Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Caldo de Cana - Brazil's Liquid-Sugar Drink

It's no secret that Brazilians, on the whole, have a VERY sweet tooth. Fruit juices, even those from sweet fruits, are normally highly sugared, desserts can be achingly sweet, coffee is invariably drunk very sweet, and I've even seen kids plopping a tablespoonful or two of sugar into a glass of milk before drinking it. Considering Brazil's long and complicated history of producing sugar from sugar cane, it's really no surprise.

When a Brazilian wants a real sugar rush, however, he or she doesn't have to drink a fruit juice, or eat a pastry or cake - it's easy to get the real thing, unfiltered and unflavored. If you peel sugar cane itself, then run the cane through a pressing machine it yields a greenish-yellow juice called caldo de cana (cane broth) or garapa. This same pressing process, on an industrial scale, is the starting point for refining every type of sugar cane product, from molasses, through rum and cachaça, to brown sugar and on to the highly refined white sugars. On a much more artisanal scale thousands of small hand-cranked or electric presses can be found on streets and beaches in markets and fairs all over Brazil grinding out the juice which satisfies the national addiction for sugar.

Caldo de cana is not a highly flavored drink, and the overwhelming impression when drinking it is one of pure sweetness, pure sugar. Considering that it is normally between 40 and 50% sucrose by dry weight, it's no wonder that one's taste buds busily scream out "sweet, sweet, sweet!" when one drinks caldo de cana. The juice, otherwise, has little aroma or taste.

Although Brazilians love to gulp down a glass of iced caldo de cana on a hot day, I find that its high sugar content prevents it from being a thirst quencher. And for me, at least, the lack of a specific flavor diminishes its appeal. I'd much rather have a fruit juice with a lower sugar quotient and a bit of a citric/acidic punch when I'm thirsty. But I'm in the minority in this country - at least judging by the length of the lines in front of caldo de cana stands everywhere in Brazil. Lines of folks just waiting for their sugar fix to be freshly pressed and poured into a glass. Bottom's up!

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