Monday, April 4, 2011

A 19th Century Brazilian Dinner

I'm currently reading a book entitled Travels in Brazil. It was published in 1817 and written by an Englishman named Henry Koster. It has long been out of print. Thanks to the technology of the 21st Century  world of e-reading, I was able to find a digital copy of the book online and add it to my Kindle. I guess that out-of-print books no longer need to be no-longer-available books.

This young Mr. Koster, for non-identified health reasons, was required to leave the cold and damp English climate and relocate to the tropics. Fortunately, it appears that money was no issue for him and he could pick just about anywhere on the globe for his new home. He chose the then-Portuguese colony of Pernambuco, which is now one of 26 Brazilian states.

Mr. Koster had connections as well as cash and soon became linked into the upper levels of Brazilian society - wealthy English merchants, Brazilian governors and captains-general, and Brazilian sugar barons. His book largely describes his travels in northeastern Brazil, visiting huge sugar cane plantations in the interior, and staying in governors' palaces in the capitals.

Notwithstanding all his money and elevated social position Koster is a sympathetic character, not filled with a sense of self-importance. He seems to treat his servants well, and invariably ingratiates himself with his Brazilian hosts when he travels. Here's what he had to say about one particular visit to a sugar plantation:

From Dous Rios, we advanced the following day to the sugar plantation of Espirito Santo, situated upon the banks of the river Paraiba, which becomes dry in the summer, at a short distance above this estate. I had letters to the owner of it, who is a member of the Cavalcante family, and the Capitam-mor of the captaincy of Paraiba. I was received by him in a very friendly manner. The house is in the usual style of the country having only the ground-floor, and no ceiling, the tiles and rafters being in full view. Supper of dried meat, and the flour of the mandioc made into paste, and called piram, was placed before me; also, some hard biscuits, and red wine. I was not then sufficiently a Brazilian to eat piram, and took the biscuits with the meat in preference, which much astonished my host. Sweetmeats were afterwards brought in, which are always good in the houses of persons of his rank in life; the opulent people in Brazil taking as much pride in their doces, as an English citizen in his table or his wines. The cloth was laid at one end of a long table, and I sat down by myself, whilst the Capitam-mor placed himself upon the the table, near to the other end, and talked to me; and some of the chief persons of his establishment stood around, to see the strange animal called an Englishman...One of his men supposed, that as I spoke Portugueze, either I must be an Englishman who did not speak English, or that any Portugueze,  on going to England, would immediately speak the language of that country, as I did Portuguese.

From Koster's description of that dinner it appears that he was served carne de sol (dried meat as he called it) and pirão (piram is an older form of the word in Portuguese). These dishes are still much eaten in northeastern Brazil, and with the addition of rice this dish would look absolutely contemporary if served today. As for the desserts (sweetmeats), things haven't changed much there either - Brazilian cooks still pride themselves on their doces (sweets), and most Brazilians regularly indulge their sweet tooth with multiple desserts.

The book is a fascinating read and shows both how much has changed in the past 200 years in this part of the world and, at the same time, how little has changed. In the next chapters I'll be reading, Koster visits my Brazilian home state of Ceará. It should be most interesting to find out what he discovers there.

In an early chapter of the book, Koster describes a dinner in the home of one of the sugar barons. It shows that the basics of the Brazilian diet haven't much changed in the past 200 years, and opens the door to a social world far removed from our own.

2 comments:

  1. This is great, thanks for sharing!
    One constant item in traditional Brazilian cooking is LARD, or pig fat, which makes food taste very good, but rather strong, if you are not used to it.
    I noticed when we stayed at a "Hotel Fazenda" in Minas Gerais and everything was cooked in pig's fat, I was always feeling full, it took me a while to get used to, not to mention the stronger raw milk and delicious sweets.


    Ray

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  2. Thanks, Ray for the interesting comment. I really appreciate your contributions to the blog.

    I'm planning a culinary research trip to MG later in the year. The Hotel-Fazenda that you stayed at was in which region? (Also, how did you find it and book it?)

    Cheers,
    JAMES

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