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Companheiros and Churascarias
"Companions of the Good Table" share food and wine in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
by Fred Ferretti

Rio de Janeiro is an irrepressible city, a cidade maravilhosa, of those irreverent and permissive people known as cariocas, for whom Rio's series of improbably beautiful half-moon beaches, its urban tropical rain forest, and its Corcovado (a humpback of a mountain holding a giant stone Christ) are personal indulgences. It is a place of public music and tiled sidewalks that seem to waver and curl in the hot sun of the afternoons; a place in which half the citizens, it seems, converge each Saturday on Ipanema Beach at the fashionable Caesar Park Hotel to have feijoada completa, the thick stew of beef and pork and black beans that is Brazil's national dish; a place where a minor social gaffe would be to refuse a batida, an extraordinarily potent aperitif of fruit and cachaca, an alcohol distilled from sugar cane.

It is therefore not at all unexpected that each month the Companheiros da Boa Mesa, those Companions of the Good Table, gather in Rio to feast and to drink and to talk only about "the goodness of the table, for in this world there is so little else to which that can be compared." Reinaldo Paes Barreto made this observation over flutes of bubbling M. Chandon champanha, the very good méthode champenoise wine that Casa Moët & Chandon produces at its Brazilian vineyards in Garibaudi.

I had been invited to join their monthly luncheon, and as we awaited the call to table I chatted with the chairman and with others of the companheiros, including the "newest companion," Guilherme de Sampaio Ferraz, whose induction had consisted of choosing the wines of the day and planning the menu in cooperation with the chef.

Guilherme is a surgeon, and he had had the good sense to put off all elective surgery until the conclusion of his induction luncheon, a circumstance Carlos de Laet, the Moët & Chandon representative, agreed was the correct attitude for a companheiro, an assessment that Alfredo Machado, "who publishes Jorge Amado," affirmed with a nod. Danusia Barbara, a companheiro, who has written a guide to the restaurants of Brazil, was the center of her own group of companheiros, suggesting to them that "once Brazilian food was so wonderful, but now to get the tastes of good fish and good fruit you must go to Bahia, where you sample cooking with African dendé oil. Rio is cosmopolitan. Portuguese food is fine here, and so is the food of France, but not Brazilian." Heads lifted as Danusia Barbara spoke, and just as there was about to be some issue taken with her assertions, we were summoned to the table.

This pleased Carlos de Laet, who said, "I prefer amity when I eat."

There was, as Chairman Reinaldo had expected, a salada Comanheiros da Boa Mesa, a plate consisting of cold oysters, a tartare of salmonlike dorado, and a small round feuilleté mounded with steamed scallops. It was a fine dish, and the companheiros applauded and toasted the salada with Chateau Chandon Branco.

Next came pato fantasia de Pré Catalan, sliced breast of duck with mango and broccoli, accompanied by tiny rësti. Glasses of Chateau Chandon Reserva Tinto were raised to the chef's sweets, his selecto de sobremesas do chef, that brought "ahs!" from the companheiros. A mango custard, an egg-shaped dollop of pistachio ice cream, and a gateau of chocolate layered with fresh guava were arranged on a cold plate.

Then lunch was over and the Companheiros da Boa Mesa adjourned a meeting that Reinalda Paes Barreto pronounced "exquisite, but one that will allow us to return to work because we cannot sleep in the afternoon."

The violins that once played each afternoon at teatime have not been heard for years, and the poets no longer gather around the white marble tables to drink, eat pastries, and read to each other. Almost three decades ago the politicians stopped coming because they left Rio and its government buildings for the "new" capital of Brasília. Many afternoons the gracefully turned and trellised balcony of Confeitaria Colombo is empty.

But the aromas are there, smells of coffee and sweet cakes; of tiny boat-shaped pastry barquetas filled with berries; of bananas fritas con mel, fried bananas with honey; of compotas of figs, peaches, and plums. For many cariocas there is no other place to have their afternoon juices (their sucos) their pastries, and their thick cafézinho that this downtown tearoom, a relic of Rio de Janeiro's A Bela-Epoca.

The Confeitaria Colombo opened in 1894 at Rua Goncalves Dias, 32, as an exquisitely turned out tearoom with peach marble counters, giant mirrored walls framed in elaborately carved rosewood curved glass cabinets to display pastries, and tall carved wood cabinets to hold the brandies and Cognacs and culinary exotica. It was envisioned perhaps by its Portuguese immigrant founders, Manoel Jose Lebrio and Joaquim Borges de Meireles, as an outpost of Paris or Vienna or Budapest in Southern America.

For almost seventy years this was the place where artistic and influential Rio gathered, where the social elite sought refuge from the afternoon heat. It was where one came to be seen in a new dress, new spats, perhaps a fawn vest, in the evening. Then fashionable Rio moved outward from downtown to the beaches, to new neighborhoods at the feet of its mountains and around the shores of its lagoon, the Lago Rodrigo de Freitas. The public officials left.

Yet these days the Confeitaria Comombo is very much the tearoom it once was. The sun still streams in through its stained-glass skylight. Its geometric tiled floor is kept scrubbed, its crystal polished, and to go inside and sit at one of the old tables that have been there since 1894 is to be part of a sweet continuum. Don't miss it.

There is no part of Rio without a street market. In the evenings the vendors line up along the avenue called Atlantica, their booths illuminated by street lamps and by candles. In the mornings you walk along the Rua Visconde de Pirajá, past the men making chocolate candies on their street carts, to Ipanema's Fiera de Paz, a fine market around the perimeter of a huge square. Tents under spreading, gnarled banyan trees shield from the sun cascades of flowers, mounds of miniature oranges, bunches of fresh laurel and garlic. You enjoy guitar music with your ice cream

Just across the street is Polis Sucos, which Rio suggests is its best juice bar, where pineapples, papayas, mangoes, and watermelons are puréed, often with milk, to make those sucos naturais so beloved by the cariocas.

Over in the next neighborhood, Leblon, is the vast covered market where the restaurateurs of Rio shop. Vendors' hand-lettered signs urge you to buy pomegranates; pinhas, or sweetsops; goiabas, or guavas; the sweet orange potatoes called batatas baroa; the small cucumbers called pepinos; and papayas do Amazonea, as well as the more mundane vegetables and fruit. Just past the stalls is the cheese counter of Alves Salgado, who sells his fresh, white queijo de Minas, along with dozens of Brazilian versions of other cheeses — mussarela, suisso, parmesão. Minas, however, is purely a Brazilian cheese, made from cows' milk. It can be soft, like farmer cheese, or harder, like Münster, and it is Brazil's favorite cheese.

Brazilians eat it with bread, fruit juices, salads, and guava marmalade. Minas is also delicious eaten while walking through the market of Leblon, which is how I enjoyed it, with a tiny, sweet yellow banana, a banana prata.

"You must absolutely experience a churrascaria while you are in Rio," our friend Claudia said one afternoon as we were walking Ipanema beach. "But it must be the correct churrascaria, it must be a rodizio."

Well, all right.

Churrascarisa are restaurants specializing in barbeque, and there are two kinds, those that cook to order, and rodizios, those that keep the food coming for as long as you can manage to eat. In our case we found ourselves in the oh-so-aptly named Porcão Churrascaria, which exists as far as I was able to determine only for the purpose of converting people into living sausages. At the insistence of Claudia we did not taste any of the selections from the appetizer buffet, a two-tiered table with more than thirty different dishes; but we did sample from the plates of rice, fried bananas, onions and potatoes, black beans and boiled manioc that were brought to the table as accompaniments to the meat. "Wait for the meat," said Claudia.

And it came, cuts and kinds, all impaled on swords that I was certain were once wielded by a regiment of hussars or by revolutionary followers of Simon Bolivar, each sword borne by a waiter who held it over your plate, then sliced. "Sirloin?" the first asked. "Yes," I said.

"Beef tenderloin? asked the next.

"Fine."

"Beef ribs? Ox hump?"

"Sure."

"Pork loin? Stuffed pork?"

"Why not?"

"London broil? London broil with garlic?"

"Uh huh. I guess."

"Chicken legs? Picanha, beef in a crust of salt? Chicken hearts? Pork with cheese? Turkey wrapped in bacon?"

"I don't think so," I said waving them off one by one.

"Porterhouse? Rump steak?"

"No, thank you."

"Pork chops? Chicken livers?"

"Mercy," I pleaded.

"You are not hungry, sir?" a waiter asked, evidently disconsolate because we had eaten only, by my estimate, just about the amount of meat that my basic training platoon might have ingested at evening mess.

"I'm resting," I told the waiter.

"He's had enough," said Claudia. "He'll never be a carioca."

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