Saturday, September 17, 2011

The History of Sugar in Brazil - Part 1

Brazilian sugar plantation - 1816
Anyone with a smattering of knowledge about the history of Brazil is aware that in the first centuries of Portuguese colonization in Brazil, the impetus for the settlement of Brazil and the economic engine of the colony, and indeed of Portugal itself, was cane sugar. Particularly in the region of Brazil now known as the Northeast, enormous sugar plantations with their graceful and elegant "big houses" (casas grandes) and their multitudes of African slaves living in hovels (senzalas) produced thousands of tons of sugar and sugar products, for which there was a seemingly endless appetite for in Europe.

In the September 2001 issue of Brazilian food magazine Prazeres da Mesa, there is an article on the history of sugar in Brazil and on the importance of sugar in traditional Brazilian cooking. It was written by Bruno Albertim, from Recife, Pernambuco, which is located right in the middle of the traditional sugar-cane growing region of Brazil. Because it details the history so well, and explains how sugar is locked into local culinary traditions, Flavors of Brazil has (freely) translated it for readers of the blog and will post it in two parts - today and Monday.

Sugar From The Beginning
by Bruno Albertim

"Without sugar," explains noted Brazilian anthropoligist Gilberto Freyre, "one cannot understand the man of the Northeast." This ouro branco (white gold) was the incentive and catalyst for the Portuguese conquests of the region, and also the key factor in the development of a Brazilian gastronomy of sweets. Enabler of Portuguese colonization on these shores of the Atlantic, sugar is evident everywhere in Brazilian cuisine. It was the element that enabled Brazil as we have come to know it to exist and, consequently, the keystone in the development of a cooking tradition that has evolved from its Portuguese roots. In Pernambuco, sugar is still paving innovations and traditions to this day.

With sugar cane growing literally in the backyards of the old plantations, sugar was commonly combined with the fruits of the earth in plantation kitchens. In colonial times, the Portuguese colonists believed that consuming fresh fruit could be harmful. Fresh fruit required sugar to "tame" it. A repertoire of traditional sweets and jams was developed at that time, and the same repertoire, trimmed of the original excesses, still holds prominent place in the palate of Pernambuco. "It is still very common to keep traditional  Pernambuco-style compote or pastry at home," says professor of gastronomy Cleonice Ferraz, who discussed this habit recently in Recife. At a recent trade show she demonstrated the process of turning tradition to innovation by using a jelly made from a fruit called umbu to make an acidic citrus ganache for filling chocolate straws. She was inspired by a traditional country recipe called umbuzada, a kind of soup made ​​from fresh umbu fruit, and turned it into something new. 

Celebrated throughout Brazil, Pernambuco pastry cooking comprises both local tradition and inspiration from the old country. The famous Pernambuco bolo de rolo (jelly roll cake) is a perfect example. It has been declared part of the state's cultural patrimony, but it really is nothing more than an adaptation of the Portuguese cake called rocambole or "bride's mattress".  What has changed in the adaptation of the Portuguese recipe is the substitute of Brazilian guava paste for the original marzipan and the culinary skill and techniques required. "A bolo de rolo must have layers of cake and guava filling that are as thin and fine as possible, and so it is no longer really a rocambole," says professor Ferraz.

(to be continued Monday)

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