cakes, prose, woes -- the photos, food & thoughts of a french-speaking seattle-native in brazil

In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it. -AB
In the end, you're just happy you were there—with your eyes open—and lived to see it.

Friday, July 24, 2009

In a Corn Castle

Sweet Corn Ice Cream and Corn Flour Madeleines

There does indeed exist a corn castle. Connect to this concept: driving down the freeway; you see giant billboards advertising "come, pick apples!" or "the best fried chicken for the next 200 miles!" "World's largest Pumpkin patch, Next four exits!" And each kilometer that you draw nearer, the signs begin to mount, urging you on, "almost there! almost to the freshest bite of fish you'll ever have!" just around the next is in this very fashion that i arrived at the corn castle. No not the world's largest structure supported by cob columns, but a road side stop shop decorated dino-land water park style to create a facade akin to a castle of ears filled with--yep, you guessed it; corn. Corn as far as the eye can see. Oh how corny. on y va.

I kid you not, a castle of corn does indeed exist. Three actually, and all on one very long stretch of Brasilian high way. of course i'm still talking about Brasil, get used to it. They are called Castelhinho Pamonha, litterally little corn castle, and they are filled with corny treats. Sweet corn tamales (pamonhas), corn juice (suco de milho), corn cakes (bolos de milho), cuscuz (i have no way of explaining this to you), corn cookies, corn candies, polenta, and finally--what i had requested upon arrival, Sorvete de milho: corn ice cream. I had come across it goggling food gawker one evening, and since i have been stolen by its curious concept: a vegetable in an ice cream? We initially pulled over to pick up a bottle of suco de milho, but as we stepped out of the car, H registered, Ah, we can get you corn ice cream here! Corn ice cream? i thought with a smile, it's nine in the morning. Let's do it. The creamy concoction came out of the machine as a soft serve into the cup awaiting its arrival, two spoons please! Brasilians eat a lot of corn, not to imply that North Americans don't, but Brasilians use it in a much wider array that, well, tastes a hell of a lot better than creamed corn casserole.

The cream of the crop, pun intended, is the sorvete de milho. At least in my opinion, and who could care for anything else? That being the case, i have grown attached to corn, not only for it's gluten-freeness, but because it finally tastes good. Sitting at my desk in Seattle, staring out the window, and longing with every fiber of my being to be back in Brasil with H and the rest of the family, i decide that it is time for the Salty Cod to pay closer attention to this summery warm weather treat. Ice cream is my guilt, or rather my non guilt, never say no to wine, chocolate, or ice cream, and to the ears of any North American, the concept of corn ice cream is slightly repulsive. Therefore, i must break, convince, and enlighten. C'est possible? watch me.

I hate canned corn. But i don't mind it if it's an ingredient, no dad, eggs scramble mash surprise doesn't count. A recipe for ice cream: one cup whole milk, one cup cream, sugar, a pinch of salt, and your ingredients. Let us think. This is Brasilian. So let us proceed: one cup whole milk, one cup heavy cream, one can condensed milk, and 1 cup corn. Maybe a little vanilla. A pinch of cinnamon. This is a Salty Cod confection, after all. It's first tasters: my brother R and Sister K. R: it tastes like ice cream, with a background of corn. K: background? try foreground. Success? Well, they said they would take another spoonfull. It's unexpected, that's all, K continued. Unexpected? Well, the unexpected is the best kind.

Another corny treat; mais mais, eu quero mais! Corn cakes. Very similar to North American cornbread, though less dry and with, gasp! flavor! are very scientific. I decided to honor the teaching of Aunt P, who made my 23rd birthday cake in a blender with milk cups, hand full measurements, and hey you like cheese, let's put some in! Experimental fashion. Ergo, corn cake Madelines reflect the same kitchen daringness--nose goes.

Sorvete de Milho (Sweet corn Ice Cream)
Ingredients: 1 cup whole milk ~ 1 cup whipping cream ~ 1 can corn, drained or one cup cooked and de-cobbed ~ 1 can leite condesado ~ 1 tsp vanilla extract ~ 1 tsp cinnamon

method: 1) in a blender, liquefy drained corn along with the milk 2) strain through a blender, press with a spoon to get all liquid. Discard pulp 3) return corn milk to blender, add cream, condensed milk, and everything else and mix well 4) refrigerate until quite chilly, at least an hour 5) process in an ice cream maker, or if you are doing it old-school style, god speed to you.

Corn Flour Madelines:
Ingredients: 1 cup corn flour ~ 1 egg ~.5 cup sugar ~ .5 cup milk ~ 2 tbsps melted butter ~ .25 cup Parmesan cheese ~ 1 tsp baking powder ~ pinch of salt ~ some vanilla ~ some cinnamon ~ some love. damn it.

method: mix wets. mix dries. combine. spray a madeline pan, bake at 350 for less than ten minutes. please don't burn.

In two months, H and i spent over 32 hours in the car together (we like to travel). So when the sign screams at us 50 kilometers until the best traíra! brandishing a cute little fish holding a trident, we know we're gonna stop. And when we do, and find the place a complete bust on service, but escape with a memory of a tiny red armchair made for 2 year olds that i somehow managed to squeeze my ass into, a parking lot kiss that yes i remember, and a laugh as we wave at the giant crowned fish statue as we pull out, then it was without a doubt, all worth it in the end.

Sweet corn ice cream in my little kitchenaide off in the distance of the pacific northwest; castles made of corn can be home to a fairy tale princess too. Or perhaps, just to a cod-girl. One scoop, spoon, lick of the drip on my finger and my mind is flown body and soul to that car ride, to the corn castle, to the shared cup that numbed my fingers in the car on our way to Sao Paulo. ice cream at nine in the morning. And then a cake, and i am transported one month later (in the car as well) eating Aunt P's corn cakes after the failed king of traíra. Life is a collection of connections, you just have to make them. Corn, ah. I could eat a pool of you. Taste, smell; these memory triggers outlast all others. Distance does not have to be a terrible burden. If you make the right recipes, it can, and only will enhance and make yet greater every memory that causes your saudade. And yes, i'm talking about corn ice cream. So stop off at the cheesy billboard. You may in fact catch a great memory, at least one to keep you warm until you can catch the next one.
A bientot

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Mining Goodbyes In Ouro Preto

Two dwarfs Lost and Found in the Mines of Minas Gerais

Vila Rica do Ouro Preto. Village rich in Black Gold. In English the phrase refers to oil. But there is no oil here. Actually, there isn't even anymore gold. No silver. No more gems. No miners. What is there then? Well besides the seven dwarfs, there is a Salty Cod, swimming to the splash of his own dancing echo against the red mud and dripping granite. He's still in there, bouncing up the cobbled city streets, pretending that time doesn't move, that like the preserved colonial city of an antique past, time stands still. Never Ending of the moment when most happy. sun rising in the west, and moon rising in the est. But fish can't bounce up streets, you say. But this one can. he grew wings. On y va.

Minas Gerais; Portuguese for general mines, is the fourth largest and second most populous state in Brasil. Still rich in mineral and grantie production, Minas is known for three things: mines, cheese, and farm house wood fire meals. Residents, known as mineiros (miners) are considered inhabitants of "deep Brasil," less urban, more Portuguese, no beaches, less African cultural influence, so more--country. I say this and then drive through the capital city, Belo Horizonte (beautiful horizon), that though nearly only a quarter of the size of SP, gives one that Orlando feeling. Minas is home to many historical sites, cities including Diamantina, Tiradentes, Serro, and Ouro Preto. The last being a UNESCO world herritage site, and also where we happened to go. In 1697 after gold and gemstones were discovered in the region, Portuguese colonials hanging out in Rio de Janeiro started the construction of the estrada real, "royal road" to begin mining production. The presence of the colonials and slaves led to the creation of the largest urban city in South America at the time. What remained following the gold rush was a time-capsuled portrait of colonial Brasil. Walking the cobbled streets of Ouro Preto, one is instantly transported to the curving alleys of Oporto and Lisbon. The city is Brasil's living history, a portrait of how history has coursed Brasil into the country that exists today. It is an old world European city, just as say colonial Jamestown is--though an actual city.

There would be no Brasil as we know it today without it's Portuguese colonial past, so for better or for worse, they are bound together in one past. So no matter what ones feelings may be regarding the age of exploration and colonization, we are all who we are by a rickety string of events that we owe if not respect, then at least attention to. A colonial past held in a city sprinkled with fairy dust, Ouro Preto allows one to feel that time can still if you try hard enough.

What was i doing there. Archeological work. Yeah that'll be the day. If you must know, last Wednesday happened to be my birthday. 23 and i'm not dead yet! Each year that happens i feel the need to celebrate such an achievement. As do many people that i hold present in my life. Usually i receive presents. Wrapped boxes of clothing or trinkets. But this year i received a bit more: a trip. Some of you are aware of my historical past--that being my BA in history for which my research was in Portuguese colonization. what a coincidence. When H suggested that he take me on a trip to Ouro Preto for my birthday, i grew glossy eyed. Portuguese colonial architecture is my thing. Really? Is this too good to be true? How can life really come into itself so full circle. A twilight zone, a perfect that is too perfect. What luck has chanced that i get to be so perfectly happy. I beleive that perhaps it has to do with knowing exactly what you want. maybe.

So how long will it take? hmm, replied H, maybe eight hours. Oh joy, we seem to love immensely very long car rides. The last we went due south, now we go north! Hmmm. Driving through Minas Gerais is like driving through mid-west farmland, but with hills. Many hills. We drove in the direction toward Belo Horizonte, to keep to the paved highway rather than dusty dirt roads. those still exist? After passing the capitol city, we headed south east toward Ouro Preto. Now, being the most popular tourist destination in Brasil for US travelers, there are many resources for visitors once arrived. Such as maps. As we entered the city, we passed one such station that offered resources of this nature. we should stop and get a map, i said. Nah, H replied, let's just drive around and find someplace to eat and a hotel first. hmmmm. i like maps, but fine. two hours later we have somehow driven (forward and in reverse) down every winding road in the city (and dirt ones on the outskirt) including dead ends. Hmmm, H began, let's go back and get a map. what! isn't that what i said in the beginning! No, you said should. It's different. What! You brat just admit. Eventually we solved the problem by picking up a local kid on the streets to back-seat us to a reasonably priced lodging. In tourists towns, hotel advertisers are common on the streets. They receive royalties for bringing in clients. Ours led us to a few overpriced and overbooked Pousadas, the equivalent, i would say, to a small bed and breakfast type lodging, until we found a small cozy offering that was reasonably priced. A little ski cottage, though in warm weather. Afterward we proceeded to a restaurant where, after a day starved from eating nothing but a little leftover corn cake, we consumed a feijoada, a couple caipirinas, and some Minas truffles. Hey--it was my birthday present after all.

A whole day of being tourists. Hooray! but what to do first. I know, replied little miss European jet setter, we walk the winding streets with no direction. So we did. Well in a city with twenty baroque churches, it is not very hard to stumble upon one. Actually all we had to do was turn a corner and boom smack in the face. One of Aleijadinho's. The architect and sculptor, Alejadinho, literally meaning "little cripple" is one of Brasil's most famous artistic historical figures responsible for the design and sculpting of nearly all the churches in Ouro Preto, as well as commissioned works in other parts of the country. We went into a couple...the ones without a monetary entrance fee. houses of god she be free and open to the public, i silently (or not so silently) cursed. Ah well, enough of churches. There are far too many to attempt them all. On to the mines.

Down the road was located a little mine, the mina do chicorei, an old gold mine whose whereabouts fell out of knowledge until accidentally discovered in the 1940's by a woman who bought the location to open a restaurant. Little did she know she bought a historical gold mine. Once discovered, she opened the mine for historical observance and tourism. Oh yeah and she still runs her restaurant out of the same place. We got through the tight squeeze of a tunnel led by our "guide" who offered us hard hats. I must say it was fun crawling through the red clay puddles of muck, ducking under low rocks in the dimly illuminated cave. haha! But what a nightmare it must have been to be a chained down slave digging day in day out. Experiencing historical concepts of the kind such as this, is perhaps a way of tribute to those of the past who suffered, as we survive their memory. Hard hats off to you.

The following day we checked out and headed to the neighboring town of Mariana to visit the most famous tourist trap in the region: the mina da passagem, the largest historical gold mine open to the public in the--world! A rickety seat belt-less mine car ride that would have the word lawsuit written all over it in the US ride down into the must cavern is followed by a guided explanation of the mine's historical pertinence, as well as a look at the underground pools that are very popular with cave divers the world over. Watch out though, the ride will put you back twenty four reis per person.

After the mines we drove through Mariana, a city seemingly better planed than Ouro Preto. More fancy pants if you ask me. We had lunch on traditional Minas cuisine: pots of food cooked over a a wooden fire (actually still sitting over a wooden fire) that you scoop onto your own plate. Excellent! beans and rice...and variations...and meat. Yeah i'll miss that.

Finally it was time to go, to start the eight hour drive back. The thing about being in a time capsuled town, is that you begin to beleive that you yourself are without time. But time doesn't stop. And it doesn't in this town either. For though it looks old, it continues to move. As do we all. As we drove back, the reality of my departure back to the untied states the following day began to sink in. And i felt my heart begin to tear, as it longed maybe, to stay time capsuled along with the stone pillars and cobbled alleys of the fairy book town.

The things i will miss the most of Brasil are these: boiled mandioca, pao de queijo, guarana, my other family, and above all others, having my editor close. They say you can't appreciate the things you have and love without being away and losing them first. Whoever first said that needs to be shot. I have loved every moment of my time in Brasil, even the less enjoyable ones. Never have i eaten so well. never have i felt more at home. never have i felt so happy. Time capsul--who wants the world to stand still. We move forward, the city gets plumbing. And we get ready for the next move. Nothing stands still. It only gets better.

This is not the end of Brasil, as much as my never ending tears wish me to think it so. It is neither an end nor a goodbye. On the contrary; it is only the beginning. I am ready for the roller coaster. When you put your fate in the hands of the cod fish, and trust that he knows where he is leading you, then the adventure has begun, and you must beleive that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The cod can never offer a guarantee, but he can offer hope. And who could wish for anything more.

So in the words of Tony, life definitely does not suck. how could it.

an a bientot--but i see it more as an on y va

Monday, July 6, 2009

Everything Is Gluten Free in Bahia

The Month of Much Independence
What a cheep shot eh? I didn't even go to Bahia and yet i get to stuff my face full of its bounty. successss. Well if there's anything that will get you somewhere, it's having sampled it. And i would say that the late night arrival of the Jet Setting sisters as they opened their suit cases full of edible goodies (you know you're with the right crowd when food takes up the place of clothes) and after a showering of hugs D turns to me with glee "all sem gluten! everything we found it all!" Now whether or not the notion was pulled particularly for me or not doesn't matter, there isn't a way in the world one could be left feeling less than a hundred dollars. As half the state of Bahia exploded onto the kitchen table in edible form, and midget camera cards were shoved at me to download quickly for prompt viewing, i was lost amidst the excited sped laughs of the travelers as they recapped the week away to see family that nearly three decades had separated them from. One doesn't need words to understand what's going on; happiness is a pitch, a taste, and a look. I knew exactly what they were saying, in hieroglyphic form. And this cod fish biscuit? Dear god somebody pinch me. on y va.

Where is Bahia? What is Bahia? It sounds like a beach. No, i didn't say the Bahamas. Located in the northeast corner of the country, Bahia is the fourth most populous state in Brasil, of which its capital city, Salvador, is undoubtedly what gives Brasil its most famous image abroad: Carnival dancers and beach bums sitting around drinking coconut water. success. But wait--isn't that Rio? Hmmm, i dunno. It's very difficult after all to give a nation that is larger than the US only one image of stereotype. A Paulista, Carioca (from Rio), a Bahian (?), and a Bahhh-ian (hehehe, people from Porto Alegre. I guess they are gauchos eh?) are as stereotypically different as a Texan, an Orgonian, and a New Yorker. so a priest and a Rabi walk into a bar...Bahia is the archaic Portuguese word for bay, as the state was named after All Saint's Bay, of which Salvador sits atop the cliff. Bahia pulls the second greatest volume of tourism in the country, behind what i can only presume must be Rio di Janiero. When images of Brasilian afro-influenced heritage arise, it is historically from Bahia and the rest of the northeast where they originate, as Bahia was a center of the sugar cane harvest that relied heavily on African slave labor.

A central historical region, Bahian architecture is left over from the colonial Portuguese who settled in the sixteenth century and created, in essence, mini Lisbons and Oportos. Bahia, like Minas Gerais, more so than the southern states of Brasil, maintains a much more historical connection to the colonial past as a direct result of occupation. Cabral arrived in 1500 at Porto Seguro on the southern Bahian coast; fifty years later, settlers founded Salvador, and either their saudade for the homeland or lack of creativity influenced not only the architecture, but the city planning and decor as well. Salvador--full name being São Salvador da Baía de Todos os Santos, "Holy Savior of All Saints' Bay," (you can see the need for abreves here) is the capital and largest city. D is from the city Vitória da Conquista, the third largest city in Bahia after Salvador and Feira de Santana, and as word has it has grown astronomically over the past couple decades due to commerce, industry, coffee production, and the status as a university town (Universidade Estadual do Sudoeste da Bahia.) The return after thirty years was to a city that was much different for her, though at the same time much the same.

So what of this food then. The topic: biscuits and banana leaves. biscuits? yes. my eyes widened as bag upon bag of biscuits all pretty, pale, and sparkling emergered one after the other. and these are all gluten free? Alongside the biscuits were other Bahian traditional goodies; little coconut cakes, pressed sugarcane candy in a banana leaf--gold mine. Eager to try everything--at the same time--i was confused slightly by how a few of those present reached for nothing. You see, H explained to me in front of everyone under the guise of our secret language, they look down on Bahia, to them this would be like someone in the US bringing back a whole bunch of junk from Mexico. hmmm...really? well, all i can say is--sucks to be them.

All of the biscuits, though they tasted like almond, were made from flour of mandioca root; aka tapioca. Mandioca, manioc, polvinho, goma, puma--it all come from the same root, a magical "everything begins here" tuber that i have come to adore. my next novel: I fell in Love with a Manioc, (July 2012.) Crescents, pills, sticks, twists, salty, sweet--you can make anything from mandioca. And what have we here...aqui, isso é do bacalhau. excuse me? bacalhau? Cod fish Cookies? are you for serious? Truth: they taste like a less-dried out version of nabisco chicken in a biscuit; aiater R you would be very pleased with these.

Aside from the never ending stream of pale-faced biscuits that appeared from Felix's bag; there appeared alongside a plethora of Bahian cheeses and some sweet candies, among them rapadura. Technically known as tijolo, the Portuguese word for brick, because it is usually made into a solid brick form that is fairly preserved and durable. Pretty much it is a hunk of pure sugarcane juice with spices such as cinnamon and a LOT of ginger, nuts, and even fruits. Hmmm, i thought as i racked my brain to try and communicate what i was tasting, para mim, euuuh, isso é um sabore de natal. gingimbre é muito natal. mmmm. You can find out more about rapadura here or at more my level here. Rapadura first appeared in the 18th century by slaves who worked on the sugarcane plantations; high in minerals and other things that seem to give one energy, it was a crucial part of the diet as it preserved well and could last for long periods of time. according to H, this is the food that has and always will keep people from starving. For its history, the candy is commonly considered comida de pobre, food for the poor (yes i translated that myself).

As i thought of what H had said about Bahia being considered lower class it all made sense; there is much prejudice to be found anywhere, i began to think; perhaps that is how i would act if someone unloaded on my dining room table a bag of grits and collards brought back fresh from Mississippi, blech, i would think, southern food. I am not sure where this prejudice came from, i have no aversion to the culture of the southern states of the US, on the contrary i have never even experienced them, but somehow, somewhere along the way, the image and notion was planted, there is a sense in the back of my mind that connects such types of food as poor food, as country food, as lower class food. Food is as much a marker of social status and class boundary as anything; we have to be careful to not allow that to get in the way of our taste buds, else you may find yourself in regret for having missed out on something intrinsically delightful. It is impossible to control ingrained thoughts, but it is what you do with them that matters.

When I sat down to "talk out" what all these edibles were with D, she mentioned how the day happened to be Bahian independence day. what? it's its own country now? When Brasil broke from Portugal, Bahia was the last state to join the independent confederation. It is not the Brasilian independence, she continued, that is---September 7th, i cut in, i know that day. It happens to be one of my favorite days. Back to the subject--Brasilian Independence was declared on September 7th 1822, though a pocket of elite loyalists in Bahia remained true to the Portuguese crown--hmm sounds familiar, we call them Tories, but eventually they shoved off for Canada--the loyalists somehow stood their ground in battle until finally falling to the union on 2 July 1823. Hence 2 July is Bahian independence. Huh, i responded, July seems to be a very hot-headed month for revolutions; the Americans on the 4th, les Francaises on the 14th, and the Bahians on the 2nd. AND the most important of all--the Canadians on the 1st. Well. A triangle quadrangle connection of my three four favorite countries. how presh. So happy birthday Bahia, happy birthday US of A, happy birthday O Canada, and while we're at it--vive la France!

Biscuits, Bahia, Independence, family--life doesn't suck. And with a biscuit made out of cod, a weekend visiting friends and family on the back of a red motorcycle, getting lost in the neighboring city of Sorocaba on the way to another festa julhina, a backyard barbecue for little brothers entire English class, and night time riding with old jazz music--life definitely does not suck. oh did i mention the cod cookie?

a bientot