The charming little town of Tiradentes within the state of Minas Gerais was built as a haven for 18th century mining barons who quarried the nearby hills and mountains extracting vast quantities of gold, emeralds, diamonds and iron. At one time Minas Gerais (its name translates to “general mines”) was the richest state in Brazil. Founded in 1702, this town is located at the bottom of the St Joseph Mountain and remains a provincial retreat, a striking change from the usual hustle bustle of large Brazilian cities. Tiradentes languidly shows off its 18th century architecture charisma with cobblestoned streets, impressive old churches, fountains, squares and markets. Yet it is also a modern culinary destination with its fair share of restaurants and cafés plus Tiradentes is an official SLOW city espousing Slow Food principals. And it hosts for one the most important Gastronomy Festivals in all of Brazil happening now.
Tiradentes: A martyred man
Born as Joaquim José da Silva Xavier to a poor family Brazilian family in 1746, the Tiradentes story is both tragic and ultimately inspiring. Though lacking in formal education, Tiradentes grew to be an intelligent and resourceful man and among other professions became a “tooth puller” or field dentist in the army, and his nickname stuck. He traveled widely and was able to see for himself how the crown pillaged all the gold (30,000 lbs. per year was demanded and brought back to Portugal) and then extorted further debilitating taxes from the local population. Tiradentes eventually came in contact with like minded individuals who became enlightened by the American and French Revolutions. Responding to injustices perpetuated upon his people by her Portuguese rulers, Tiradentes joined the separatist group Inconfidência Mineira, seeking independence. Betrayed by one of the key members of the group, Tiradentes and many other were arrested by royal authorities in 1789. After a nearly three year trial, some members of the Incofidencia were acquitted, some found guiltily and banished while other were found guilty but pardoned by Portuguese Queen Maria I. All but Tiradentes. Some say it was due to his humble origins, while official records state he proudly accepted full responsibility for revolutionary actions. On April 21, 1792 he was publicly hanged in Rio de Janeiro in a plaza known today as Praça Tiradentes. His dead body was then brutally quartered and his body parts were sent to far corners of Brazil as a reminder to the people. Almost a hundred years later, the Tiradentes legend grew and helped lead the cause toward Brazilian independence in 1889. The small town of São José del Rey adopted the name Tiradentes at that time. April 21st is a national holiday in Brazil.
The Gastronomy Festival of Tiradentes is an important part of the Brazilian culinary landscape. Though based is a tiny town, people from all over Brazil as well as international visitors, come to Tiradentes to hear culinary lectures, see demonstrations, meet and greet top chefs, taste fine wines, listen to rousing music (Samba) and of course, enjoy both the elaborate and humble foods on display. The Festival usually runs from the third weekend in August throughout the following weekend. Events takes place in the small downtown area of Tiradentes, at various restaurants all over and at the Pousada Villa Paolucci or (Villa Paolucci Inn) an exclusive retreat in town. This was where I experienced a fabulous samba dancing exhibition plus a very unique look at one of the most intriguing foods I sampled in Brazil. Minas Gerais is important pig country in Brazil and pork products are presented n a multitude of ways such as various kinds of sausages, shredded, barbequed, roasted or in empanadas.
Pork, pork pork
Speaking of pork, at one point I watched something quite unique to me, however eagerly awaited by the assembled crowd. Dr. Luiz Ney, a well known gynecologist by day, is famous Chef by night. His specialty is Leitao a Pururuca. The word Pururucar means to “pop up” or crackle the skin in an indigenous Indian language. Dr. Ney marinates his “Leitao” or suckling pig for seven hours, then slow cooks the meat in a wood burning over for seven hours. What is special is his invented hand held heating element that projects heat of more than 800 degrees, which he holds very close to the meat. The element is extremely hot, but Ney is cool under fire and doesn’t even wear gloves. He said, “This technique is only for pork and my family has been doing this for over a hundred years.” The fat in the meat makes crackling and popping sounds as it bubbles up rapidly near the heater. It’s a very odd sight and you can hear that sharp sizzle-pop sounds. But it tasted delicious, with caramelized burnt ends mixed with the expertly prepared pork below the skin. Typical Leitao side dishes include garlic rice, tutu, kale and roasted potatoes with rosemary. Tutu is a combo if beans mixed with manioc (cassava root) flour cooked together. Sometimes there are slices of orange too. With some ice cold draft beer and samba dancing and the scene was ideal.
“This is my first time here,” said Amauri Peloia visiting from Sao Paolo. “This festival is like others but there’s nothing like this (referring to the Leitao Pururuca). “I come here to eat!” “They have a strong food culture here…I come here to eat.”
The Pousada Villa Paolucci portion of the Festival costs 300 Real (about $150 dollars) but all food, alcohol and music was included. Some of the fancy wine dinners are even more expensive but include everything. These dinners attract foodies from all over Brazil, and beyond.
Another Festival must taste is the famous Yum Yum Coxinha, served on the fair grounds or at their restaurant just outside of town. Coxinha is fried chicken thighs, made in various South America countries but Chef Thereza Cristina M. Oliveira’s version is considered the best in all of Brazil. Coxinhas are little balls of chicken thigh meat, rolled into a chicken thigh shape that comes with or without cheese inside. (Also offered with shrimp meat) These balls are rolled in a light batter (using a secret recipe) and then fried. They come out hot and tender, not at all greasy and simply delightful!
The Gastronomy Festival of Tiradentes offers visitors a chance to see and experience Brazilian culture, like stirring samba, and all sorts of foods, like Leitao in a very relaxed, casual and safe atmosphere. For lodging, there are many choices but the elegant Pousada Tiradentes is the place to stay in Tiradentes, best in town. I hope to return to explore other sites sounds and tastes of the Festival next year.
c. Bob Ecker 2013
Various airlines including American Airlines fly from the US to Brazil.
Note: a Visa is required but easy to get. Tiradentes is about a 3 hour drive from Belo Horizonte and a four hour drive from Rio de Janeiro.
Festival Information: www.culturaegastronomia.com.br