What is Brazilian food? Football, I know about, a little too immediately given Scotland's knack of drawing the world's greatest football team at almost every World Cup I can remember. Economically their momentum is gathering pace within a world economy. Hey, I can even make pretty good Caipirinhas on an evening. But the food was a mystery to me.
The mystery needed de-shrouding. So I travelled halfway across the world to attend Comida Di Buteco, a unique month-long competition of food in Brazil's third city Belo Horizonte. I was in full de-shrouding mode.
I suppose Rio and Sao Paulo would have been the obvious entry points into modern day Brazil. And perhaps if I wanted to don a garish bikini and headdress or become a rich and famous playboy those would indeed have been my destinations.
But the state of Minas Gerais is the food state of Brazil. Belo Horizonte has hosted an annual food festival for the last dozen years, a festival that celebrates bar food. Bar food and cold, cold beer. Where else was I going?
Brazil, as we know it, is a relatively young country. The indigenous food culture, prior to colonisation, seems lost. This means that the food of modern Brazil tells a very clear and evident story about the incoming nations and peoples. I don't think I have ever visited a country where the social history is so apparent in almost every plate of food.
The Comida Di Buteco is a brilliant idea. Each participating bar offers a single dish in competition, alongside their regular array of food. With 41 bars (or Boutequins) taking part I set myself the goal of eating 10% of the dishes in competition; that should offer a carb-crazed crash course in contemporary Brazilian food.
The staples of the diet are pork, chicken, rice, beans and kale. There is also beef, cheese and the delicious cassava, a fibrous root vegetable from Africa. There is a beautiful simplicity to the dishes, an honesty and an integrity.
In the central market, a mecca for any food lover, the story of Brazilian life is arranged stall by stall. From cheese shops to chilli vendors to a shop stocking myriad types of Cachaca, it's all there to see. And there are a handful of Boutequins.
Bar de Lora was last year’s winner of the Comida Di Buteco with a dish of beef braised in black beer.
I like beer. I like beef.
I like braising. I, like, order one.
While I'm waiting the charming chef sends over a plate of liver and onions, a staple dish. There's a curious little vegetable (that appears to have no name in English) nestling in between the hunks of fried meat. It's sort of delicious. But no preparation for the beef dish. Wow. It's little surprise this braised beef dish is the incumbent champion.
The meat is butter soft, full of deep, big flavour imbued from the braising liquor. This heartiness, this depth, is offset by a scattering of the most delicious sweet chillies I have ever tasted. To the eye these chillies appear to be mini Scotch Bonnets; I'm assured they taste completely different. Warily, suspiciously I pop one into my mouth. What an explosion of sweet, chilli flavour. The perfect offset for the beef. (I have dreamt of that dish on at least two occasions since!). Elegant simplicity.
There is also a lovely dish called Tropeiros. Tropeiros were the travelling businessmen that initially linked up coastal Brazil with the then unexplored hinterland. These travellers took with them a one pot dish to eat on the road. Pork belly, rice, beans and kale all combined with cassava flour and a fried egg: comfort on a plate, enhanced with some chilli sauce. While the dish perhaps lacked finesse and elegance it was a delicious combination of flavours.
Beef is a relatively new meat to Brazil. Pigs and chickens are low maintenance animals and so they are the easiest to rear and eat. Having said that, alongside the beef in black beer, I ate the most delicious beef I have ever tasted in my life (doubly impressive since I'm a Scot). Salted and dried beef which is then seared on a barbecue. It's difficult to explain quite how juicy and delicious this meat is, particularly when doused in a tangy, chilli sauce.
I went to Brazil a stranger to their food. And returned feeling like I'd made a friend for life. And everywhere I went the beer was ice cold and delicious. What could be a better basis for lifelong friendship?
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