Thursday, December 16, 2010

On the Road - Maranhão (Pt. 12) - Santo Antonio do Lopes Cachaça

When Flavors of Brazil was in São Luís, Maranhão on its recent gastronomic road trip, one of the obligatory stops was the local central food market - in Sao Luis it's called Mercado do Praia Grande. It's a typical Brazilian market with some stalls selling fruits and vegetables, others selling meat or fish, still others selling prepared foods or arts and crafts. In addition there are a number of small stands selling cooked foods and meals. Almost anywhere else in the world, a local market, I think, is the fastest way into the culture of a new city or region, and the Mercado do Praia Grande market was one of our first stops on this visit.

I'm frankly not much of a shopper for arts and crafts or other souvenirs when travelling, but I can't resist poking around food shops in the search of an ingredient, a sauce, or a beverage that I can cart home as a gustatory memory of my travels. In the Mercado do Praia Grande, I ran across a stall that was full of local and artisanally produced foodstuffs. And there I did my souvenir shopping. Besides jellies and preserves of obscure local fruits, I purchased two bottles to bring home with me. One survived the trip and the other didn't. My treasured bottle of hot chili pepper sauce made with coconut milk was confiscated by security at São Luís' airport. The Brazilian air system doesn't have the "no-liquid" rule that is the norm in North America and Europe, but there is a regulation I'd never heard of that bottles that don't have labels on them cannot be carried on board. My hot sauce had no label, so there it went, into the trash. My other bottle fortunately had a label so it made it all the way home.

The label on this bottle was a piece of white paper, printed on a computer and glued to the bottle that simply said the following:

Superior aguardente de cana (Superior sugar-cane liquor)
Santo Antonio do Lopes
Facricada e Engarrafada em: (Manufactured and bottled in:)
Santo Antonio do Lopes, Maranhão
What I had was a bottle of artisanally produced cachaça from a small village in the interior of the state of Maranhão. The bottle itself was a recycled beer bottle, and it was stopped with a cork. There was no information on the label as to the quantity or alcoholic strength of the liquid, nor the persons responsible for the cachaça. However, I knew that these small-batch distilled cachaças, made in the traditional way, are often good and sometimes excellent, so I bought one to bring home - at R$5 (USD $3) a bottle, it was not not a big financial risk.

Last night, I decided that it was time to give Santo Antonio do Lopes' cachaça a try. But before actually drinking it, I spent a bit of time on the internet to find out a bit more about the village of Santo Antonio, about which I knew precisely nothing. Using the usual online search tools, I discovered that it's a small community of about 15,000 souls in the central interior of Maranhão, that its altitude is 129 meters (425 feet) and that its annual per capita income is R$1247 (USD $736). That's right - average income is $736 per year.

The photos of Santo Antonio do Lopes I was able to find on the internet were few, and most showed the center of the city, which was surprisingly new, neat and tidy. Two photos, however, showed another side of life in the small villages of northern Brazil. The first showed a few locals holding up a snake they'd captured in Santo Antonio - it was a 5 meter (16 foot) sucuri (known in English as an anaconda). They seemd remarkably non-plussed in the photo, but I can't imagine it's an everyday occurence.

The other photo was from a newpaper and accompanied an article which described the capture of a local gang of bank robbers, who'd been robbing banks in the region for the past few years. The photo showed them after capture, along with their arsenal, which was extremely impressive. These were some serious, not to mention well-dressed bank-robbers and I, for one, am quite pleased they're no longer going about their business in Santo Antonio, or anywhere else for that matter.

As for the cachaça , it was delicious. There's something that the village of Santo Antonio does completely right, and that's distill cachaça. Obviously meant for drinking straight up, the cachaça had clearly been aged in wood for some time. Its color and woody notes gave that away. It was moderately smoky, smooth on the palate, and surprisingly light in feel. It was completely distilled, with no residual sweetness. Just the way moonshine should be.

This'll be a bottle to savor slowly, one sip at a time. It had better last, because if I want to replenish my supply, I'm sure I'll have to go back to Maranhão. When the time comes, maybe that will be the excuse I need to revisit São Luís.