28 January 2009

Obama Day 8: tough first days on the job call for extra potent drinks after work

So it is about a week after the US Inauguration and spirits are high here in Brasil as people put trust in the new US president to follow through on his ambitious promises to change the world image of the United States from World Bully, to World Progressor. So far he has done pretty well. If you want to monitor his Executive Branch activities check out The St. Petersburg Times' sharp "Obameter" that monitors the guy's campaign commitments at: http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/promises/ . I thought we should therefore raise a glass and continue with all the hullabaloo and hope for a renewed USA and keep the libations flowing. In Brasil folks clink shot glasses filled with a sugar cane liquor called “cachaça” (kah-shah-sah) while gleefully shouting (and eventually slurring), “cheers” in Portuguese: “saúde” (sa-oo-jee)!

What better way to make a little party than to mix up the most well-know Brasilian cocktail: the caipirinha (kah-ee-pee-deen-yah). Here is how it is done:

  • Get yourself some limes, wash them, cut them in half (through the middle not from stem top to bottom), and score them by making 2-4 cuts into the rind (like pictured) without cutting all the way through...though if you are lazy you can just cut the lime up into how ever many small sections you want.

  • Put some well-refined sugar (as much or little as you like) in a glass, tumbler, mug, whatever as long as it has a wide mouth opening. If you use a less-refined sugar it will take longer for it to dissolve and therefore more wait-time before you can drink. Put the cut lime flesh-side down on top of the sugar.

  • Take a wooden or plastic muddler, spoon, potato masher, or something to squash the lime into the sugar until you have lots a sugared lime juice in your glass. Add as many limes as you like.

  • Put ice in the glass (chopped is best), followed by a generous shot of cachaça. Pour the whole mixture in a martini shaker or just put your hand securely over the glass, and shake! Add optional straw and drink till your heart's content.
When I was eleven years-old, my grandfather handed me a tiny, glass medicine bottle and told me (with a devilish grin) to take a sip of the mysterious, clear liquid that was in it. As I knocked-back a healthy dose, all I remember was what felt like a mixture of rubbing alcohol and liquid fire burning a corrosive path from the tip of my tongue to back of my throat and down my esophagus. Coughing and spitting and crying from the confusion of being poisoned by my own flesh and blood, I wiped my eyes of their tears to see my grandfather laughing at my near-death experience. Now, you may think that I had been subjected to some kind of torturous hazing ritual by the patron of my own family, and maybe I kind of was, but I sure never made an attempt to sample from grandpa’s liquor stash, unless he was present. And if any of us grandkids were curious about smoking, he did the same live-and-learn example with cigarettes and cigars as a way to scare us away from experimenting with those kinds of vices until we were at least a little older. Did it work? Sorta. If nothing else it taught all of us to respect and maybe fear our no-nonsense, Southern, mountain-man grandpa. Maybe it was also all those Christmases when he dressed up like Santa (he looked just like him), made every one of us give him a kiss and let the babies pull on his snowy beard.

The probably 190-proof (95% pure) alcohol that my grandfather gave me was colloquially called “white lightening” or “moonshine” by the backwoods distillers and patrons of the South in the earlier part of the 20th Century. Though moonshine can still be found in personal liquor cabinets and hidden in the back of divey bars, modern regulations have re-packaged it, given it the name “Everclear,” and regulated its strength as either 151 or 190-proof (though the stronger one is illegal to sell in fifteen US states).

Ok, so what does all this have to do with Brasil and cachaça? Well, first off, another name for cachaça is "Aguardente" which translates to "burning (or flaming) water," so in other words; it is just like what Grandpa had stored in the basement. This Brasilian version though is generally lower in alcohol content (between 38%-48%), if it is produced commercially. Though many of the small-scale, artisan and better-tasting pingas produced in my corner of the world might have labels displaying how strong they are, just as many do not and a test of their strength is gaged only by how quickly you forget how to walk a straight line while you are drinking them. Maybe that is why another fitting name for cachaça is "Aquela-que-matou-o-guarda," or "the one that killed the cop!"

Here in Paraty, we are famous for our cachaça or "pinga" (peen-ga) from the verb "pingar" which means "to drop." This are became known as a pinga producer beginning in the 1800s after farmers attempting to get rich off of refined sugar realized that there was too much rain here for large-scale sugar cane cultivation. Instead, by utilizing the countless rivers and streams swimming through the forests and mountains here, a big wheel could be fitted to churn hydro-electricity that could power a mill and thereby make a lot of product that required a lot less sugar cane. An industry was born and for many years the word "Paraty" or "Parati" (the other way to spell the name) became synonomous with the word "cachaça." Even Brasil's king Dom Pedro II (born 1825-1891) reportedly placed special orders for the highest quality "Parati."

You see, to say you are going to buy a bottle of cachaça is like saying you are going to buy a bottle of vodka or whiskey; they are types of distilled alcohol. Here I will quote directly from Wikipedia:

Cachaça, like rum, has two varieties: un-aged (white) and aged (gold). White cachaça is usually bottled immediately after distillation and tends to be cheaper…Dark cachaça, usually seen as the "premium" variety, is aged in wood barrels and is meant to be drunk pure. Its flavor is influenced by the type of wood the barrel is made of...I however feel that if I want my cachaça to have a charred wood overtone, I would just drink scotch.

There are also other grades of cachaça that are hard to find outside of Brasil. "Azulada" (a-zoo-la-dah), in which tangerine leaves are added and results in a very high-quality mix that has a slight blue cast to it (see photo below). "Gabriela" is a local concoction that infuses cinnamon, clove and sugar together to get something truly magical and lovingly reminiscent of something that would be found in a large pot on the stove at a family Christmas gathering (though I prefer Gabriela with an ice cube). Pinga blended with pumpkin, banana, passion fruit, chocolate, etc. are among the many ways producers find ways of tantalizing consumers. Another popular way to drink pinga here is to put a healthy dose of honey in a cup then pour a dangerously large amount of the alcohol on top and mix until the honey becomes one with the pinga. Delicious! Below is a photo from a shop that sells, floor to ceiling, every variety of cachaça under the sun along with jarred, sweet compotes and preserves and locally made hot sauces.

Every civilization that has had access to either some sort of starch or fruit, has discovered through either a happy accident or painstaking chemistry experiments, that a little time and a thing called fermentation will turn a potato or a grape into a glass of Good Times. Alcohol has been used to commemorate both sadness and celebration the world over, and though there are those folks out there who think the stuff is the work of the Devil (and maybe they are right), it also is a liquid marker of a culture's culinary ambitions. A good, stiff drink so often compliments the flavors and scents of a meal since the dirt used to grow the vegetables and feed the animals that will be made into food also adds the same nutrients and complexity to what can also be turned into an alcoholic beverage, so everything logically synchronizes and harmonizes once put together. Though good food can stand on its own, a drink before, during, and/or after makes it an experience!

After this was posted, I was corrected by several Brasilian bartenders on what I thought was an authentic caipirinha recipe. To avoid an unwanted sour taste on the tongue, cut out and discard the middle, white, core parts of the lime before muddling with the sugar. Thanks!

1 comment:

  1. Can't say I drink much, but my one experience with it was reminiscent of a refined, sweet moonshine. It was smooth like well made shine and packed a punch wrapped in a velvet glove. It would be interesting to taste the flavored varieties. Thanks for the explanation. YoMa


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