Brasil, part 3

I know, I know…I promised photos today, but they are all on Christian’s computer and haven’t been edited yet, so you’ll just have to wait a little longer.

Today was a fabulous day!  We slept in because we were so exhausted.  Waking up at 10am, the maid, Lucia, had breakfast ready  for us.  She came up and gave me a HUGE hug and rattled off in Portugese while everyone laughed.  Apparently she thinks I’m  very cute because I have blue eyes like her husband.

Good time to talk about domestic help here.  Most middle class families here have maids because the lower class is so poor  that domestic help is extremely inexpensive.  Most middle-class apartments and houses have a maid’s quarters attached to the  kitchen and laundry area, and if maids don’t have families of their own, they typically stay there during the work week and  return to visit their families on weekends.

For big families, the maids are there all week, but for single people like Uncle Marinho or couples like Pi and Flavia or  Floh and Enrico, the maid may only come once a week.

Maids become an integral part of the family.  Lucia raised Pi and Floh as if they were her own children and even though she  now has become middle class and has a family of her own, she is still steadfast in her devotion to the Murano family.  She is  SO important to them that she is a bridesmaid in the wedding!

I ate very light for breakfast because we were supposed to go to a churrascaria for lunch.  Churrascarias are those massive steakhouses where the waiters come by with giant swords of meat and carve off whatever you like, so I knew I had to save room.  But Lucia had made this coffee cake that was filled with guava and banana and I just couldn’t resist a piece.  Or two.   Or three.

Then it was time to go to the “feira” (pronounced “FEY-duh”), or street market, that had been set up in the street right  below Vera’s apartment.

Like in many countries, each neighborhood has a market day one day a week.  Vera’s feira is mostly food…fresh fruit and  veggies and fish.  Marinho’s feira also has other things, like cheap DVDs.  (He got all the Academy Award-nominated films for  about $1 each in his feira.  Back in the US, most aren’t even out on DVD yet!)

We walked through the feira looking at all sorts of delicious fruits and veggies, and Floh kept dashing over to the vendors  to get me slices of plum and mango and other fruits I can’t pronounce and have no idea how to spell.  The fishmongers had  HUGE shrimp the size of small lobsters, and huge lobsters the size of small cats.

Brazilian persimmons in a feira

These are not tomatoes. These are persimmons.

I kept my eyes peeled for hearts of palm, or “palmitas,” which is one of my favorite foods.  Vitoria had told me you could  buy huge logs of them in the markets.  But when we eventually stopped by a spice vendor who was very friendly and talkative,  he told us that it’s now illegal to sell the hearts of palm because when Brasilians harvest them, it kills the palm tree.   Only the indigenous natives know how to harvest the heart without killing the tree, so only the indians are allowed to  harvest hearts of palm in the wild.  This is one of the reasons hearts of palm are so expensive ($5-$6 for a small jar in the  states) because they can only legally be raised on farms and it takes several years for the tree to mature enough to produce  a single heart, and then the tree dies when it is harvested.

As we left the feira, Floh and Vitoria insisted that I try a “pastel.”  This is a pastry that can be filled with meat,  cheese, hearts of palm, or sweet things like fruit or caramel, and fried until it’s light and puffy.  This is one of the few  meals you can get in Brasil for very cheap…you get them from street vendors for about $1.  We had a pastel which was  stuffed with ground meat, onions, and olives.  It was DELICIOUS!

Brazilian street vendors making pasteles

Street vendors making pasteles

Ben Starr eats a Brazilian pastel

Piping hot!

By now it was noon and we were supposed to be at the churrascaria in a few hours stuffing ourselves silly, but I was already  full of breakfast, fruit, and pastel.  So we left for the other side of town and stopped by Enrico’s (Floh’s husband’s)  parent’s shop.  They sell crystals and handmade crafts and herbs and we got some gifts there and enjoyed meeting them.   They’re so earthy and grounded and genuine.  Enrico’s mom gave Floh a Reiki treatment while we looked around the shop.

Then we headed to Marinho’s to go the churrascaria.  We went to their favorite one, Jardineira.  It was a big building of red  brick, and the inside reminded me of those dining clubs that the idle rich would visit in London back in the 1800s.  Very  high ceilings, formal decor, waiters in tuxes walking around adding and removing sundry eating utensils deftly when you turn  your head to talk to the person next to you.

We were met there by Pi.  That’s his nickname, his real name is Luis, but his family calls him PiPi (pee-pee) and we call him  Pi.  (What is up with this family?  Dogs named DooDoo and guys named PeePee?)  He’s the one getting married to his lovely  bride Flavia tomorrow, but he had escaped the mayhem of wedding planning for the afternoon to join us for lunch.

They escorted us to our table and the waiter with the drink cart pulled up.  He was there to make caipirinhas and caipiroskas  (basically a caipirinha with vodka instead of cachaca) and his cart was mounded with fresh fruit.  I ordered a maracuja  caipirihna, which is made from passion fruit.  He cut open the fruit and scooped out the pulp and seeds and crushed them into  the drink for me.  You eat the seeds of the passion fruit with the pulp, and they are so crisp and delicious…maracuja has  quickly become my favorite fresh fruit here.

After making the drink, waiters started arriving with food…pao de queijo (little round breads stuffed with cheese), polenta  covered with cheese, smoked nuggets of cheese.  Cheese, cheese, CHEESE!  All this as an appetizer to the salad course.

The salad course is an all-you-can-eat buffet of incredible dishes.  Salmon couscous, smoked salmon, hearts of palm salad,  roasted eggplant, marinated tomatoes, tabouli, mussels, boiled quail eggs, and every type of cheese under the sun that you slice yourself from giant wheels.  I took the tiniest bite of everything and my plate was mounded high, so I didn’t make it to the second table, which was filled with hot dishes…rice, feijoada (the Brasilian trademark dish of black beans stewed with a dozen types of meat and sausage), and various soups and stews and seafoods.

Jardineira, a Brazilian churrascaria in Sao Paulo

The cheese table at the salad bar of Jardineria, a REAL Brazilian churrascaria in Sao Paulo

As soon as we sat down, the waiters started coming with more food.  Braised salmon with passion fruit cream sauce and  roasted shark with ginger lemon jam.  Smoked “St. Peter fish” (which was my favorite)…a hearty fresh-water fish with firm  flesh that held the smoke beautifully.  Fried bananas.  Calamari.  It just didn’t stop.

The conversation at the table was lively, but for the first time in my life, I was so overwhelmed by food that I couldn’t  even connect with my tablemates.  It was incredible.  Torture, really, but in a very good sort of way.  Every bite was  amazing, but each bite surpassed the last.  I wanted a full serving of each my favorite things, but there was so much more to eat  that I had to divorce myself from each newly-discovered favorite, knowing there were more to come.

Then came the meat.  Oh, the meat!  You flip a little disc on your table from the red side to the green side to indicate that  you are ready for meat.  And the instant you flip, a line of waiters forms behind you holding a giant sword with a specific  type of meat.  Each one a different cut, each one marinated and cooked a different way.  Everything from tenderloin to skirt  steak to sirloin…then came sausages and chicken legs and chicken hearts.  I thought my favorite was the picanha…a cut called “rump cover” in the US where it can only rarely be found, but which is prized in MOST other countries above even filet tenderloin because of it’s robust flavor and tenderness.  It comes from the top sirloin area, but in the US the actual rump cover cut is divided so that pieces of it belong to other steaks and you can almost never find it whole unless you have a butcher.  The picanha was my favorite until they  brought me GARLIC picanha, which was so good that it was TOO good, and it almost hurt my mouth (and my soul!) to eat it.

I kept telling the waiters that I only wanted the tiniest morsel to taste…whether I said it in English, Portugese, Spanish,  or French (the waiters are all multi-lingual), or just pinched my fingers together to indicate, “Just a tiny bit, please,”  they still cut off almost steak-sized portions of meat for me.

I had been to churrascarias in the states before, but it was nothing like this.  Of course Christian and Vitoria and Marinho  and Pi were accustomed to this.  They don’t eat there frequently because it’s very expensive, but I was a complete virgin to  this experience, and I still haven’t wrapped my head around it effectively.

Finally, the meat stopped.  I looked down at my plate which still held probably a pound of prime, grass-fed beef, and wept.   Our plates disappeared by the deft hands of the waiters.

Pi leaned over to me with a gleam in his eye and said, “They have cleaned our table now, and we have asked them to bring the  main courses.”  Courses.  Plural.

I could have slapped him.  But it was a joke, and I knew it, and we all had a good laugh after I recovered from the idea of  more food.

The dessert cart came by and Christian, of course, had to partake.  He ordered a slice of lemon cream pie and a scoop of a  tiramisu-like combination of creamy pudding and chocolate-covered nougat bonbons.

Dessert at Jardineira
The check came, and Vitoria and Marinho very graciously picked up the tab.  The spoke to each other quietly in Portugese, and  I later found out in the car that Marinho had said, “Yes, it’s expensive, but think about what we’ve just enjoyed together!   When is the next time we will all be together like this, enjoying each other’s company and sharing a feast?  There is no  price you can put on this.”

It may have been expensive by Brasilian churrascaria standards, but the tab came out to around $40 per person, which included  all our food and drinks.  The currascarias in Dallas are much more expensive.  And not nearly as lavish.

They rolled me out in a wheelbarrow.

Not really, but I wanted them to.  I was still in shock and it took awhile for me to come back to myself.

“Make sure you saved room for dinner,” Marinho said, “Floh is taking you to all-you-can-eat Japanese food tonight.”

I had no response to that.

We came back to Marinho’s apartment and I plopped onto the couch.

“I have a delicious coffee ice cream I want you to try, Ben.”  And that wasn’t a joke.  I begged for a little time, so we all  sat around and chatted.  And somehow I drifted off.

When I woke up, they were all looking at me.  “How long was I out?” I asked.

“We’re leaving for the airport in three hours,” Christian said.  “You’ve been asleep for three days.  The wedding was lovely, it’s too bad you missed it.”

I almost believed him!  Moments later, Marinho had a bowl of coffee ice cream in front of me.  Marinho is very health- conscious in his eating, and I just couldn’t believe this ice cream was fat free, but it was.

Floh called and said she was ready for us at her apartment across the river, so Marinho drove over the spectacular estaiada bridge over the Rio Pinheiros.  Estaiada is the type of bridge, not the name…it’s a suspension bridge, but the platforms  are gracefully curved and the central tower reaches up into the sky at a striking angle.  The actual name is Octavio Frias de Oliveira, but most people just call it “Ponte Estaiada.”  It’s magnificent.

Floh and Enrico and Pi and Flavia live in the same apartment building in Panamby, which is a fairly remote district of Sao  Paulo.  It was one of the last areas to be developed in Sao Paolo, so it’s one of the newest.  Because it takes 2 hours to  get to downtown in traffic, it’s a cheaper area to live in.  But, of all the districts I’ve seen, Panamby is the one where  I’d live.  There are still large remnants of forest from the farms that were there, so your view is of thick green jungle  rather than a wall of high-rises.  Because of the trees, the air is much fresher and cooler.  There’s actually a fragment of  original Atlantic Forest directly below Floh’s balcony which is protected by law.

Floh took us to see the slum at her gym.

Yeah, I thought that sounded weird, too, when everyone was telling us, “Floh will take you to see the favela at her gym.”

In Panamby, the super-rich, the middle-class, and the dirt-poor all cohabit.  The big favela is surrounded by some of the  most expensive luxury apartments in the city, some of which have private pools on EACH balcony.  The gym where Floh works out  has a giant glass wall that looks out over the favela.  So whille the middle-class people like Floh and the incredible  wealthy people are swimming laps or working on stairmasters with their iPod going, their view is down over the slum where  people’s average income is 300 or 400 Reais a month.  (The current exchange rate is $1 to 2.3 Reais, so those people bring  home around $150 a month.)  Pi says that you will see a Ferrari parked on one street, and the next street over will be one of  the poorest in the city.

Panamby Favela, Sao Paulo

The favela (or slum) adjacent to Panamby, one of the wealthiest districts in Sao Paulo

After the gym, Floh needed to run some errands at the mall, and while we were there, she said, “Oh, Ben, let’s get an acai.”   Acai is a berry from the northern regions of Brasil that has just recently become trendy in the U.S.  It’s one of the most  nutritious substances available in nature, and also gives a strong energy boost.  To make the acai, they blend the berry up  with ice and sometimes other fruits like guarana and banana (Floh’s favorite).  We ate the acai with a drink made from mate  (pronounced “MAH-tay,” a stimulant tea that is a cultural institution in Argentina, blended with pineapple and passion fruit.   (J-P and I discovered how popular mate was in Argentina…it’s like tea in the Middle East.  Any time you have social or  professional interaction with someone, you must share a mate with them.  It is drunk through a metal straw which has a filter  permanently attached to the end to strain out the leaves as you drink, and the whole thing is passed from person to person, sharing the same straw.)

We convinced Floh that we couldn’t do justice to a Japanese buffet for dinner, so she decided to cook for us.  Back at the  apartment, she put together an amazing dinner.  It started with a cheese salad made from a type of crumbly cheese like a ricotta or feta mixed with onions, garlic, and tomatoes, along with olive oil and oregano and cumin.  Delicioso!  She also offered us a hard cheese from nearby Minas Gerais, that we put hot pepper jam on top of.  The main course was artichoke risotto, smothered in parmegiano and olive oil.  Afterward I relaxed in the hammock on Floh’s balcony listening to the rain in the trees, and life was perfect!

If there has been one theme of my visit here, it has been food.  You can scarcely go an hour without being asked, “Are you ready for some food?”  And yet everyone is skinny and beautiful.  It must be something in the water…

Around midnight, Pi drove us back to Vera’s apartment, which is 30kms from Floh’s.

More tomorrow as we prepare to leave for the US!

Love,

Ben

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