Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Maria Izabel's Artisanal Cachaça

The small city of Paraty (also spelled Parati) sits on the shore of a lovely bay in Rio de Janeiro state, 235 km from the capital,  and enjoys a reputation as one of the most beautiful, relaxing and hip towns on the entire Brazilian coast. Home to a number of well-preserved historic buildings, Paraty also has a collection of small boutique hotels and a burgeoning culinary scene that makes it a weekend destination of choice for tourists from around the world.

Among those visitors who come to Paraty in search of good food and drink, it's obligatory to experience the city's most famous artisanal beverage - Maria Izabel Gibrail Costa's home-made cachaça. In Paraty's most elegant pousada (traditional boutique-style inn), Casa Turchesa, guests find a bottle of Cachaça Maria Izabel awaiting them in their room when they arrive, and in sophisticated restaurants the waiters proudly proclaim that their caipirinhas are made with Cachaça Maria Izabel.

Maria Izabel's cachaça surely merits the name artisanal for the entire annual production of approximately 7500 liters is distilled on Maria Izabel's property and is made from sugar cane grown on the same land. In fact, the entire production process from the planting of sugar cane to the final bottling takes place on Maria Izabel's property, located on the seafront near town. Maria Izabel, born in Paraty 61 years ago, claims that the distinctive flavor of her cachaça is due to her property's seafront location, saying that the sea air increases the salinity of the sugar cane and thus affects the final taste of the drink.
Maria Izabel Costa

Maria Izabel comes by her cachaça-making prowess honestly. Municipal records show that her paternal great-great-grandfather, Francisco Lopes da Costa, produced cachaça in Paraty in 1800. Although her name is recognized everywhere in Paraty, Maria Izabel doesn't court fame. She prefers to stay at home, tending to her production. She usually spends the day barefoot, and still bathes daily in the sea.

With such a limited production and local demand, it's almost impossible to find Maria Izabel's cachaça anywhere besides Paraty. Even in the town, a bottle of her liquor costs about as much as a good bottle of Scotch, an impressive feat in a country where decent cachaças often sell for less than USD $5 a liter.

All of which is fine with Maria Izabel, who just wants to continue making cachaça. She calls herself "a última das moicanas" (the last of the Mohicans). There are few left who do the work Maria Izabel does, but one does hope that one of her children, or some other younger person who loves cachaça, will take over from Mariz Izabel when the time comes and ensure that she isn't, in fact, the last of the Mohicans.

With material from Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, written by Nana Tucci.

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