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.
More recipes in The Perfect Pantry:
Vaca atolada ("cow stuck in the mud")
Cheese-y cornmeal cakes
Jilo and onions
Thanks to Sandra, Martin, Ted and Ben for contributing photos to this post.
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.
what an awesome post. many thanks for sharing.
out of curiosity, is there a Brazilian version of chimichurri? maybe when your friend Peter shares his love story he can include the recipe HAHA
My in-laws visited Brazil and this drink was all they could talk about on their return. Wondering if the cachaca is available here...
are these "red devil" limes available in the states? Should I be looking for these in a local specialty store? I am intrigued!
I have to laugh, "Your own drink, please." I got in trouble with some friends recently when I was making mojitos and did just that with their drink to make sure the balance was right.
I restaurant in Boston (Toro) caramelizes the limes in sugar for their version. I haven't tried it yet, but now I think I must!
Great post and pics, Lydia - you could come back and lead distillery tours. We had a full day! I already sent the link off to Nondas, though I imagine you probably did too. We had a guest recently who claimed that a caipirinha made with limão capeta is called "Killing Matilda". What do you figure the story behind that is? Must be an Aussie thing.
Great post! Those copper vats are gorgeous!
now this was a fun post! very interesting indeed. and I loved that you had to sneak at the pantry! LOL
Fascinating---I feel like I've returned from a virtual trip to Brazil! I had no idea that caipirinha means "little peasant girl," and those red devil limes you mentioned have me intrigued. I love little tidbits like that--they make food & drink that more interesting!
Milton, chimichurri originated in Argentina, though it's popularity has spread throughout South and Central America.
Aimee, I'm sure it is available in Canada -- though many of the small-production cachaças like this one might not be. Yet.
Carol, I honestly don't know. (If any readers have found the diablo limes here, please leave a comment.)
Julia, if dinner guests knew how often we use our hands as kitchen tools.... well....
Peter, I love that! We had a great day with you and Marcinha and Nondas.
Laura, they really were as beautiful as they look in Sandra's photo.
Dawn, I am incorrigible and must look in everyone's pantries!
Sandie, the best part about traveling is discovering foods that are completely new to you. For me, as a pretty-near teetotaler, cachaça was completely new.
thanks for the post!
I love visiting distilleries (as you may have noticed) - what a fantastic trip, and nothing better than wrapping the day with a little cheese at the kitchen table!
no alcohol for me, but what does it taste like?
So interesting! Glad I found this. I like to drink caipirinhas, but never knew the whole process involved. And organic cachaça! Very cool.
By the way, I have some Brazilian food on my blog, too, though we're in a different part of the country, so the food is different, too.
Glad to have found your site.
Looking forward to more of your Brazil posts!
TW, cheese makes everything better, even a perfectly perfect morning at a distllery.
Kim, to me it tasted like fire, because I don't drink -- but my travel companions pronounced it smooth and delicious.
Ellie, glad to know of your blog. I'm very excited about Brazilian cooking now!
every time I come here, I learn something new and my wish list grows :D It sounds like you had a good trip, and love the behind the scenes photos :)
Beautiful pictures - thanks for letting us all live vicariously! Looks like you had a great time!
What a wonderful trip / tour! I've never been anywhere in South America. Now I really want to go. Is the beef as wonderful as I've heard? (Coming from a place where it isn't all that wonderful)
Amazing! I've been drinking Beija Cachaca a lot lately, so it was really nice to actually see how cachaca is made and what's special about it. Looks like an awesome trip!
I could throw back some of that...:)
Noobcook, Hillary: we did have a wonderful trip! More posts to come, too. I hope you will enjoy them.
Katie, the beef we had was delicious, and it was always cooked quite simply, on the grill.
Sues, I wish I could be more descriptive of the taste of this cachaça, but I'm not a drinker. To me, it tasted hot! But everyone else described it as smooth.
Peabody, any ideas for baking with cachaça?
What a great post! My guy spent a month and a half last year in Brazil, with our Brazilian friend showing him the ropes. He brought back several bottles of cachaca. Caipirinhas are amazing with just-grilled picanha and vinagrete! Ahh, summer barbecues, how I'll miss you.
I look forward to seeing more of what you ate in Brasil!
Oh, I forgot to mention that I made orange-cachaca truffles at Christmas last year. They turned out well, but the chocolate did overpower the subtle smoky-sweet nuances of the particular cachaca I used.
Great post, good to learn how the booze is made. The cachaca is dangerous and the Caipirinha? Decadently delicious and worth the hangover the next day. ;)
So behind on reading blogs after being away for six days, but I love the photos of Brazil in this post!
Very cool tour. I look forward to seeing your recipes for cachaça.
I understand exactly what drew your friend Peter. I met my wife in Boston, but she introduced me to the world of cachaca and the cuisine of Bahia, another region of Brazil.