Friday, December 30, 2011

RECIPE - Goat Brewmaster-style (Cabrito cervejeiro)

This recipe for kid (young goat) marinaded in beer comes to Flavors of Brazil from the Brazilian food and wine magazine Prazeres da Mesa. It was created by São Paulo chef Rodrigo Martins, who works at that city's Vino! restaurant.

The recipe calls for cubed goat stew meat, but if goat meat is unavailable in your area, or you'd prefer not to eat it, you can very easily substitute lamb. The flavors are very similar, and generally recipes featuring either lamb or goat can successfully be swapped between the two types of meat.

As the recipe indicates below, you'll need to start a day ahead of time. In order for the beer marinade to do its job of tenderizing and flavoring the meat, it requires a full 24 hours. It's best not to try to shorten the marinading time.

RECIPE - Goat Brewmaster-style (Cabrito cervejeiro)
Serves 4

2 lb (1 kg) cubed goat stew meat
1 small onion, chopped
2 shallots, chopped
1 medium carrot, chopped
2 oz (50 gr) pancetta, cubed
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
extra-virgin olive oil
6 button mushrooms, quartered
1 peeled whole clove garlic
1 small jalapeno or serrano chili, seeded and chopped (optional)
2 bottles or cans good-quality dark beer, cold
2 bay leaves
1 sprig fresh thyme
1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro
1/4 cup finely chopped green onion, green part only
In a large mixing bowl combine the beer, carrot, onion, parsley chilis, bay leaves and thyme. Add the cubed meat, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 24 hours, stirring the meat once or twice during that time.

When ready to cook, drain off about half of the marinading liquid into a heavy saucepan. Add the garlic clove and the pancetta cubes, bring to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover the pan and simmer for two hours or until reduced by half. Reserve.

Heat the olive oil in a saute pan, add the cubed meat and fry until nicely browned on all sides. Fry in batches if necessary. When all the meat is browned, add the reduced marinading liquid, the chopped shallots and the mushrooms.  Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook the meat for about half an hour, or until it is very tender and the sauce is thickened.

Pour the meat and sauce into a decorative serving bowl. Sprinkle with the shopped cilantro and green onion and serve immediately.

Remove the meat from the remaining marinading liquid with a slotted spoon. Accompany with boiled potatoes or white rice.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Sorting out the Caprinae - Sheeps, Lambs, Goats and Kids

A few weeks ago, a group of friends, Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, dined together at a well-regarded restaurant in Fortaleza by the name of Carneiro do Ordones. It's famous for the quality and number of its dishes featuring members of the Caprinae family of animals - that's to say in plain English, sheep and goats in all their varieties. Their menu claims more than 60 different dishes including one or another of these meats.

At the table, when presented with the multi-page menu featuring these 60+ dishes there was confusion among the diners as to the terminology used. No one, Brazilian or otherwise, seemed able to decipher exactly what the restaurant meant when one dish was described as including carneiro, another cordeiro, a third borrego, and others including bode, cabrito or capra. Clearly a bit of linguistic and gastronomic research was in order for Flavors of Brazil. (Incidentally, the group ordered a wide variety of dishes, notwithstanding not being sure exactly what the meat was in any particular dish, and the results were more than satisfactory. Carneiro do Ordones clearly knows its way around the Caprinae family and how its members are best served to hungry diners).

Zoologically, the Caprinae family of animals is divided into two sub-families, sheep (Ovis) and goats (Capra). Cularinarily, the same distinction between sheep and goats is maintained, although there are many similarities between the meat from both sub-families. They share a distinctive, strongly-aromatic flavor that people tend to either love or hate (most people aren't neutral about eating goats and sheep), and also share a similar nutritional profile - less fat, and hence fewer calories, than beef or pork, and a lower quantity of cholesterol as well. The strong flavor of their meat increases with age, and consequently, most people prefer to eat meat slaughtered at a young age than more mature and more strongly-flavored meat from older animals.

In English culinary terminology, meat from younger sheep is called lamb and from older animals is referred to as mutton. When goats are slaughtered at an early age, their meat is called kid, leaving the name goat for meat from older animals. After doing some research in Portuguese dictionaries and culinary guides, Flavors of Brazil discovered that Portuguese makes the same age distinction, though the terms tend to be more flexible and interchangeable.
Ovis aries

Carneiro is the proper name for meat from older sheep - mutton in English. It is also the Portuguese equivalent of ram, that is, the male of the sheep family. Carneiro comes generally from animals that were more than one year old at the time they were slaughtered and processed. When the animal is younger than one year, its meat is most commomly called cordeiro, although depending on the region of Brazil the terms borrego or anho might alternatively be used.
Capra aegagrus hircus

On the goat side of the family, the name of the meat depends on the age of the animal when it's slaughtered, just as with cordeiro and carneiro. When the animal is more than a year old, its meat is called bode and when it's younger, optimally around six months, it's cabrito or capra. In some areas of Brazil, particularly the northeast, the term bode is used for all goat meat, whether from a young animal or an older one.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

RECIPE - Plantain Moqueca (Moqueca de Banana)

Although the situation is slowly changing, it has to be said that Brazil is not a vegetarian's paradise. At least, not yet. Brazilians, by and large, are carnivorous creatures, and although most large cities in Brazil do have health food stores and shops that sell organic produce, when it comes to restaurants the vegetarian variety is thin on the ground. Vegetarian tourists, especially in small locations or in places where there isn't a large tourist population, can find it hard to get a complete meal that doesn't include meat.

Almost every restaurant can dish up a plate of rice and a salad, but even the beans that are served along side the rice are likely to have been made with some sort of meat in the cooking liquid to increase the flavor. Reliable options tend to be pizza, pasta dishes with tomato sauce and some types of sushi.

For a vegetarian who is also interested in traditional Brazilian cooking, the situation is even more difficult, as most traditional main dishes rely heavily on meat or seafood to provide substance and flavor. Clearly the Brazilian meat orgy known as churrasco is out of the question, and other traditional foods like carne de sol, galinha caipira and peixada don't fit the vegetarian bill either.

One of the most interesting families of dishes in traditional regional cooking in Brazil is the moqueca from the small coastal state of Espírito Santo. Even for Brazilians the word moqueca is more commonly associated with the Afro-Brazilian cuisine of Bahia state, made with fish or seafood stewed in a coconut milk and dendê oil. Yet the capixaba (meaning "from Espírito Santo") moquecas have neither coconut milk, nor dendê. They are seafood stews, like in Bahia, but the stewing liquid is made from tomatoes, onions, garlic and cilantro, accented in color and flavor by annatto.

The recipe below, from a restaurant called Gaeta in the Espírito Santo coastal resort town of Guarapari, is one that lets vegetarians set up to the moqueca table. The centerpiece of the dish is not fish, shrimp or lobster. It is the non-sweet vegetable banana called banana-da-terra in Brazil and plantain in the English speaking world. Unlike their sweet cousins, plantains must be cooked. They share some of the flavor profile of sweet bananas, without the sugar content.

The recipe is easy to make, and plantains are increasingly available in North America and Europe, especially in cities that have a significant Latin American population. If you're a vegetarian, or wish to serve a meal for vegetarian friends that carries the flavors of Brazil, this is an excellent option. It should be served with plain white rice.
RECIPE - Plantain Moqueca (Moqueca de Banana)
Serves 4

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp annatto oil or powder (can substitute sweet paprika)
3 cloves garlic, smashed
6 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 cup minced cilantro
2 lbs (1 kg) very ripe plantains, peeled and cut into thick slices on the diagonal
In a large saucepan or flameproof clay casserole heat the olive oil. Mix in the annatto or paprika, then add the chopped garlic and fry for a few minutes. Do not let the garlic brown or burn. Add the chopped tomatoes, the onion, the cilantro and salt to taste. Cook for about 5-8 minutes, or until the tomato breaks down and a sauce forms. Add the banana slices, mix well, then reduce heat, cover the pan and let cook for 10-15 minutes, or until the banana slices are tender.

Serve immediately.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Cachaça Gets Some Respect

The gastronomic history of cachaça, Brazil's national distilled drink, in many ways resembles that of Italy's grappa. Both were originally made from the left-over scraps of the production of another product - in the case of grappa, it was made from the left over seeds, stems and skins of wine production, in in the case of cachaça, it was a by-product of the production of sugar from sugar cane. Both products were, at least in their original incarnations, cheap and relatively nasty. They were harsh, strongly alcoholic, and were considered the drink of the laboring classes. Aristocratic 19th-century Italians wouldn't even think of drinking grappa and the colonels who ran Brazilian sugar plantations like miniature dukedoms preferred a glass of imported Port after dinner to a shot of cachaça.

In recent years, though, both drinks have undergone a Hans Christian Anderson change from ugly duckling to majestic swan. As part of the world-wide trend to appreciating local and traditional products, and valorizing artisanal production, distillers in Italy and Brazil have dramatically improved the quality of the product they make, have begun to employ skillful marketing techniques to inform and educate the public about their liquors, and have successfully increased both the price they are able to charge for their product and the size of their markets enormously. In both cases, there have been dramatic increases in the export market for their products, a market that simply didn't exist in earlier days. Today high-end, artisanally-produced Italian grappas in elegant ultra-modern crystal bottles sell for hundreds of euros and are appreciated by connaisseurs around the world. Brazilian cachaça is undergoing a similar metamorphosis and every year there are better, more interesting and more expensive cachaças entering the market.

Recently, in a seminar at one of the world's largest and most prestigious food congresses, Semana Mesa SP, held in São Paulo, Leandro Batista, barman at São Paulo's well-known Mocotó restaurant, introduced the audience to some artisanal Brazilian cachaças that he thought worthy of respect as high-quality, truly local distillations. They were his choices for cachaças to be sipped after dinner, as one might do with a fine Armagnac or Eau de Vie. These are not the cachaça one would use to make a caipirinha. They are to be savored and contemplated carefully to fully appreciate their unique qualities.

Here is Sr. Batista's list:

Mato Dentro Cachaça - São Luíz de Paraitinga, São Paulo
Aged for six months in amendoim (Peltophorum dubium) wood

Serra Limpa Organic Cachaça  - Duas Estradas, Paraíba 
 Aged for six months in Ecuador laurel (Cordia alliodora) wood

Weber Haus  Cachaça  - Ivoti, Rio Grande do Sul
Aged for one year in amburana (Amburana cearensis) wood

Canarinha Cachaça - Salinas, Minas Gerais
Aged for three years in cabriúva-do-campo (Myrocarpus fastigiatus) wood

Germana Heritage Cachaça -  Nova União, Minas Gerais
Aged for eight years in oak, followed by two more in cabriúva-do-campo (Myrocarpus fastigiatus) wood

Dona Beja Cachaça  - Araxá, Minas Gerais
Aged for eight years in oak

None of these cachaças are cheap - they are not the USD $3.00/quart cachaça that you find in your local supermarket. Some are very limited in production and hence in availability. Exports for most of these producers are something to consider in the future after the national market has been developed. But they are names to remember if you're in a good, high-quality bar or restaurant in Brazil. Talk to the barman or sommelier, they might just have one or two available. And you might just have a big surprise when you find out just how good they are.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A Dish Called Kaol

The counter at Café Palhares
In Belo Horizonte's bustling downtown sits a small diner by the name of Café Palhares. It's a small place, just  twenty seats around a U-shaped counter. Nothing much has changed since the diner was opened in 1938 by brothers Antônio e Nilton Palhares Dini. At lunchtime during the week, the diner's busiest time, a wait for a seat is inevitable, but no one lingers over a meal at Café Palhares, so the wait isn't normally too long. Most of those waiting to eat already know what they're going to order - exactly what most of those who are in the middle of their meal are eating - a dish called Kaol. There's a large sign on the diner's wall that states it quite simply: Ser mineiro é comer um Kaol. Translated into English it means "To be a mineiro (a resident of the state of Minas Gerais) is to eat Kaol.

Kaol doesn't look like a typical Portuguese word. In fact, until a few years ago, the official Portuguese alphabet didn't even have a K. But this dish is definitely Kaol with a K. It was baptized by a noted local bohemian and radical, and frequenter of Café Palhares, named Rômulo Paes. He created an acronym for the ingredients which make up the dish, starting with pre-meal aperitif, cachaça. Because he was a radical bohemian, he substituted K for the initial letter of cachaça, C. Next came A for arroz (rice), O for ovos (eggs) and finally L for lingüiça, a traditional Brazilian sausage. Cachaça, rice, eggs and sausage - Kaol.

Since the dish was first created at Café Palhares and baptized by Rômulo Paes it has become more elaborate, though the name hasn't changed at all. In the 1970s manioc farinha and a side of sauteed kale were added, and in the 1980s the kitchen began to throw on a piece or two of fried pork rind (torresmo). Today, the restaurant allows customers to swap lingüiça for other cuts of meat, such as roast pork, or even fried fish. Traditionalists will have none of that though, and swear by the original dish with its lingüiça.

The shot of cachaça is to be downed in one gulp before the arrival of the plate from the kitchen, but to accompany Kaol, a glass of icy-cold draft beer (chope) is traditional. Most diners don't find room for dessert after a full plate of Kaol, but there are a variety on offer.

The clientele at Café Palhares, to this day, is primarily downtown office workers and shoppers, though the fame of Kaol, and the growing number of gastronomic tourists in Brazil, mean that from time to time non-mineiros make their way into the diner. They may be non-mineiros when they arrive, but by the time they've finished their plate of Kaol, they've become mineiros at heart.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

RECIPE - Salt Cod Provençal (Bacalhau Provençal)

Exactly a year ago today, Flavors of Brazil published an article about the importance of salt cod (bacalhau) in the Brazilian celebration of Christmas. (Click here to read more.) Brazilians, like many of us, associate the Christmas meal with turkey, but the historical and emotional connections between this holiday season and salt cod are equally strong for Brazilians in all reaches of the country. A sumptious Christmas buffet for the entire extended family in Brazil will most likely have both a turkey and a dish made from salt cod.

So, in the Brazilian spirit of the season, we're offering up this easy-to-make and easy-to-love recipe for salt cod. Though the name refers to Provence, in France, the recipe is traditional Brazilian. The name Provençal  might simply be due to the presence of ingredients that are essential to the cuisine of the Mediterranean coast of France - olives, bay leaves, white wine and olive oil (lots of olive oil). Whatever the reason for the name, it's a dish that graces many a Christmas dinner table in Brazil, and one that is worthy of a place at your table- at any time of year.
RECIPE - Salt Cod Provençal (Bacalhau Provençal)
Serves 8 to 10 as part of a buffet

4 lb (2 kg) desalted salt cod (bacalhau) - click here for desalting instructions
2 lb (1 kg) medium boiling potatoes, unpeeled, cooked until they are barely al dente
1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped
1 cup (250 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup )125 ml) dry white wine
4/5 bay leaves
salt and fresh-ground black pepper to taste
Bring to a boil in a large sauce pan plenty of water and the bay leaves. When the water boils, reduce heat slightly and add the desalted salt cod. Let cook for five minutes, then drain the fish and let cool. When the fish is cool, remove any large bones or pieces of skin that you find. Cut the fish into large chunks and reserve.

Preheat the oven to 400F (200C). In a enameled metal, glass or ceramic casserole dish distribute the chunks of salt cod on the bottom, season with black pepper and pour the white wine over. Strew the potatoes on top of the fish then pour half of the olive oil over all. Put in the oven for about 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and sprinkle the olives over the surface, then return the dish to the oven for 5 more minutes.

Remove the dish from the oven, pour the remaining olive oil over all, then either serve immediately, or let the dish cool until it's just warm and serve.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

RECIPE - Tropical Roast Chicken with Passion Fruit Sauce (Chester Tropical com Molho de Maracujá)

Ana Maria Braga
This recipe comes to Flavors of Brazil courtesy of Ana Maria Braga, one of Brazil's most popular daytime TV hosts and the closest thing to Martha Stewart that Brazil has produced. The recipe is for a roasted Chester (click here to find out who/what Chester is) in a sweet-and-sour passion fruit glaze. Though you'll be unlikely to source a Chester to make this exact recipe, it certainly is equally suited to a large roasting chicken, which is what a Chester is after all.
RECIPE - Tropical Roast Chicken with Passion Fruit Sauce (Chester Tropical com Molho de Maracujá)

For bird:
1 large roasting chicken (or Chester), thawed if frozen
3 Tbsp fresh rosemary leaves, crushed
1 tsp powdered cinnamon
4 Tbsp soy sauce
1 cup passion fruit juice (fresh or from concentrate)
1 cup water
2 Tbsp melted butter
1 Tbsp corn syrup
4 Tbsp toasted sesame seeds

For gravy:
Pan juices from roast
2 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 cup passion fruit juice
salt and pepper to taste
seeds of one passion fruit (optional)
Begin 12 to 24 hours prior to roasting bird. In a small bowl, combine the rosemary, cinnamon, soy sauce and passion fruit juice and blend well. Put the bird in a large zip-loc bag, pour the marinade mixture over, press out excess air and seal the bag. Marinade the bird in the refrigerator, turning the bag over once or twice during this time.

Take the bird out of the refrigerator about 1/2 hour before beginning to roast it. Preheat oven to 375F (190C). Put the bird in a large roasting pan, pour the marinade over and around it, and brush the skin of the bird with the melted butter. Put the bird in the oven and roast it, basting from time to time with pan juices. Roast for about 20 minutes per pound, or until the internal temperature reaches 165F (75C). Remove from oven and let stand for 15 minutes, loosely covered with aluminum foil.

Meanwhile, make the gravy. Stir the cornstarch into the passion fruit juice. Heat the juices remaining in the roasting pan, using a wooden spoon to scrape up solid bits. Add the passion fruit juice, and bring all to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the gravy has thickened. Season with salt and pepper and add passion fruit seeds if desired.

Serve the bird whole to be carved at the table, and pass the gravy separately.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Who (or What) is Chester?

One of the centerpieces of the Brazilian buffet table, especially at Christmas, is  often a poultry roast looking a bit like an overgrown chicken, labelled "Chester." It's roasted, sliced and served like a turkey, though the taste is closer to chicken than it is to turkey. You can also find whole Chesters in Brazilian supermarket freezers wedged between smaller frozen chickens on one side and frozen turkeys on the other.

Chester is clearly not a Portuguese word, and if you ask Brazilians what a Chester is (and we have), the answer usually is something like "Well, it's a Chester." Because of the visibility of Chesters at this time of year, clearly a bit of gastronomic sleuthing was in order. Flavors of Brazil has decided to get to the bottom of the whole Chester mystery because most of the Brazilian public doesn't seem to know what one really is.

It turns out, after minimal research on our part, that the word Chester is trademarked in Brazil by a large meat-packing and poultry firm called Perdigão. If it's a Chester, then it's a  Perdigão product. According to company website and to an article in the Portuguese language Wikipedia site, in the late 1970s Perdigão began an international search for a variety of chicken that could be marketed as a roasting chicken with a high percentage of breast and thigh - one that was just the right size for a typical Brazilian family of 4.5 persons. During their international search, the firm's aviculture technicians found a hybrid cross of chickens that fit their requirements at a US firm called Cobb Vantress. Geneticists at Cobb Vantress, using a natural genetic line from Scotland as their base, had developed a variety of chicken that produced a roasting chicken which yielded up to 70% breast and thigh meat, just what Perdigão wanted. Perdigão bought the rights to this cross and began raising the birds in Brazil in the early 1980s.

In 1982 Perdigão launched the Chester nationally in Brazil. They chose the name Chester, apparently, because the marketing department wanted to emphasize the large amount of breast meat (or chest meat if you will) that the bird delivered, and probably decided that Chester sounded better than Breaster. The Chester brand was an immediate success, and is today still one of Perdigão's most prestigious brands.

Because the genetic line of the bird is patented in the USA and Perdigão has exclusive rights to it in Brazil, all Chesters raised in Brazil are delivered to Perdigão for marketing and sales. In order to protect their investment in the Chester, sale or distribution of eggs is prohibited.

All Chesters are raised on a 100% natural grain diet, principally corn and soya. They are fed no animal byproducts. They are non-medicated; that is, they are not given antibiotics, growth hormones or steroids to increase the speed of their growth or to increase their weight. Their larger size is strictly due to genetics.

Christmas is by far the largest season for Chester sales in Brazil, just as it is for turkey. But Chesters are available year-round, frozen. In addition to the Brazilian market, Perdigão now exports Chesters to 25 countries around the world.

We've eaten Chester and liked it, and have roasted it at home. It's medium size makes it more practicable than roasting a large turkey in a small Brazilian oven, and if properly roasted the bird is juicy, flavorful and tender. And Chesters do seem to be particularly "busty" - there's a lot of breast meat in comparison to other parts of the bird. If we were to market the Chester in the USA, we wouldn't call it a Chester at all - it would be a Dolly. Named after Dolly Parton, of course.

Monday, December 19, 2011

RECIPE - Spaghetti with Zucchini and Shrimp (Espaguete com abobrinha e camarão)

Today, we decided to post the following recipe from the Brazilian women's website Mdemulher for two reasons. First, because yesterday's post concerned one of the main ingredients, abobrinha (zucchini in English - or should we say Italian?). And the second is that in this season of major feasts and parties, there are always one or two nights where there's no event planned. Nights when, in fact, you couldn't abide another massive buffet or a roast the size of a small village. For those nights, this light, simple and utterly delicious recipe for pasta with a shrimp-and-zucchini sauce is perfect.
RECIPE - Spaghetti with Zucchini and Shrimp (Espaguete com abobrinha e camarão) 
Serves 6

1 medium zucchini (or two small ones)
1 1/2 lb (750 gr) medium shrimp, shelled and cleaned
juice of one lime
2 cans tomato sauce
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
4 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp finely-chopped garlic
1/2 cup (100 gr) freshly grated parmesan cheese
2 Tsp butter
1 lb (500 gr) spaghetti or other long pasta of your choice
1 pinch sugar
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the zucchini thoroughly but do not peel it. Cut the zucchini into julienne strips (most easily done with a mandoline). Reserve. Rinse the shrimp in cold fresh water, drain, put into a bowl and sprinkle with the lime juice, tossing gently to mix in the juice. Reserve.

In a medium saucepan, heat two Tbsp of the olive oil, fry half of the chopped garlic in it until softened but not browned. Add the tomato sauce, milk, parmesan cheese, butter, pinch of sugar and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Cover the saucepan and reserve.

In a frying pan, heat the remaining two Tbsp of olive oil. Add the remaining garlic, fry for a minute or so, then add the julienned zucchini. Continue cooking just until the zucchini is al dente. Remove from heat, put the zucchini in a bowl, and reserve. Reserve the frying pan for cooking the shrimp later.

 Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti according to package directions.

Just before the spaghetti id some, reheat the frying pan gently, add a touch more oil if necessary, add the shrimp and toss for a few minutes or until the just turn opaque and pink. Do not overcook.

Using a large decorative serving bowl, place the cooked and drained spaghetti in the bottom of the bowl. Pour the tomato sauce over, sprinkle the zucchini on top, then finish with the shrimp. Grind a bit of black pepper on top, if desired and serve immediately.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

VEGETABLES OF BRAZIL - Abobrinha (Zucchini)

The pale-green, elongated squash known in Brazil as abobrinha (which simply means "little squash" in Portuguese) and in various parts of the English-speaking world as either zucchini or courgette, like all members of the squash family originated in the Americas. Even though the English names derive from either Italian or French, the entire squash family is genetically New World, not European.

Abobrinhas belong to the squash sub-category called summer squashes, which means that they are relatively tender, perishable and can be eaten with the peel. Winter squashes, in contrast, are less tender and require longer cooking times, can be stored for long periods of time and have hard skins that are not edible.

Squashes are one of the most varied families of vegetables, ranging from the enormity of the current Guinness record-holder heavyweight pumpkin at 1810 lbs or 820 kgs,  to the minature zucchinis and pattypan squashes that accompany one-hundred dollars plates at fine restaurants.

Brazilians are used to seeing two types of abobrinhas in the market and use them interchangeably. One is known as abobrinha italiana, and it is the classic dark-green or shocking-yellow zucchini that's familiar to diners in the Northern Hemisphere. The other is called abobrinha menina (little-girl squash) and it appears to be a hybrid cross between a zucchini and a type of squash called marrow. Vegetable marrow is a common squash in the Mediterranean region, though not well known in North America. It is small and round, about the size of a baseball, and is a light celadon green, sometimes subtly striped. The abobrinha menina gets its light color from the marrow but its shape is elongated but with a bulb at one end - as if someone had glued a marrow on to the end of a zucchini. The taste of these two types is virtually identical and they can be used interchangeably in recipes.
Abobrinha italiana
Abobrinha menina

Brazilians use abobrinhas as a vegetable dish, but more commonly in salads. In salad preparations, though, the vegetable is cooked and cooled before being added - it's not common for Brazilians to eat raw abobrinha. In parts of Brazil that have Italian-immigrant communities, stuffed abobrinhas make common main-course dishes.

Tomorrow, we'll publish a prize-winning Brazilian recipe that features this tasty and versatile vegetable.

Friday, December 16, 2011


High summer in northeastern Brazil (right about now) brings along a cornucopia of seasonal fruits when it arrives. There are standard commercial fruits that are available all-year-round in Brazil - things like mangoes, papayas, bananas, oranges, etc. - and there are fruits that are only available locally and seasonally. These have more limited commercial potential obviously, and are sometimes only sold by street-side vendors and guys who stand in the median at red lights, but they're often interesting and usually delicious. And summer brings the majority of them with it.

Yesterday, while we were in our car waiting for the light to change, a vendor offered us a small bundle of a fruit called pitomba for which he wanted R$2,00 (about a dollar). We bought a bunch, took it home and stuck it in the fridge to cool, then ate the pitombas for dessert last night. They were marvelous, and absolutely refreshing. And they brought back memories of Canada and Asia (you'll soon see why).

When researching the pitomba on various botanical sites on the internet this morning we found lots of information about the fruit. That it's native to the Amazon Basin, for example, and that it's cultivated in Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. That its name, whether you're speaking English, Spanish or Portuguese, is pitomba. But nothing about what to us is the most obvious and interesting thing about pitomba - its relationship to a family of Asian fruits.

Take a look at this photo of a vendor in Fortaleza with a bundle of pitombas. Does the fruit remind you of any fruit that you know? One that you might seen and eaten in Asia, or found in places in North America where there is a significant Asian population? Certainly, having lived for many years in Vancouver, with its various Asian communities, we found the resemblance startling.

To us, pitomba looks like a twin of the fruit we know from Canada as longan. And like a cousin, only slightly less closely related, of the lychee. And when we checked out the taxonomy of the pitomba, the longan and the lychee, all three belong to the same kingdom, division, class, order and family. It's only when you get to the genus and species that they diverge. They're obviously "family."

It seems strange that none of the sources that we checked out, including scientific botanical sites and more popular sites like Wikipedia, mention this relationship. Whether you know their scientific names or not, all you have to do is eat a longan, a lychee and a pitomba and you'll know they're very closely related - in appearance, in size, in color and texture and in flavor. So why doesn't anyone mention this? There must be an interesting evolutionary reason why trees native to East Asia (longan and lychee) and to the jungles of the Amazon (pitomba) are so closely related. We'd be interested to hear the tale. And if no one knows why, it sounds like a perfect botanical puzzle to figure out. Maybe the pitomba is the proof that those who claim that South America was populated directly from Asia by seafaring peoples need to make their case. Who knows?

What we do know, however, is that we love pitombas, and are most happy to see them for sale again, even if it's only for a short time.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Where Did Your Breakfast Melon Come From?

If you live in the Netherlands, the UK, the United States, Germany or Spain (in that descending order) there's a good chance that the melon you ate this morning for breakfast came from Brazil. And if it was exported from Brazil it was most likely shipped from a port that you've never heard of - Pecém, Ceará, just 30 miles (50 km) from Fortaleza, Flavors of Brazil's home base.

In an article published today by Fortaleza's newspaper O Povo, there were a number of interesting statistics about the large export market in Brazil for fruits. The statistics detailed which fruits are shipped from Brazil to the northern Hemisphere, where they were grown in Brazil and where they were shipped from.

The shipment of fresh fruits plays an enormous part in the international trade in fresh foods. Consumers in North America and Europe, who until recently only ate fresh fruit when it was in season locally, are now accustomed to having their choice of fresh fruit available year round - strawberries in January, grapes in November, oranges. mangoes and papayas at any time of year. Because Brazil enjoys a tropical climate and because it's located in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed, it enjoys a privileged location in serving consumer demand in the Northern Hemisphere.

The northeastern state of Ceará is the part of Brazil that is closest to Europe and to the East Coast of North America, so it makes sense that its share of the export market would be large. Fully 45% of the total exports of Brazilian fruits ships from Pecém. The next largest port, Santos, in the state of São Paulo, ships 14% of the fruit market, and Salvador, Bahia, in third position, ships 12%.
Port of Pecém

The container ships that sail from Pecém carry fruits primarily to the Netherlands, the destination of 35% of Brazilian fruits, to the UK (25%), the USA (15%), Germany (13%) and Spain (6%). In the first 11 months of 2011, the total tonnage of fruits shipped from Pecém was 246,000 tons. That's a lot of fruit. In that total, 103,000 tons were melons, mangoes (49,000 tons), grapes (39,000 tons), bananas (36,000 tons), watermelons (19,000 tons) and cashew nuts (19,000 tons). 

Next time you shop for melons or mangoes, check the little sticker that shows country of origin. If it's Brazil, your breakfast fruit is likely to have been grown in Brazil's northeast and left Brazil in a container on board a ship that sailed from Pecém. At least now you know where the place is.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

RECIPE - Crispy-skinned suckling pig (leitão pururuca)

Christmas Day is still eleven days away, but it's rapidly approaching, and even here in the tropical heat of Brazil, people are thinking of Christmas Dinner already and are planning their menus. Because Christmas Dinner in Brazil, just like everywhere else that Christmas is celebrated, is a huge affair usually centered around a large piece of roasted meat, it's fortunate that the meal is traditionally served here around midnight on Christmas Eve. If such a heavy, rich meal were served mid-day, as Christmas Dinner often is in colder climes, it would be difficult to survive. Hot, rich, calorie-laden meats, carbo-heavy side dishes, sweet creamy desserts - it's all too much when the temperature is above 90F (32C). Since Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere falls just after the start of summer, it's one of the hottest times of the year everywhere in Brazil.

But even though the temperature might have cooled to the high 70s Fahrenheit (25C) by midnight, Brazilians still risk heart and health eating  the rich meal that they love to celebrate Christmas. No light supper of cooling salad and a fruit cocktail for most Brazilian, no thank you! Brazilians want a turkey, a ham, a duck or leg of lamb as the centerpiece of their Christmas meal. Let the heat and one's diet be damned.

The most popular centerpiece of a Christmas feast in Brazil is roast turkey, just as it is in many other places. But turkey's not the almost-universal, quasi-obligatory choice that it is in some other cultures. Many families choose another roasted meat for their main course. One such popular choice is suckling pig (leitão in Portuguese). Suckling pig is a time-consuming dish to prepare, but when you've got a lot of people to feed, it's a good choice. In older times, when Brazilian families were larger than they tend to be today, a whole suckling pig often graced the Christmas table. Today, when families are smaller, a whole piglet is too much food even for Christmas Dinner. Brazilians often buy a quarter pig at the butcher shot, or even a smaller piece, such as a shoulder or fresh ham. The important part, though, is to buy a piece with all the fat and skin in place.

This recipe, which comes from the Brazilian media site UOL, calls for a fresh ham but then uses the traditional recipe for a suckling pig. The result has the rich fattiness of a suckling pig and the salty, crispy skin that for many Brazilians, is the best part of the roast and likely the best part of the whole meal.
RECIPE - Crispy-skinned suckling pig (leitão pururuca)

1 whole pork shoulder or fresh ham, skin on
1 cup dry white wine
juice of one fresh-squeezed lime (two limes if they are small)
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup neutral vegetable oil
The day before serving, put the pork in a large bowl, or in a large ziploc bag. Add the bay leaves. Whisk together the wine, lime juice, and salt and pepper to taste. Pour the marinade over the meat and let stand, refrigerated for up to 24 hours.

Remove the meat from the refrigerator one hour before the time you want to begin to cook it. Preheat the oven to 350F (180C).

Put the pork in a large roasting pan, cover rather tightly with aluminum foil, place in the oven and roast for one and a half hours. Remove the foil and continue to roast the pork, uncovered for another thirty minutes.

During the last thirty minutes of cooking, heat the vegetable oil in a pan, preferably one with a pouring spout. Heat it until it is very hot, but not smoking.

At the end of the thirty minutes, check the roast for doneness (internal temperature should be at least 165F) and when done remove from oven.

Place a wire rack in another large roasting pan, and with carving forks, transfer the pork, skin and fat side up,  to the rack. Check the temperature of the vegetable oil, and reheat it if necessary. It must be very hot. When it's reached the right temperature, pour it over the pork, making sure to cover all the skin. This will cause the skin to expand and become crispy, like pork rinds. Let the roast cool and drain for about 10 minutes, then bring to the table or buffet.

Recipe translated and adapted from

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On the Road - Jericoacoara (Pt. 4)

Last month, before Flavors of Brazil's excursion to Jericoacoara, we published a few posts about this isolated beach resort. One post in particular seemed to be very popular judging from the number of hits it received. It concerned a local resident of Jeri, who goes by the professional name of Tia Angelita (Aunt Angelita) and who is famous both locally and beyond the city limits for her delightful banana torte.

We were aware of her notoriety when we wrote the article, and when we published the recipe, which came from a regional cuisine website, it did sound very, very good. So when we went to Jericoacoara, it seemed imperative to try out her torte for ourselves.

There are no street numbers in Jericoara, and only the main streets seem to have a name. Directions tend to be in the "go up that way for a while, then when you see the laundromat on your left duck into the alley on the opposite side of the street. Follow that for a ways, then turn left on the first smaller alley you come to...." So when we asked local residents how to find Tia Angelita's bakeshop, we got general directional pointers only, even though everyone seemed to know her. No one gave us a blank stare when we said, "Which way to Aunt Angelita's?" But no one could give us precise directions either.

With a bit of perseverence (a virtue not easy to come by in the hot mid-day sun) and even more luck, we finally came upon a tiny sign in front of a fairly anonymous residential-looking house with a large verandah. Sitting in the verandah were three or four adolescent girls, gossiping about Justin Bieber, no doubt. We asked them if we had the right place and if so, could we have a couple of pieces of banana torte. The answers were yes and yes.

We followed one of the girls inside, where there were a few table, a counter, an ice cream freezer and a coffee maker. AND a tray of banana torte. We bought two pieces for R$3 each (about USD $1.55) and decided to eat them on the way back to our pousada, as it was very hot inside Aunt Angelita's.

The torte looked exactly like the photo we had published in November (it's published again below). It was slightly warm, whether from the oven or the temperature in the bakeshop it's impossible to tell. Bringing it to our mouth, the two unmistakeable aromas of cooked banana and powdered cinnamon hit us straight on. Once we bit in, they were the two principle elements of the flavor profile, but there was also a nice butter flavor in the bananas and in the crust, which had almost a shortbread consistency.

It was unanimously agreed that Angelita's torte lives up to her recommendation. We're not marijuana smokers, but there's no doubt that one slice of this torte would be heavenly relief for someone suffering an almost-terminal case of the munchies. It's great stuff.

Monday, December 12, 2011

On the Road - Jericoacoara (Pt. 3)

"Don't go to the bar, it'll come to you."

Getting to Jericoacoara is difficult, getting a drink once you get there is not. Should you be thinking that a beer or a caipirinha sounds like a good idea, chances are that all you need to do is look around you and you'll find just what you're looking for. Like everywhere else in Brazil, licensing laws regulating who may sell alcoholic drinks - when, where and for how much - are non-existant, at least in practice. There is a fairly strict law regarding selling alcohol to minors, and most establishments make an effort to follow that regulation, but otherwise, there's no one to tell anyone else that they may not sell alcoholic beverages.

It's a world away from the highly-controlled system of selling alcohol that exists in many European and North American countries. In Canada, my home country, laws tell a potential publican or a restaurant owner when sales of alcohol are allowed, how much space each patron needs, what size the drinks must be, and the minimum selling price. They even have laws restricting and controlling the volume of recorded music and whether live music is permitted. This is worlds away from the Brazilian system, best described with a French phrase, laissez-faire.

Jericoacoara is no exception to the Brazilian rule. For example, one of the favorite daily activities in Jericoacoara for tourists and locals alike is to ascend the mountainous sand dune at the edge of town just before sunset and from the top to watch the sun set in the sea. It's a ritual that few tourists to Jeri would dare to omit. Getting to the top of the dune involves a steep climb in soft sand - not an easy feat. But it's no problem for cocktail vendors, who push their wheelbarrows to the top of the dune and offer beer and mixed drinks from a styrofoam tub at very reasonable prices. Watching the orange globe of the sun setting in the Atlantic ocean with a fresh caipirinha at hand is an iconic Jericoacoara activity.
Climbing the dune at sunset

Dune-top "bar"

As darkness settles in, Jeri's main beach becomes a moveable feast, as vendors set up moveable stands selling popcorn, meat kebabs, tapioca and other snacks. Along side the food stands, portable bars are set up offering a massive cocktail menu - mostly involving some mixture of tropical fruit and spirits. Drinks are mixed on site and are served in plastic cups with a straw, so that customers can walk the beach or wander the streets of Jeri with their drink in hand. Convenient, and to our minds, highly civilized.

In Brazil, even with this free-flowing tap of alcohol it's unusual to see really drunk people on the streets, or beaches, or in the bar. Brazilians love to get tipsy, which makes them animated, loud, musical and friendly. They don't really like to carry drinking to the point of belligerance, maudlinity or oblivion. Perhaps it's in those places where alcohol is treated like something dangerour or sinful that people, for whatever reason, like to drink themselves silly. Who knows. But Jeri's open and uncontrolled bars would seem to indicate so - we witnessed not one single person who'd seriously overindulged.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

On the Road - Jericoacoara (Pt. 2)

One of the many pleasures of Jericoacoara is sitting at a table under the shade of a coconut palm at one of the town's many beachfront bar/restaurants, eating snacks, drinking ice cold beer, and watching  hundreds of windsurfers and kitesurfers skim the waves in front of you like a swarm of butterflies. Because of its privileged position facing into the prevailing easterly trade winds, which blow constantly, Jeri's beach is a prime destinations for windsurfers and kitesurfers from around the world. The conditions there are almost guaranteed to be perfect and in the cold Northern Hemisphere winter months, surf-starved surfers flock to the coast of Ceará and especially to Jericoacoara.

Last week, during Flavors of Brazil's exploration of Jericoacoara we spent a memorable Saturday afternoon sitting under the palms drinking "stupidly cold" Skol beer (as the Brazilians like to say, and eating an plate of piabinha. The word piabinha is the dimuitive form of the name of a  species of fish known in Brazil as piaba. Although the piaba grows to a significant size, it's liked best by Brazilians when it's still small. During the spawning season, massive schools of piaba can be found all along the Brazilian coast, and they are netted in large quantities (the fishery is still sustainable, however, and the species is not considered threatened).

The Brazilian way to serve these tiny fish is whole - heads, tails and all. The best size is between 2 and 3 inches long, which means that each fish is only two or three bites. The piabinha  are cleaned, dipped in a breading of farinha, the ubiquitous manioc flour of Brazil, and quickly deep-fried in hot oil. Served hot from the fryer, a plate of salted, crunchy piabinha, accompanied by a wedge of lime and tartar sauce, crunchy and fresh-tasting without a hint of fishiness, makes just about the best food to combine with cold beer that we can imagine. The crunch, the salt, the acidity of the lime, and the tender piabinha flesh all combine to create the perfect bar snack. Serving them on a beach like Jericoacoara's is just icing on the cake.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On the Road - Jericoacoara (Pt. 1)

bougainvilla at Pousada Papaya
We've talked about Jericoacoara before on Flavors of Brazil, but we've just returned from a long weekend at the idyllic beach resort with the long, long name (official name: Jijoca de Jericoacoara) and thought the an update and review was in order. Previous posts about Jeri (unofficial name) can be found here and here and here.
The last hour's transportation to Jericoacoara

It was a three-day trip getaway Flavors of Brazil's home in Fortaleza, a perfect amount of time for Jeri. Getting to Jericoacoara is a two-step process - first four hours in a normal, comfortable bus on well-maintained roads, followed by an hour in an open bus/truck with zero suspension and with modified transmission and tires to make its away across the dunes and down the beach to Jeri. Once that vehicle arrives in "downtown" Jeri, it's just a short five to ten minute walk along streets made of sand to any of Jeri's hotels and pousadas (inns).

We stayed at an absolutely charming small pousada called Pousada Papaya, run by an ex-carioca (resident of Rio de Janeiro) who has traded the bustle of that metropolis for Jeri's tranquility. The pousada has six or seven rooms on two levels, a beautiful small garden with a small but wonderfully refreshing fresh-water pool and a breezy open verandah where breakfast was served.
Pousada Papaya

Breakfast is invariably included in the price of accommodation in Brazil, whether the accommodation in question is a five-star business hotel, a luxury resort, a simple inn, or even a roadside overnight stop. And although it's not 100% assured, in almost all cases the breakfast will be well-prepared and offer a huge number of choices and options - enough to keep one full all day if one desires. There's coffee and tea of course, and always a choice of fresh fruit juices. Fresh fruit is also available - at minimum something like papaya and pineapple, but often including five or six different tropical fruits. Cereals, granolas and yogurts are on offer as well. Bread options include sandwich-style bread, usually white and wholewheat, and crusty French rolls. Butter and margarine are available for the rolls as well as one or two types of sliced cheeses and cured meats. Hot dishes often include scrambled eggs and a bizarre mixture of chunks of mystery-meat hot dogs in a ketchup and mustard sauce. In fancier hotels there are often egg and tapioca stations where these ingredients are cooked to order. On the sweet pastry side there are always a variety of cakes and tortes - coffee cakes for sure, but also such non-breakfast cakes as chocolate cake or carrot cake. Sometimes cookies can be found too - the only problem is finding the room for a cookie or two at the end of breakfast. All these items are served buffet-style and repeat visits to the buffet are usual.

Pousada Payapa's breakfast buffet was more limited than in some bigger hotels, but that's only because with a small number of rooms, it's impossible to cook or serve huge numbers of options. The food was very fresh, the cakes were inventive and included a savory custard-cake with hearts of palm and raisins that was scrumptions, and the coffee was just the way Brazilians like it - very hot and very strong. As always, there was hot milk available to make cafe au lait, which is the common breakfast coffee drink in Brazil.

For the quality of the accommodation, the friendliness of the staff and the high standards of the breakfast buffet the price of Pousada Papaya was surprisingly reasonable. Including tax and service charge the price was R$115 per day for a double air-conditioned room for two. At current exchange rates that's about USD $64.00.

In upcoming posts, we'll focus on the food and drink scene in Jericoacoara.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Farmed Shrimp Gain "Green Seal" and Organic Certification

Organic farmed shrimp
Farming shrimp is big business in Flavor of Brazil's home state of Ceará, on Brazil's northeast coast, and the industry is growing by leaps and bounds as consumers' appetites for the tasty crustacean outpaces the ability of the sea to provide a sustainable shrimp fishery. The industry dates back only about fifteen to twenty years, but in each recent year its growth has been in double-digit figures.

Unfortunately not all shrimp cultivators consider the environmental impact of their shrimp farm operations, and the local industry has not always enjoyed a good reputation among environmentally-aware consumers. Although it's entirely possible to cultivate shrimp in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way many local producers either don't know what's required to make their production sustainable, or don't want to spend the extra money to ensure that their facilities don't negatively impact the environment.

Up to now, consumers who want to support those producers who go to the effort and expense to spare the environment haven't had access to information to know which shrimps on display at markets and supermarkets come from sustainable operations. In order to provide this information and to promote the practice of sustainable shrimp cultivation, the Ceará state Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries recently announced a program to market sustainably-raised shrimp with a "Green Seal", a stamp of approval indicating to the consumer that shrimp with a seal meets the environmental criteria of sustainability. The Green Seal was chosen because of the previous success of a similar program involving crab harvesting, where sustainable crab fisheries gained a Green Seal for their product. The crab project was detailed last on Flavors of Brazil and this link will take you to the article.
Shrimp farms on the Costa Negra

The government launched the Green Seal program in November of this year at a presentation and luncheon in the city of Acaraú, located on the part of the Ceará coast called the Costa Negra (the Black Coast), where there are large shrimp-cultivation installations. Those producers who meet the standards set out in the establishing regulations will be entitled to market their shrimp with a Green Seal attached, indicating to consumers that they can buy the product without worrying about the environmental impact of the purchase.

In a further evolution of the consumer market for environmentally-friendly shrimp, one Ceará producer, Nutrimar, has gone one step further and has had their production certified as organic. Nutrimar's shrimps are feed exclusively on marine algae and receive no commercial fish feed, which can have significant levels of agritoxins. Their frozen organic shrimp are marketed both domestically and internationally, and have been recognized and approved by the German-based NGO Naturland, whose standards are among the strictest in the world.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

RECIPE - Pastel de Belém

This recipe makes no claims to authenticity. It's not the recipe used at Lisbon's famed Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, where these sweet-egg custard tarts became famous. It couldn't be, since the recipe used there is a closely guarded secret, supposedly only known to three people in the world. (To read more about the history of this pastry, click here.) In fact, since it's not the authentic recipe, this one shouldn't even be called Pastel de Belém since that name is registered to the Confeitaria alone. The proper name should be the more generic Pastel de Nata (Cream tart). However, this recipe's source, a Brazilian cookbook called Cozinha Regional Brasileira - Rio de Janeiro names it Pastel de Belém, and most Brazilians would call it the same thing. So shall we.

Since this recipe is intended for amateur cooks and homemakers, it uses commercial ingredients, like frozen puff pastry and sweetened condensed milk, neither of which are in the original recipe whatever it is. However, these labor-saving ingredients increase greatly the chances that our readers might tackle these tarts at home. It's worth it, as they are delicious. And maybe, after making them at home, our readers who find themselves in Lisbon will make their way down to the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém to sample the real McCoy.
RECIPE - Pastel de Belém 
Makes 10 tarts

1 package frozen puff pastry
3 cups whole milk
2 cups sweetened condensed milk
6 egg yolks
1 cup granulated white sugar
2 Tbsp cornstarch
granulated white sugar for sprinkling
Let the puff pastry thaw according to package directions. Preheat the oven to 400F (300C).

In a large pan, combine the milk, condensed milk, egg yolks, the sugar. Mix thoroughly. Put the corn starch in a small tea cup, then slowly add about 1/2 cup of the milk mixture, stirring constantly to avoid lumps, until the corn starch dissolves. Pour the corn starch mixture into the pan and stir again.

Put the pan on the stove, turn on the heat to medium and heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to thicken. Remove from heat and reserve.

Roll out the puff pastry and cut out 10 circles, just the size that can fit into the holes of a non-stick muffin tin. Drape each circle over a hole in the tin, and gently press it into place at the bottom of the hole. Spoon in enough cream just to fill the cups of puff pastry. Sprinkle each with a small amount of sugar and put the muffin tin in the oven.

Cook for approximately 15 minutes, or until the pastry is browned and fluffy and the custard is semi-solid. Use a toothpick to check for doneness - if a toothpic inserted into the custard comes out clean the custard is set.

Cool in the muffin tin on a wire rack, then remove the tarts.

Serve, sprinkled with powdered cinnamon if desired.

Recipe translated and adapted from Cozinha Regional Brasileira by Abril Editora.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Portugal's Culinary Heritage - Pastel de Nata (Pastel de Belém)

The original
How can a simple pastry be both enjoyed in all corners of the world where there's a significant Portuguese cultural heritage AND have a recipe that's known to only three people in the world?? This seemingly impossible-to-revolve dichotomy has been successfully been bridged by a small Portuguese egg-custard tart called either Pastel de Nata (cream tart) or Pastel de Belém (Belém tart).

The tart's origins are in the epicenter of the former Portguese empire - the city of Lisbon. More specifically, they lie behind the enclosing walls of the Jerónimos Monastery in the city's Belém district. During the imperial epoque, monasteries and convents throughout Portugal made cakes and sweets, which they sold to the public to raise funds. The bakers of the Jerónimos Monastery were famed for making a small tart with a puff-pastry crust and a sweet, rich eggy custard filling. These were the original pastéis de Belém and their recipe was a closely guarded secret.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, many of these monasteries closed or folded up their pastry operation, including that of the Jerónimos Monastery. An enterprising Brazilian baker named Domingo Rafael Alves who lived in Lisbon finagled the recipe out of one of the monastery's former bakers and in 1837 opened a pastry shop called Antiga Confeitaria de Belém. Today the shop is owned by descendents of Sr. Alves and still specializes in the tarts that made it famous almost two hundred years ago and that have made it prosperous up til today.

At the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém three master bakers (the only three who are privy to the recipe) make the dough and the filling in a locked, alarmed and guarded room, passing them to assistants outside who form the tarts, fill them and cook them. Every day thousands of customers, many of them tourists, but tens of thousands of these treats, and eat many of them in the bake shop itself, served with a demitasse of strong Portuguese coffee.
Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Lisbon

Long ago, the Antiga Confeitaria de Belém registered the name Pastel de Belém and legally only those tarts made on site, from the original recipe are entitled to be called Pastel de Belém. Any other similar tart, from anywhere else, is a Pastel de Nata. At least in theory, that's the case, but the law isn't universally enforced and one can find tarts called Pastel de Belém in pastry shops from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, to Luanda, and on to Malacca and Macau. In Brazil they can be found in almost all pastry shops and are a favorite mid-afternoon treat or part of a dessert buffet at a gala party or a wedding reception.

Chinese egg tart
It's at the most-distant reaches of the former Portuguese empire that these tarts have been most enthusiastically adopted. Throughout southeast Asia and southern China (and around the world of the Chinese diaspora) bakeshop shelves groan under the weight of sweet egg-custard tarts. I've seen them in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco and London. The crust is no longer puff pastry, it's more typically standard pie crust and the filling normally isn't carmelized and crispy as it is back in Lisbon but these Chinese bakeshop standards are still recognizably pastéis de Belém.

Obviously, the three people in the world who have the true recipe for Pastel de Belém  do not include us here at Flavors of Brazil, and so we won't be publishing the authentic recipe. However, in upcoming posts we will provide a very typical, hopefully almost-authentic recipe for a tart that might be called Pseudo-pastel de Belém, as well as one for the Asian version that's found in Chinatowns around the world.