Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Weekend in Sousas

My husband Jeff and I spent the past weekend visiting with our friends Luiz and Sandra and their extended clan in the nearby village of Sousas.  It was a return trip for me since I had been there the previous weekend for the wedding of one of Luiz’ nephews.  This weekend the celebration was for his aunt’s birthday. 

The village of Sousas is situated an hour’s drive from where we live and about the same distance from the large metropolis of São Paulo.  Sousas is a relatively rural village adjacent to the larger industrial city of Campinas.  Both settlements were founded in the 18th century to help supply the growing colonial city of São Paulo with the goods it needed.  By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the region boasted many large fazendas (plantations) that grew sugar cane, coffee and cotton.  Trains from tiny Sousas and big Campinas carried coffee beans and other products to São Paulo, and on to the Atlantic seaport of Santos for export to Europe. 

A Pottery Studio in Sousas
While the surrounding area has developed a great deal, Sousas today is pretty much as I remember it from when I first saw it almost thirty years ago – lush vegetation, a winding river, beautiful old houses, artists' workshops and hilly, cobblestone streets.  The central praça or square is a shady tree-lined park along the river.  Across from the praça an open-air bar does lively business at all hours of the day and night.  Increased development has brought some great restaurants and one of the best bakeries I have ever experienced in Brazil!  But it has also brought traffic and a somewhat random collection of commercial development along the main road from Campinas into Sousas.

Luiz and his wife Sandra both come from large, extended and very generous families.  Most of the family members live in other towns and return to Sousas only for weekends or holiday celebrations.  Luiz’ mother and his sister-in-law still live in Sousas full time.  It is a welcoming and familiar venue where the food, the drink, the company and the talk are always rewarding.

Saturday morning, Jeff and I prepared for the weekend by going to our gym in Piracicaba.  We did a 45-minute spinning class followed by two 15-minute classes, one for abdominals and one (much needed) that consisted entirely of stretching.  A challenge of living in Brazil – and embracing the family and food oriented culture – is making sure to get enough exercise to offset many big meals!  Jeff and I go to the gym we joined at least four times a week and engage in a wide range of aerobic and weight training activities. 

The gym is a serious place where specially trained professors (as the instructors are called) guide your activities and ensure that you are achieving your physical goals.  The gym has been a blessing for both of us and has given us a true appreciation of how beneficial regular aerobic, strength and flexibility workouts can be when you are in your sixties!

Lunch started about 2 pm in the afternoon.  It was full of marvelous dishes.  Along with the leafy green salads, there was a Belgian endive and Mango salad; a potato salad; a wonderful eggplant and squash concoction – reminiscent of Ratatouille but more delicious; both pulled pork with onions and roast beef (filet) and a Lebanese rice dish.  The real prize was dessert.  Luiz is a remarkable cook and while his forte is perhaps Italian food, he is skilled at many of the extraordinary dishes that enrich Brazilian cuisine. 

Dessert was a type of crepe called tapioca.  It is typical of the northeastern state Bahia.  The dish consists of individual crepes made in the moment from manioc flour.  The coarse flour is white and the steps to make tapioca are simple.  First you heat a Teflon or other non-stick small frying pan.  Then, using no oil, and with a hand held sieve, you grate the loose flour into the pan until you have a consistently even layer of manioc.  Then you let it heat and the grains bind into a solid pancake – you then flip it and slide it carefully onto a waiting plate. 

The Chef!

The Finished Product

At this point you can add any kind of filling you like – either salty or sweet; fold it over like a quesadilla and dig in.  But on Saturday, it was a sweet filling.  Nutella!  Which if you don’t know is a creamy Italian chocolate and hazelnut spread.  Then you top it off with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and you are set to go.  Irresistible!  Luiz was busy at the stove for quite a while since we were a crowd of more than twenty.  I don’t remember anyone saying they didn’t want tapioca!

The Old Railroad Bridge
Later Jeff and I wandered into town and I showed him the lovely church where the wedding had been the week before.  We crossed the bridge where the old railroad had gone – now a walking bridge.  We hugged the railing as a peloton of more than thirty cyclists from the Campinas Cycling Club crossed over at the end of their Saturday ride.  We revisited the praça where we celebrated Carnival when our children were one and four – we remembered wild dancing and loud music; all of us beating or shaking empty metal cans filled with dried beans.

Soon it was time to dress for the birthday party.  We hurried to shower and dress.  Dinner was a traditional churrasco or barbeque.  The birthday lady was not going to cook, instead, quite appropriately, depending on her son-in-laws, grandsons and nephews.  Perhaps more than in the United States, Brazilian men are the barbeque chefs.  In fact I have never met a Brazilian woman who cares to admit she can light a barbeque.  I agree!  What is the point of having a husband, brother or son if you have to “man” the barbeque?

On Saturday night, the men manned the churrasco – an outdoor brick open-style barbeque.  We started with Portuguese sausage; continued with many other kinds of Brazilian linguisa (sausage); followed by various cuts of chicken and finally picanha – a cut of beef that is succulent and delicious.  Brazilians do not remove the meat fat until after cooking is complete – juiciness is guaranteed.

The churassco continued well into the night.  Each cut of meat came in sequence.  Different men and teenage boys handed the meat around on platters right off the fire.  We sat at long tables on the covered porch.  We ate salads and meat and drank beer and wine until we were too full to eat anything else.  But of course we still had the birthday cake!

Breakfast Breads
The next morning, after a typical Brazilian breakfast of coffee, fruit, bread and butter, the teenaged girls, their mothers and me went to the Hippie Feira (fair) in nearby Campinas.  The feira started in the 1970’s and while it has changed over time, it still has an authentic artisanal atmosphere.  It is located in an old park where large trees give cool shade.  Like lots of outdoor street fairs, some of the kiosks sold machine made junk while others sold handmade treasures.

We found a stall selling handmade dresses, skirts and shirts – all made from a fine silk-cotton fabric in a wild range of floral and geometric patterns.  There were many different styles.  The proprietors had a full-length mirror so you could see if the piece worked.  I bought a dress in a climbing rose pattern with all my favorite colors – greens, reds, and pale pinks.  Everyone found something good – a hand-woven backpack, navy and white striped espadrilles, a hand-painted mirror with the image of espirito santo – a white dove decorating it.  Sandra bought a hand-made rag doll for her 7-month-old niece. 

We hurried back to Sousas for lunch.  I don’t have to tell you it was another feast.  This time lunch was a classic polenta with a marinara sauce that included linguisa from the previous night.  Salads, fresh fruit and ice cream rounded out the meal.  As people who have a large family, Jeff and I are quite experienced at feeding 20 and 30 people at the drop of a hat.  But Luiz and his family are serious competition.  They are all good cooks; their skills range from Italian (and other southern Mediterranean countries) to all types of Brazilian and Lebanese cuisine (Luiz’ uncle was born in Lebanon).  

The afternoon was winding down but we still had one more important event.  One of Luiz’ cousins, Renata has been studying film for a few years.  She had prepared a lecture and video presentation about the importance of Russian film in the evolution of cinema.  We all assembled in the living room on couches and chairs in front of the big flat screen TV and laptop.  Renata ducked outside and her brother-in-law introduced her quite formally.  She entered to our applause and proceeded to give a well-prepared and extremely interesting lecture on the influence that a Russian film director from the 1920s, Dziga Vertov had on the evolution of film. 

The range of cinematic techniques this director pioneered in his famous film Man with a Movie Camera are routine in modern films – fast and slow motion; split screens; freeze frames; extreme close-ups and so forth.  However in 1929 they were anything but usual.  Renata explained and demonstrated with video clips how the cinematic techniques created the emotions that drove the story – anticipation; fear; excitement; the pressure of hard work.

The afternoon ended as everyone shared a final cafézinho and thanked Renata for putting a very stimulating presentation together.  Jeff and I drove home with great food in our bellies and thought-provoking ideas in our minds.
The Atibaia River seen from the Praça

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