South American food, drink and culture; Brazil spotlight

Bursting with big, beautiful flavours in Brazil, pampeano continues its look at food, drink and culture in South America with a tour of Brazil - a country where its culinary delights are as diverse and interesting as its people

It is very hard to capture the essence of Brazil in just a sentence or two. The country's sheer scale and size are stupendous. What is more, Brazil is also home to so many iconic emblems. These include: the stunning Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro (pictured); the world's longest river -the Amazon; its world-famous Carnaval, which is celebrated annually before Lent across Brazil's vast lands; the FIFA World Cup 2014; three-time World Cup winner Pele; the Rio Olympics in 2016 - and so the staggering list continues.

Diversity abounds in Brazil

Brazil's diverse geographical features are breathtaking and run the full gamut - ranging from verdant, lush rainforests, the Amazon basin and urban forests through to white sandy beaches, majestic mountains, dramatic coastlines and gorgeous forested hills. Add to this list the Brazilian people themselves - famous for being passionate, vibrant and from a range of cultures and backgrounds.

Against this backdrop, Brazil's culinary offerings are equally as eclectic - drawing on different traditions, influences and cultures over the years of generations of Portuguese, Arabs, Italians, Japanese, German and other immigrants who have made Brazil their home.

A brief history lesson of Brazil

Brazil was a colony of Portugal and Portuguese settlers who first arrived on the land in 1500. When the Portuguese discovered the country it was already occupied by several indigenous people groups - mainly Guarani, Tupi and Ge. There were also many slaves who had been captured from Africa and transported to Brazil to provide labour in mining and sugar cane production.

In those early days, the number of Africans in Brazil far outweighed the Portuguese and other European settlers. As time went on, more Portuguese settlers arrived - along with people of Italian, Spanish and German origin.

There has always been a strong African influence in Brazil, too. A leading Jesuit missionary in the 16th century referred to Brazil as 'the body of America and the soul of Africa' and today there are still strong African influences in the country.

Brazil's big numbers

Brazil gained its independence as a country in 1822. Today the country's total population is a staggering 211.2 million. Brazil's population growth has always been rapid and it is very much known as a young person's country, with 62 percent of Brazilians aged 29 or younger.

Against this amazing historical and economic background, Brazil's culinary dishes are filled with diverse references and influences. One hearty staple that everyone enjoys is the national dish of Brazil - the feijoada.

Brazil's answer to Sunday roast

The Brazilian equivalent of the UK's ubiquitous Sunday roast, feijoada is basically a gorgeous, thick and warming stew of beans with beef and pork - a real staple across Brazil. It's rich brown sauce is packed full of spices and tasty pieces of meat and it has as many different guises as there are cooks in Brazil. You can include new cuts of meat, like smoked sausages, loin chops and belly, salted, dried beef (carne sece), as well as 'old-school' cuts such as pig's ear or trotters. But if the old cuts do not appeal, replace them with chorizo sausage and pork ribs - or any other cut you fancy. There is plenty of scope for customising this dish.

Brazilian salads are big

A perfect accompaniment to this hearty dish is a beautiful rice salad and green salad leaves -  including spinach and chard, with salsa on the side. Salads are a big deal in Brazil; they are a far cry from a boring limp lettuce leaf next to a tomato. Instead, think baby spinach, avocado, baby carrots, red peppers, black olives, cabbage, canola oil, carrots and cashew nuts - all thrown together effortlessly and drizzled with fabulous dressings that burst with fresh, tangy flavours in your mouth.

Palm tree delicacy

The hearts of palm (salado de palmito) is a classic Brazilian salad which is full of citrusy and oniony flavours. Hearts of palm is a vegetable harvested from the inner core and growing bud of certain palm trees. The Amerindians in Brazil's Atlantic coastal region first shared this delicacy with Portuguese settlers back in the day. It is a fabulous dish to have at a Brazilian summer churrasco (barbecue) and for great presentation, you can serve it in one of pampeano's beautifully handcrafted wooden salad bowls.

Inspired by gauchos

A traditional Brazilian churrasco has its roots with the gaucho cowboys in southern Brazil. These hard living cow herders knew (and still do) a good cut of meat when they tasted it and would slice the top of the beef rump (picanha) to reveal a succulent and tender, melt in the mouth, delicacy. The meat is rolled in rock salt and garlic, and cooked on long skewers, like kebabs, over hot charcoal.

Variations on this recipe suggest marinating the meat in a homemade onion, garlic and jalapeno paste overnight before grilling. Rice and farofa (toasted manioc flour with egg and bacon) complement a churrasco perfectly.

In Brazil, there are plenty of specialist churrascaria restaurants that are dedicated to eating meat in this way - slowly, melt in the mouth, piece by piece as it comes off the grill. You can now find these Brazilian eateries all over the world. They provide a unique dining experience where meats are carved at your table by Passadors - giving a taste of Brazil even if you are in Barbados or Barcelona.

Street food on the beach

Street food is also a big trend in Brazil - particularly as there are so many young people who want to grab something delicious on the go. In places like Rio, on the two main beach strips of Ipanema and the iconic Copacabana, you will find street/beach vendors offering an array of popular, tasty snacks like corn on the cob, prawns on kebabs, cheese fried pasties and acaraja - a deep-fried patty of crushed black-eyed peas, palm oil and onions, stuffed with dried shrimps; and vatapai, a rich and spicy puree of prawns, bread, cashew nuts and other ingredients.

Caipirinha cocktails

Drinks to go with these gourmet gems include fresh coconut juice, Mate (a famous South American herbal tea) and sodas. Mate is found across South America and in Rio is served from big steel barrels on the shoulders of the beach vendors.

The country's national tipple - caipirinha cocktail - cannot be left out of any self-respecting list of Brazil's gastronomic goodies. This cocktail is made with cachaça (sugar cane rum), sugar and lime juice. Make it in a glass or fill up a whole jug with lots of ice and slices of lime on top. It also makes a great aperitif with chunks of chorizo sausage, a bowl of cashew nuts and some good salty, black olives.

For a twist on the traditional drink, substitute the limes for other fruits like pomegranate or pineapple. With large jugs of this classy caipirinha cocktail dotted around your al fresco dining area, you are all set to get your party started for Carnival time.

Healthy growth for Brazilian wine

In the global wine market, Brazil is also putting down a marker. Brazilian wine culture is young - rather like Chile and Argentina. But although a new player, Brazil as a wine producer is attracting attention. It is showing healthy growth in overseas sales.

Muscat is a hugely popular grape and Brazil produces some particularly good sparkling wines, too. It also produces some excellent blends of Bordeaux, as well as Chardonnays, Merlots and Cabernets.

Distinctive taste

"A new approach within the traditional world of wine, Brazilian labels offer freshness, relaxation and distinctive taste," according to Wines of Brasil. Brazilian wine at its best boasts fresh acidity, balanced tannins and moderate alcohol levels - making it a very popular choice these days, it adds.

Wines in Brazil were also boosted on the global stage, thanks to the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympic Games in 2016.

So from the land of samba, carnaval, young people, big tastes, vibrant colours and laughter and joy, let us raise our glasses and toast Brazil.  Forca Brasil - Go Brazil.