Monday, September 19, 2011

The History of Sugar in Brazil - Part 2

(This is the second of two parts of an article on the history of sugar and pastry cooking in Brazil. The article was originally published in Brazilian food and wine magazine Prazeres da Mesa, and the first part of my (somewhat free) translation was posted two days ago on Flavors of Brazil. You can find the beginning of the article by clicking here.)

Sugar From The Beginning - continued
by Bruno Albertim

Another triumph of  regional pastry cooking, the Souza Leão Cake (Bolo Souza Leão) is considered a milestone in the independence of Brazilian regional cooking. Created on the sugar-cane plantation belonging to the eponymous family, it was almost a culinary independence manifesto. For the first time native manioc substituted for white flour in a typically aristocratic European recipe. A deliberate gesture of brazilianization.

The other ingredients in a Souza Leão Cake demonstrate the colonial excesses in a region rich in sugar. "Between one recipe (for Souza Leão Cake) and another the quantity of the ingredients required varies drastically," says Pernambucan gastronomic critic Flávia de Gusmão .  In her opinion, every branch of the Souza Leão family recreated and reinvented the cake that was created by family matriarch Rita de Souza Leão. Whereas one recipe tells you to add a kilogram of butter another will say only 450 grams (one pound). If this one mentions 12 egg yolks, that one talks of 15. When the first one calls for the the milk of seven coconuts, the second calls for only four. These numbers become so confusing that you'd have to say that Souza Leão Cake is not a recipe, it is a family of recipes. "One thing, however, is unanimous. This hybrid sweet, a mixture of cake and pudding is one of the most treasured chapters in the history of Pernambucan cooking," says Flávia de Gusmão.

Even more recent traditions bear the weight of the past. Pernambuco is the only state in all of Brazil where a properly-celebrated wedding requires the presence of a dark cake. "Normally it's made with a dark batter laced with wine and including prunes, raisins and crystalized fruits, a British tradition that was carried to only a very few places in Brazil. It's covered with an almond paste and re-covered with white frosting, a rembrance of Victoria British cooking," points out culinary historian Maria Lectícia Monteiro Cavalcanti, author of História dos Sabores Pernambucanos. In the rest of Brazil, wedding cakes are very different. In the south, wedding cakes and white with a variety of fillings, a tradition that comes from Portugal.

The Pernambucan dark wedding fruit-cake became traditional only about the turn of the 20th century, when British engineers arrived in Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, to install streetlights, tramways and other engineering wonders. In proper Pernambucan weddings today, there must also be marzipan-stuffed prunes, although these are not restricted to ceremonial occasions and can be found in delicatessen display cases and on restaurant menus.

Closely linked the the historic elite class, sugar became the "sponsor" of an entire spectrum of sweetmeats. Various desserts are named in honor of aristocratic families - the Souza Leãos are merely one of many. "As a result of so much wealth from sugar cultivation, an aristocratic class developed in Pernambuco, one that Tobias Barreto called a 'sugarocracy'", comments Maria Lectícia Monteiro Cavalcanti. Consequently, prestige recipes were developed, culinary symbols of a family's wealth and social standing. "In some cases, recipes were created to commemorate social movements - the 13th of May, Cabano,  or Guararapes - or to famous persons, such as Dr. Constâncio, Dona Dondon, Dr. Gerônimo, Luiz Felipe, Tia Sinhá. Or, even, families would create their own recipes to honor themselves - Assis Brasil, Cavalcanti," says Lectícia.

Many of these dishes can still be seen on dessert tables around the state. This doesn't prohibit them being used as springboards for more contemporary re-imaginings, however. The traditional  bolo de rolo has many incarnations - as an ice cream flavor, a crumble, or a flan. Because of its creamy consistency, the Souza Leão Cake can be turned into a semi-liquid pudding or thickened into a petit-four. The dessert called cartola, a fried banana under grilled butter-cheese, the dessert which anthropologist Freyre famously served to Jean-Paul Sarte and many other dignitaries he hosted in Recife, has a gratin variation or can be served under puff pastry.

The cartola has also inspired creative chefs in other regions of Brazil. "The elements of a cartola make a perfect sweet stuffing," says chef Renato Freire, who created a sweet cream pie with these elements for the historic Rio de Janeiro coffee shop Confeitaria Colombo.

One of the most iconoclastic and inventive chefs on the contemporary culinary scene in Brazil, Pernambucan Douglas Van der Ley, calls himself a sugar devotee. "Sugar is present in  everything I do. Not just as an ingredient, but as an inspiration," says the chef, trained in sugar sculpture in France. Chef Van der Ley is famous for his use of unusual ingredients, usually sweet, in his creations. Dishes such as foie gras served on a bed of cotton candy (the State Fair treat). Or lavender honey on fresh market greens. Or rose-petal-encrusted shrimps with lavender jelly.

Beyond market-stand sweets and desserts, those which Gilberto Freyre believed to be the truest expression of Brazilian sweet cooking, contemporary pastries from Pernambuco have delved deep into the sugar-plantation heritage of traditional sweet cooking. Even the most contemporary and fashionable treats, such as cupcakes and brownies, locally still bear traces of the cooks in the slave kitchen of the plantation big houses. 

Sugar itself, finally, has become the surname of a whole family of desserts and sweets. And today, its use seems to be engendering a sense of history in regional sweet cooking. History and the ingredient combine to create something new and traditional at the same time. "In a old recipe for a cake or sweet there is a a life, a history and a story - the capacity to conquer time," concludes, anthropologically, historically and gustatorily, Gilberto Freyre. 

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