza and a Spaghetti Carbonara then something must be wrong! We couldn't even empty our plates there!
Browsing though a supermarket didn’t happen either- the nearest supermarket was a bus ride away- I’m not surprised the Brazilians favours eating out! We only managed to find a small convenient store.

If you read through the lines you will see I breakfasted on cake, drank cocktails throughout the day- feasted on quality cuts of meat, oh it certainly wasn't all that bad. It is just that it has the potential to be so much more. The ingredients are readily available, the blandness of the food just isn’t necessary.
Don’t get me wrong we had a good holiday:

We felt the wind in our hair blasting through the dunes in a beach buggy.
We were exhilarated riding over rugged terrain in our quad and the adrenaline flowed while hanging on the roof of a jeep!
I mastered the art of the hammock, and hubby learnt to walk in flip-flops!
We took a stroll through the jungle and sheltered from a tropical rain shower.
We chased away giant frogs and reenacted the last supper in full attire!
We had breakfast with the monkeys and struggled to communicate with the locals.
But the land itself didn’t exceed in charming us. It was messy, bad roads, worse pavement, many buildings are standing in a state of demolition, not to mention the piles of litter- all very unsightly.
There is little or no English spoken, (and I mean even at the hotel reception) which does little to generate the promotion of tourism!
And the topping? We fell victim to Brazils criminal activities- this more than anything left an unpleasant taste in the mouth that the caipirinha just couldn't wash away.
And next year? I’ve heard that Peruvian cuisine is one of the best in the world…on the other hand I’d just as happily take a camper to Greece…but in February brr?...perhaps then back to the east- maybe Vietnam? Any ideas?
More photo's (160 selected)here .

UPDATE: 11 February- The postcards still haven't arrived!
UPDATE: 16 March- Not a single postcard has arrived!
UPDATE: 1 May- Yes! One postcard arrived today- just when I had given up all hope!
Update: 11 May- Yes! All the postcards have now arrived! I have been getting calls from family and friends all week checking up on me, thinking I had sneaked off to Brazil again!

*Update jan 2011: Guarana is now available here in The Netherlands in the form of Pisang Ambon Guarana Lime.
I also recently discovered it is a component of the creamy banana/coconut alcoholic drink Boswandeling.