A sweet history of Brazil



A sweet history of Brazil
Alexandre Menegale
A sweet history
of Brazil
Texts from Brazil . Nº 13
Compotes. Iolanda Huzak /Pulsar Imagens
Flavors from Brazil
rom sugarcane, from the sugarmill, from
the slave quarters, the history of Brazilian
sweets practically begins with the country’s origin.
Just like the characters Hansel and Gretel,
who left breadcrumbs on their path in order to
not get lost in the woods, if we sprinkle our history with crumbs of quindins, marmalades, compotes or crystallized fruits, we would certainly
trail a faithful and chronological panorama from
the formation of our people to the most recent
and refined manifestations of national confectionery. Emperor Dom Pedro II would gladly exchange his duties at the Court for a fig compote
which had just left the pan; Rui Barbosa melted
for hearty spoonfuls of potato sweet. And how
about ex-president João Goulart and Jorge Amado, true lovers of the coconut sweet? Not to mention ex-president Juscelino Kubitschek, who never refused a baba-de-moça, and the composers
Roberto Carlos and Chico Buarque, who might
have been inspired after generous portions of
pumpkin sweet.
But where does one of the strongest aspects of our culinary miscegenation come from?
According to historians, sugar, obtained from the
evaporation of sugarcane juice, was discovered
in India, around the 3rd century. But it was probably the Arabs who introduced it on a large scale
to gastronomy, creating candied almonds and
walnuts, as well as fig and orange compotes. In
the 15th century, when the Iberian Peninsula was
conquered, the same Arabs included sugarcane
among the seedlings of fruits they would use
in future sweets. From then on, from Portugal
and Spain, sugarcane arrived in America with
the discoverers. Done: the sweetest invasion of
Brazilian history had been carried out, a culture
According to the historian,
sugar, obtained from the
evaporation of sugarcane
juice, was discovered in
India, around the 3rd
which would continue through the following
More than simply describing well known
recipes, recalling flavors that flood our memories, or guessing the origin of a certain culinary
alchemy, I have decided to turn the caramel
colored pages of time. I was surprised with the
anthropological and gastronomical communion
of flavors. Before we even had an Emperor, we
had already surrendered to compotes, cakes and
sweet delicacies that gained local color and shape
when the Portuguese arrived at our coast.
In fact, many of the sweets we consider
Brazilian today have their origin in Portugal. The
story that the nuns in Portuguese convents used
egg whites to starch their robes, for example, is
a delicious one. What were they to do with the
enormous amount of leftover yolks? Since they
were creative, the nuns started making quindins, bom-bocados, papos-de-anjo, puddings and
custards with this blessed abundance of ingredients. Many generations have gone by and here
we are filling ourselves with these same delicacies – many believing to be the pioneers in the
sweet art of confectionery.
Before referring to the other European invasions, which would later contribute to the enrichment of our confections, let us focus on the
Texts from Brazil . Nº 13
Rapadura being molded. João Rural
Flavors from Brazil
In the sugar plantations of the
interior of Pernambuco, Paraíba,
Alagoas and Maranhão, as well as
in the houses of Recife, São Luiz
and Maceió, the black women cooks
were true alchemists in the creation
of a regional cuisine.
Texts from Brazil . Nº 13
Vendors of sponge cakes. J. B. Debret (1826)
Source: Castro Maya Museums – IPHAN/Minc – MEA 0203
Flavors from Brazil
communion of the Portuguese tradition with
Brazilian fruits. A fundamental link surfaces in
this production line: the black women cooks that
ascended from the slave quarters to their mistresses’ kitchens taking with them manioc flour,
maize flour, pumpkin and water yams for the
composition of their delicacies. We refer to a geographical region that includes, mainly, Pernambuco, Alagoas and the interior of São Paulo.
We are well aware that fruits have been the
basic ingredient for desserts for centuries – from
the far corners of Babylon to French and Italian
palaces. So, we can imagine how the Portuguese,
who mixed honey with their fruits before the
common usage of sugar, were fascinated with
the possibilities of our plentiful pulps in every
corner of this recently-discovered country. We
are talking about ambrosias, pumpkin compotes, banana and orange preserves, coconut
sweets, meringues, tapiocas and so many other
Still in colonial times, cashew and guava
sweets attained a noble standing, already being
considered the jewels of the manor house. But
those were also the times in which aromas of
fried and roasted bananas, covered with cinnamon, invaded the properties, just as the so-called
mel de engenho (sugarcane honey) was mixed with
yams and breadfruit, the traditional rice pudding
gains national flavor in the coconut rice pudding.
At the same time, tapioca gained its position on
the patriarchal tea tables: alone or in the company of pamonhas, beijus, couscous and cocadas.
This is also when pé-de-moleque was created, as
well as canjicas and corn-based cakes.
Although most of the origins of sweets are
identified, the authenticity of the Souza Leão cake
– that is still popular in Pernambuco – is claimed
by several recipes.
Still on cakes: wedding cakes and those
sugar pyramids in the center of noble tables have
their origin in Portugal. Thus, the art of decorating begins, with letters and drawings made from
cinnamon, embroidered tablecloths and napkins,
as well as boxes, ornaments and cut paper. One
must remember the colonial tradition in Brazil:
it was customary, in religious processions, for
the devotees to carry trays of sweets as personal offerings to individuals who represented the
biblical figures. It seems that one of the first accusations of suspected Judaism during the Inquisition had its origin in these processions: a man
is said to have offered sweets shaped like Jewish
After some time, the most enchanting ally
of cooking and, why not, the customs of modern
our manioc (or macaxeira) flour.
In the sugar plantations of the interior of
civilization, was ice. From then on, to Brazilian
fruits, included in sweets, marmalades and pud-
Pernambuco, Paraíba, Alagoas and Maranhão,
as well as in the houses of Recife, São Luiz and
dings served still hot, new flavors and techniques
were added and they were transformed into ice
Maceió, the black women cooks were true alchemists in the creation of a regional cuisine. Not
creams, which were considered as custards for
hot days, as they pleased both the eyes and the
to mention Bahia, state in which white tradition
is barely visible today in the stews, subdued as
it was by the overpowering heat of the African
spices used by the black women cooks.
With the proven prestige of sugarcane honey, alongside with allies such as manioc, water
Breaking through the borders of the plantations and mills, they surfaced as a trend in the
first confectioneries of the big cities of Brazil. The
delicacy was almost a milestone for the end of the
classical and fuming patriarchal desserts and for
Texts from Brazil . Nº 13
Cheese and goiabada (guava sweet). João Prudente / Pulsar Imagens
discrediting tea parties with country cheese and
toast. According to historians, newspapers of the
first half of the 19th century depict ice cream with
a shape of sin: the confectioneries which were
until then far restricted to men, started to welcome the first young ladies.
Years pass by and the arrival of the first
European immigrants spread the genes of the
British, French and German confectionary traditions – like pollen adding, altering and adapting
the new Brazilian features with their talent for
sweets. Today, white refined sugar is the most
common, but to prepare sweets and compotes,
crystal sugar is widely used. In addition, some
traditional recipes use raw sugar or rapadura.
The dichotomy between pleasure and guilt is one
of the dogmas that surround us. Candies, pies,
cookies, marmalades, compotes, mousses, ice
creams and gelatins live within the imaginary of
our taste buds.
Flavors from Brazil
We treasure memories, images and smells.
Who does not dream of smearing his fingers with
a piece of homemade guava sweet, or become
the happiest person on earth when vigorously
biting into a delicious cream filled pastry, or fill
ourselves of patriotic pride after savoring a large
variety of sweets made with Brazilian fruits?
Whatever the reason, the origin of the national
confectionery is, after all, anthropological, historical and elucidative. Once you have finished
these pages, don’t shun away: close your eyes
and think of your most significant memory and
be sure that a sweet will be the strongest image
that will come to your mind.
Alexandre Menegale
This article was first published in the first issue of Sabor do
Brasil (Taste of Brazil) magazine, MRE, 2004.

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