Issue 25, January 2007
The Rio Carnival is the biggest and most important festival that takes place in Brazil every February. A wild blend of emotion, colour, music, costume, and of course food and drink, carnival time is a four-day celebration beginning on February 16th, ending on the 21st, Fat Tuesday.
The Truffleman made the long journey to Rio last year to participate in the celebrations and to sample the delights of Brazilian cuisine.
When a very good karaoke friend of mine from Rio, Peter, invited me to the best party in the world – the Rio Carnival – why on earth would I say no? A once in a lifetime opportunity was my first thought. I ended up in the Rio parade sambaing up the Sapucai for over a mile at 3:00 am, singing my heart out in an exotic costume as part of the Mango Tree Samba School! The intoxicating refrain of our samba song, Energia do Samba, so eloquently epitomised the spirit of the Rio Carnival and the festivities surrounding it.
The samba cuisine, which I had the privilege of sampling, was equally as infectious. Upon my arrival in Rio, I was whisked off to have my first induction into festival food. I was offered Brazilian cheese brioche pao de queijol, specially hand-made from minos cheese and a unique dough. They once tried to industrialise the process of making these brioches, but it never worked Hand-made or otherwise, this was the best well-rounded blend of cheese and dough I had ever tasted, I was prompted to have this with a classic famous aromatic Brazilian coffee, a heady pairing that sent me into a state of virtual delirium. This powerful combination became my breakfast of choice for the next few days.
In the spirit of Carnival, another Samba pal of mine. Luiz grabbed me for dinner and took me to the best charruscaria called Porco (Big Pig – an apt name) at the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Here they specialise in spit roasting special cuts of meat which I have always passionately believed is the best way to cook meat. Not only are the most tender and mouth-watering cuts of the best Brazilian beef, south Brazilian larnband tasty Brazilian park used, but they are continuously brought on spits to your table where they are freshly cut exactly to your liking. As Luiz happily pointed out, this means you never have a half-eaten, no longer hot steak on your plate, as the sizzling variety of slices just keeps coming at your behest. The luscious spit-roasted beef was superbly complemented by freshly grilled palm hearts with herb butter that simply melted in the mouth.
Sandra and Elizabeth, my Mango Tree Samba School friends, insisted on the day of the parade that I have a proper lunch so that I would have enough energy to Samba throughout the night. The best food for this purpose, they agreed, was Bahia cuisine. As ascertained from reading Alma Guillermoprieto’s delightfully written “Samba Bahia also happens to be the initial origin of the Rio Carnival and the Samba. So, well advised. I was fortified by moqueca, a harmony of fish head stew, fresh coconut milk and distinctly yellow-red dendê (palm oil). This was followed by colderada – a stew of incredibly fresh shrimp and octopus. The stews were complemented with copious crafts of the traditional Caipirinha which, according to my pals, had to be made with fresh lime (including the peel), enough sugar, and just the right amount of cachora cane spirits. The energy meal was topped off with batida de coco (coconut cream and cachaca, which almost topped me off!
The Samba Parade up the Sapucai as part of the Mango Tree Samba School was better than I could ever have imagined it to be. Elaborately dressed in an eccentric costume of silver, pink and green, I can still clearly hear the distinct echo of hundreds of feet around me, sambaing in perfect rhythm while we sang and danced with unstoppable enthusiasm in front of the huge crowds in Rio. The spirit and energy of the moment were not only deeply infectious but also momentous – truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience! After the Mango Tree Samba School’s performance, I was back in the viewer stands singing and dancing while the other schools paraded until the morning light. The destaques (the lovely ladies on the front) of each float even returned the kisses I threw at them to the huge admiration and joy of my Brazilian friends I did warn my wife to come along and protect me against those Brazilian bonitos, but maybe she’ll come along with me next time when I return to this land of plenty!