Brazil food: Cachaça (Recipe: caipirinha)
The second in an occasional series of posts over the next few weeks about Brazilian food and ingredients we discovered during our visit.
When my friend Peter told me he was moving from Rhode Island to Brazil, I understood why he was going.
He'd fallen in love with a wonderful woman from Belo Horizonte. (Some day, he'll tell you the story.)
I didn't know anything about where he was going, but I should have known that Peter, a professional chef, would land in a part of the world famous as much for its distinctive cuisine as for coffee, diamonds, and colonial architecture.
Located in the mountainous region of southeast Brazil, the state of Minas Gerais produces some of the country's finest farmhouse cheese, beef and cachaça, the fire-water alcohol used to make America's new favorite cocktail, the caipirinha.
So, when Epaminondas Pires de Miranda ("Nondas"), owner of Cachaça Velha Serrana, invited us to tour the distillery where he produces artisanal, organic cachaça, we set off for Serro, where we would meet at a gas station and follow his truck to the farm.
Ted and Peter sorted out the logistics, and we set off for the distillery, following this unmarked dirt road for many kilometers through cattle grazing land and sugar cane fields.
Part of the 1,000-hectare farm, which used to belong to Nondas' godfather, is still used for dairy; one-third of the land is planted with sugar cane.
Only the heart of the sugar cane is used for cachaça (pronounced cah SHAH sah). The rest is turned into pure alcohol.
To start the cachaça-making process, sugar cane is fed through a grinder.
The resulting mash is funneled into large vats.
A small amount of corn is added as a fermentation agent; later in the process, it will be strained out. Cachaça Velha Serrana is a certified organic product, so no artificial or chemical fermentation agents can be used.
After 24 hours in the fermentation vats, the mash is pumped into copper heating tanks.
When the alcohol is heated and cooled to the proper temperature, it's filtered and transferred into barrels to age for two years or more. (Commercially produced cachaça often is not aged at all.) The large barrels, more than ten feet tall, are made of oak, which Nondas explains yields the very best flavor. He also ages some of the cachaça in barrels made of umburana or jequitiba wood. The aging barrels are washed with water twice a day, to keep the wood from absorbing too much of the cachaça.
A specialist comes in to create the final blend, selecting from each of the barrels to create a final product that's consistent in color and flavor. The resulting cachaça is 40 percent alcohol by volume.
Nandos proudly pointed out that his cachaça is labeled certified organic and also carries the seal designating it a special product of Minas Gerais (similar to the D.O.P. designation in Europe for products such as Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and real balsamic vinegar).
After seeing the process from beginning to end, we were deputized for quality control.
Our tour ended, as most visits in Brazil would, in the farmhouse kitchen, where we enjoyed Serro cheese, pão de quiejo (cheese bread), coffee, and Nandos' gracious hospitality.
Of course I had to sneak a peek in the pantry.
Cachaça Velha Serrana, founded in 2001, produces 3,000 liters a day, small production compared to some of the large commercial distilleries. According to Nandos, a deal is in the works with Budweiser to distribute his cachaça in the US in the near future. (Several commercial brands are available here.)
Ted and I brought home two lovely bottles of Velha Serrana cachaça (a gift from Nandos), and I'm planning to use some of it to make brown caipirinha truffles, white caipirinha truffles, and flambéed caipirinha scallops.
What else can I cook or bake with some of our cachaça while we're making caipirinhas with the rest?
Please share your recipes and ideas in the comments.
Cousin Martin's caipirinha
If mojitos are the "in" cocktail, caipirinhas (kye peer EEN yahs) are the "in the know" drink, a recent arrival on the American bar scene. The word caipirinha means "little peasant girl", and the drink is made in Brazil with a type of lime called "red devil". There must be a story in that! Cousin Martin did the honors the evening after our visit to Nandos' farm, and shared his caipirinha recipe. Makes 1 cocktail; can be doubled, tripled or more.
Cut a fiery red diablo lime into eighths (or use a regular Mexican green lime if that is all that is available).
In a bowl, muddle (crush) the lime with 2 tablespoons of sugar using a wooden "muddler" stick or a pestle, until all of the juice is extracted from the lime segments and the sugar has dissolved into the juice. (Remove any seeds). Add 1/4 cup (2 ounces or 2 jiggers) of cachaça and stir to mix.
As an optional step, you can stir with your impeccably clean finger (only for your own drink, please!) and taste, adjusting with more lime or sugar as necessary. Then pour over ice in an Old Fashioned glass, including the lime segments. No garnish necessary, but a sprig of fresh mint is always nice. Sip and enjoy.
Thanks to Sandra, Martin, Ted and Ben for contributing photos to this post.