I've just returned from two and a half weeks in South America, a vacation with my husband and his family. We spent five days in Buenos Aires, then five days in Patagonia, south of the Lake District, and the final five or so days in Rio de Janeiro -- leaving, shamefully, just days before Carnevale.
Though currently thoroughly enveloped in the fog of a cold, a reliable post-vacation ailment, memories of food flit through my addled head. Oh, the stories I could tell! Of dulce de leche, of empanadas. Of soft, cheesy tamales, rich feijoada, and vibrant tropical juices. Good god, the membrillo! These are a few of the obsessions I returned with (along with this snotty virus).
But the abiding obsession I keep coming back to is cachaca, the Brazilian liquor distilled from sugarcane. (An aside: we had fresh sugarcane juice at this market in Ipanema -- the vendor pushed the long, fibrous stalks through the juicing machine and produced a cup of pure joy -- or, as he called it, Brazilian Viagra.)
(Further aside: our Rio trip is short on photographs, since we were strongly warned not to take the camera out, especially when sitting outside. I regret this, since Rio was much safer than people made it out to be, and while being aware of our surroundings was important, we could have relaxed a little and taken more photos.)
Most Americans know cachaca, if they know it at all, from drinking caipirinhas -- a heady mix of crushed limes, sugar, and cachaca. Caipirinhas appear to be consumed like water in Rio, fuel for long nights of samba. (I speak in cliches? No, I don't.)
(Typographical aside: cachaca is spelled with a wriggly thing under the second 'c' -- so it's pronounced cachasa -- but the HTML coding eludes me at this time.)
The Wikipedia definition of cachaca reports that only 1.5 percent of the spirit is exported -- and that mostly goes to Portugal, Paraguay, and Germany. We mostly see the Pitu brand -- which works fine for caipirinhas but only hints at the extent of possibilities for the liquor.
At the Academia Da Cachaca, in Rio's tony Leblon neighborhood, the spirit lives large. Their menu features hundreds of bottles of cachaca -- all described in intricate detail, from the type of wood it's casked in to obscure minutiae about its flavor profile.
Caipirinhas are good, very good. But the Caipira Academica, one of the special cocktails at the Academia, was transcendent. Very simple: small lemons, sliced thin and crushed with honey, with cachaca Seleta. It was sweet and tart like a caipirinha, but the honey added depth and warmth, and the rich, golden hue of the drink was like the sun setting over Ipanema beach (I speak in cliches? Yes, I do. It's the cold.)
Cachaca isn't only drunk in cocktails; the different varieties await discovery when not masked by citrus and sugar. Straight cachaca is a little like grappa -- though not as fiery. We tried two shots -- the St Ines was clean and fresh; the Canarihua soft and honeyish. We also had a shot of the cachaca with honey and lemon -- like the Academica cocktail, but more intense and sweet.
With a menu so extensive, it was hard to leave, and disappointing that we had discovered the bar only on our last night. But today I'm on a mission -- to BevMo, to find out what sort of cachacas they carry. Tomorrow, a Latin-flavored goat-eating birthday fiesta will be fueled with caipirinhas. It's cold and rainy, you say? Not in Rio.