We travel to Minas Gerais, Brazil’s culinary heartland, to discover what lies beyond the vast country’s beautiful beaches and that Rio statue.
My first taste of the famous Brazilian cheese bread in Brazil (Pao de queijo – but pronounced in a way that sounds like pon-de-kayzho) was at Sao Paulo airport. But that chewy, fast-food version really didn’t do justice to the delicious, melt-in-the-mouth flaky mouthful that Pao de queijo can be. In hindsight, I wish I’d curbed my eagerness to try it, and saved myself for the more gourmet version I got to try from the hands of award-winning Brazilian chef Ricardo Soares at Serra do Ibitipoca, a quaint inn in the Ibitipoca nature reserve, just one of the many well-kept tourism secrets of Minas Gerais – Brazil’s fourth largest state and home to not only one of the few truly indigenous cuisines in Brazil, but also where Pao de quiejo was born.
Brazil has, for far too long, become submerged in a fast food culture, dominated by packaged, processed foods. The food that Brazilians eat has seen so many influences over the centuries, that pizza and sushi is what many count as local cuisine. A Brazilian take on pizza, no doubt – sweet pizza with chocolate and bananas, for example – and similarly tweaked Japanese dishes, which are all delicious, don’t get me wrong. But one has to scratch the surface a little to discover the authentic, native cuisine. And there’s no better place to start than Minas, as the locals simply refer to this populous state.
Minas Gerais, which literally translates into General Mines in Portugese, was a wealthy gold and diamond mining state, and is one of the country’s largest producers of milk and dairy products. With its rolling hills and valleys, green farmlands, and multitude of rivers and waterfalls, the land-locked state’s topography isn't dissimilar to Europe – and is a far cry from the sun-kissed beaches or Amazonian forests one comes to expect from a visit to Brazil.
Just two hours north of Rio de Janeiro is Juiz de Fora, an up and coming city with a distinctly European vibe, and one that is slowly carving out a name for itself as something of a gastronomic hub, playing host to the annual Brazil Sabor food festival, and with new restaurants pushing boundaries with their food. One such restaurant is Assunta Forneria – located on the outskirts of the city, the contemporary glass-walled three-level restaurant has been designed to effortlessly meld modernity with nature. The wood, iron and demolition materials used in the construction – to reflect the region’s mining heritage – blends in seamlessly with the massive tree the space has been built around. The cavernous, high-ceilinged space offers a sophisticated yet warm setting for sampling the chef’s modern takes on traditional Mineira food – Jerked beef pastry with pumpkin cream; Minas cheese nuggets with guava ketchup; Almond-crusted trout with palm heart fettucine (that’s not pasta cooked with palm hearts – but palm heart strips that look like fettucine, an inventive delicacy made famous by Alex Atala, Latin America’s most lauded chef); and banana trifle with cinnamon ice cream, are just some of the menu’s highlights.
Modern yet relaxed Juiz de Fora is an ideal base for exploring the rest of Minas Gerais, and offers an off-the-tourist-trail alternative to the urban sprawl of state capital Belo Horizente. Just a few hours’ drive from the city, past dusty little towns and sleepy villages, is the aforementioned Ibitipoca. A hideaway popular with people from all over Brazil as a weekend getaway, for its babbling brooks, highly mineralised tea-coloured waterfalls, caves, and elevated views across the surrounding landscape, it is the perfect spot for long nature walks and stunning sunsets. One of the several resorts dotted around the reserve is the Serra do Ibitipoca (www.serradoibitipoca.combr), an eco-lodge spread over 15 hectares of green spaces. Accommodation in 20 chalets offer the ultimate privacy in cosy, rustic luxury. And the Via Veneto restaurant, with its own traditional Mineira wood-fired oven, offers both traditional cuisine as well as a selection of international dishes, focusing on locally sourced ingredients.
It was here that chef Ricardo and a couple of his friends cooked up a feast for me that I will not forget in a hurry. The restaurant was personally recommended by the Executive Director of Abrasel (the state association of Brazilian restaurants and bars), who accompanied me here, and as we dined on homemade Pao de Queijo, stuffed with herbs and jerked meat, I had my moment of epiphany on how delicately delicious these flavourful mouthfuls can be. Made of cassava flour, one of the staples in the Brazilian diet, the versatile snack can be made with any kind of cheese – Ricardo’s version was with Parmesan – and adapted with a variety of stuffings.
Cassava flour, locally known as manioca, is used widely, whether it’s in the bread, as a side toasted with herbs (farofa), or thrown into stews or purées – no meal is complete without it. It made an appearance in our meal again as part of the main course, this time as a farofa tossed with spinach, cheese and Brazil nuts, alongside a decadent pork steak marinated in cachaça (Brazilian sugarcane brandy). But not before we had an intermediate course of Escondinho de frango com quiabo, a delicious chicken and okra bake topped with polenta, another traditional Mineira dish. Dessert was a ‘trilogy of guava’, showcasing this humble fruit in unexpectedly glamorous avatars – guava ice cream, guava soufflé, and a millefuille-style phyllo pastry sandwich of guava jam.
Clearly, this isn’t food for someone on a diet. Mineira cuisine is defined by big, robust flavours, an emphasis on slow cooking – with the traditional wood-fired ovens a fixture in many modern homes too – lots of meat and an abundance of cheese. Cheese definitely features high on the Brazilian culinary priority list, with over 50 varieties produced here, ranging from hard to soft and cream cheeses, including some that are indigenous to the country – the Coalho cheese, a specialty cheese on a skewer that can be grilled directly, without melting, to make for an indulgent snack, for example. Brazil also produces excellent varieties of popular cheeses like Edam, mozzarella, Parmesan and provolone, with most of it coming from the Minas Gerais region, where dairy farms abound in the large pastoral spaces; Chapeco in the south is another important cheese-producing region.
The most traditional cheese in the region is however, what is simply known as Minas cheese – a mild white cheese that is often eaten as dessert, accompanied by fruit jams or preserves. The taste of a fresh, home-cured slice of Minas cheese accompanied by a guava jam, that I had in home-style restaurant Virados do Largos in Tiradentes, is a taste that still lingers in my mouth.
A taste of history
Tiradentes is a historic town which looks like somewhere that time decided to take a break back in the 18th century, and then decided to just stand still – complete with a vintage steam train that runs through it, transporting tourists between the picturesque town and nearby São João del Rei. In reality, the art nouveau façades of the two-street town’s buildings and churches have been carefully restored in the 1970s, which, combined with a genuinely friendly hospitality amongst the locals, and a laid-back vibe that cannot be manufactured, gives it an irresistibly romantic appeal.
Rapidly emerging as an important culinary hub of Brazil, Tiradentes has food festivals such as the Festival Cultura e Gastronomia, playing out here every year – when chefs and foodies from all over Brazil and overseas descend on this tiny village – and some seriously good restaurants specialising in both Comida Mineira (Mineira cuisine) as well as contemporary gastronomy.
Chef Yury Feliciano, who has a day job as a lawyer, also owns and cooks at his gourmet restaurant Archote Clube in Tiradentes, where you can expect innovative takes on steak. But my quest for country cooking took me to Virados do Largos, a charming restaurant tucked away in a quiet by-lane off the busier main streets of Tiradentes. Owned and run by the lovely Beth, a member and exponent of the Slow Food movement, the restaurant offers fresh, home-style food with most of its produce coming from its own backyard garden. It was here that I had my true taste of Mineiro food and hospitality, with Beth bringing out plate after plate of steaming, generous sharing-style food to our table on the verandah overlooking her herb garden – where she grows everything from lettuce, tomatoes and papaya, to local herbs such as orapronabis and couve, a type of kale.
It was a meat fest, if there ever was one, whether it was the more-ish linguica sausage sautéed with onions and orapronabis; the platter of succulent roast pork shoulder with crunchy crackling topped with fried eggs; the tutu (a traditional specialty in Mineira cuisine, beans mashed with roast pork loin); toasted farofa with beans and bacon; or the mouthwatering chicken with couve, all washed down with the tastiest caipirinhas I’ve ever tried, made with local cachaça. I didn’t want any dessert after this meal, but Beth insisted on feeding me her homemade Minas cheese ice cream – a creamier, more delicate ice cream was never made – as well as a slice of homemade Minas cheese.
The best way to work off this artery-clogging meal is with a wander around the cobblestoned streets of this pretty town, lined with art galleries and antique stores, where you will find photo-ops aplenty as well as souvenirs galore to take home – from jewellery and handmade linens to local sweets and of course, cheese. Don’t miss the walk up to the picturesque Baroque-style Santo Antonio church – which has the second largest amount of gold foil in its interiors in all of Brazil – from where you can enjoy an incomparable vantage point for views of the green vistas that surround Tiradentes.
It is this landscape of abundance that probably makes Minas Gerais cuisine so unique and varied; as one of the chefs I was chatting to put it, “everything is grown here, so you can choose the best”. That, and the slightly slower, community-centric pace of life, that allows people to spend time creating food that is a labour of love. “Minas has a rich culinary heritage, and what we are doing is to maintain the tradition, create new things without losing the history,” Beth says (at least that’s what I think she said, based on her Portugese being translated to me in broken English!). She, although cooking for 23 years, is just one of a new wave of chefs who are part of a culinary renaissance of sorts that seems to be taking place in Brazil. Chefs who are taking the regional cuisines and showcasing its traditional qualities, bringing back forgotten techniques, while reinventing the wheel at the same time.
Much as I love my churrasco as the next person – and yes, in Brazil, it is as ubiquitous as you’d expect, with not only numerous Rodizio restaurants dotting each town, but even highway truck stops serving up delicious versions of the picanha steak – it is this lesser known side to Brazil’s gastronomy that I think will be hitting headlines next.
Getting there: Qatar Airways offers daily flights to Sao Paulo and onwards to Rio de Janeiro with convenient connections through Doha. Ticket prices start from Dhs7,950, Dhs24,600 on business class. Visit qatarairways.com.
Staying there: Most hotels in regional Brazil can often be faded and dated, so don’t expect ultra-luxury standards or international brand names, and be prepared for limited English speaking staff. Juiz de Fora has several local hotels for different budget ranges, the centrally located Ritz Plaza Hotel (no connection to the international chain) offers comfortable accommodation. Room rates from BRL140 (around Dhs280), visit www.ritzplazahotel.com.br. Room rates at Serra de Ibitipoca start from BRL340 (around Dhs530). Tiradentes, being a tourist town, has a range of accommodation options, but is also an easy day-trip from Juiz de Fora.