WORLD FOOD – Mines of Savor

16 Apr 2004

With an area of 590,000 km2, roughly the size of France, Minas Gerais is the second largest state in the Brazilian federation, Almost 30% of its territory is made of lakes and rivers, and it boasts a population of 18 million inhabitants. The State has the nation’s largest cattle herd, as well as the most extensive mineral resources. It shelters 780 species of birds, 380 of fish, 190 of mammals and 1,600 species of butterflies. It is the number one producer of milk and coffee in the country, the second most industrialized, after São Paulo, and is the joint leader for exports.

Made up of multiple ethnical groups, with a diverse ecosystem and a tremendously rich history, it has noticeably influenced the development of the Brazilian national character. In the wake of extensive mining in the 19th century, the region became the cradle of nationalist movements that culminated with the independence of Brazil. Gold and diamond mining also originated the native baroque art which is today part of the Unesco Heritage, which embraces several exceptionally well preserved towns from the colonial period, notably Tiradentes, Ouro Preto, Diamantina and Serro.

The cuisine of Minas Gerais is considered the most comprehensive representation of national gastronomy. Minas raw milk cheese is the first product to be registered in the National Book of Immaterial Heritage. The state is also recognized as the producer of the best Brazilian rum, cachaça.

The original inhabitants were the Botocudo, or Aimoré Indians. In their struggle to survive the arrival of the Portuguese conquerors and other European invasions in the 17th century, they took refuge in the woods of the hinterland of the territory. They remained in relative peace as long as the Portuguese crown was interested in using the area as a stopper zone to hinder access to the gold and diamond mines. The indigenous population was well fed and had a strong healthy appearance, according to the reports of the first Portuguese ships arriving on the Brazilian cost. They ate in their own way: abundant fruit, game and fish, manioc, corn, but also bamboo worms, ants and other insects, Surinam cherry, black mulberry, custard apples, courbaril, strawberry guavas, souari nuts, shoots of fiddlehead fern, pumpkin or bamboo. Annato was used as seasoning, medicine and body paint. The first conquerors had to use this knowledge to feed themselves in their first long and strenuous incursions into the deep inland territory. This experience has left strong imprints in today’s Brazilian cuisine.

The gold rush of the 18th century brought a different type of settlement. Some of the key crossroads on the paths to the mining areas became cluttered with adventures, miners, merchants with their carrier donkeys, representatives of the crown and priests. It was during this period that other key players in the formation of the Brazilian population —the Africans, brought as slaves to work on the mines of Minas Gerais —entered the scene. This sudden rise in population also brought hunger and the consequent need for permanent settlement. The hordes brought on slave ships, mainly from eastern Africa, Congo and Angola, found a special familiarity with the terrain, similar to their native land but, they also brought the techniques much needed for mining, farming, cattle raising and domestic science.

The arrival of the Africans constituted a major step in the formation of the Mineiro culture. They contributed in a number of ways to the economy, the arts and the cultural life in general. Due to the scarcity of food and its consequent high price, Afro-Brazilian women, who were in charge of cooking, had to use their wisdom to create a variety of tasty recipes and modes of preparation. The food for the slaves, being scarcer still, demanded even more shrewdness in its preparation. Some ingredients were leftovers or parts considered improper for the slave owners and ingredients too exotic for the colonizers, such as roots, shoots, leaves and tropical fruits. Exercising this creativity, they concocted some of Brazil’s most celebrated dishes, as feijoada, chicken with okra and many others.

It was extremely difficult and risky to supply the early settlements and farms with salt, seedlings, seeds, sophisticated utensils, cloth, chinaware or condiments, due to the long journey and the steep hills that form a barrier between Minas and the coast. The mule trains that traveled over the hills and mountains carried staple goods in their saddlebags, and constituted a line of communication between the hinterland and the coastal harbor merchants who traded with Europe and the Orient. The muleteers were responsible for another important development in the cuisine of Minas Gerais. They had a singular way of cooking, since their food had to be partially made on the road, using dry goods mixed with ingredients found along their route, a practice which originated many typical dishes. One of the most eagerly awaited products at the farms and mines was a native Brazilian rum first called pinga. Pinga, later called Cachaça and produced locally in Minas, was developed in the sugar mills of the region of Parati, the harbor which was the main supplier of goods for the inland territory and, in turn, received loads of gold and diamonds to be sent to Europe.

The improvement of life in the territory of Minas Gerais in the mid-18th century made possible the birth of the first urban communities and the arrival of the Portuguese families who brought with them European recipes and products. Farm cooking gradually became more sophisticated, and began to include rolls, bread, puddings, liquors and, especially, cheese. Minas cheese evolved according to the Portuguese Serra da Estrela’s cheese, but with a rennet prepared from the dry, salted stomach of armadillo. Today it is a national legend present in every market of the country, though in most cases not the genuine product that gave origin to the trademark.

Minas cuisine thus reflects the result of many diverse cultures, from the native Aimorés to the Africans and Arabs, the Portuguese and, through them, Europe and the Far East, mixed in a rich historical environment that strongly contributed to the forming of a national identity.

Homero Vianna is the leader of the Slow Food Belo Horizonte Convivium, a member of the Slow Food Award jury, and events organizer for the Ópera Comunicação agency in Belo Horizonte

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