This article was also published in the Financial Times.
The food in São Paulo, a sprawling city of 20 million, initially struck me as a combination of what I had recently seen and eaten in Australia and the US.
The connection to Australia is the vastness of each country, which means that at any one time everything seems to be in season somewhere. The sight in a Sao Paulo street market of native strawberries that are in Europe a sign of spring and summer, next to pumpkins, a harbinger of winter, came as quite a shock.
The connections with the US are the inexpensive prices on most menus allied to vast portions. One São Paulo chef told me that when he meets his sous-chef for their daily debrief over lunch in a nearby café they simply share a main course.
But on a tour of the city's main wholesale markets with José Barattino, the highly talented chef of the swish Hotel Emiliano, I became aware of the city's more historic food associations.
Our first stop was the Kinjo Yamato vegetable market, so named because the state's main vegetable growers have now followed in the footsteps of the Japanese who first arrived in Brazil to pick the coffee harvest in 1908. The sight of two elderly women of obvious Japanese stock speaking Portuguese while sorting vine leaves for the city's numerous Lebanese restaurants illustrated the city's cosmopolitan character perfectly.
There was more evidence of this at the Hocca Bar on the mezzanine floor of the vast municipal market next door. Here Paulistas in their droves call in every day for one of two Portuguese-inspired cod dishes, either in a fried pastel, or pastry case, or deep fried into the shape of a small rugby ball, or a mortadella sandwich, of obvious Italian origin, whose size defies description.
But what is most exciting about the view from this bar is the vast array of extraordinary Brazilian produce on the ground floor, produce that has become increasingly available to, and increasingly appreciated by, the city's emerging chefs. Açaí (a berry), jambu (a herb), piraruçu (a warm water fish from the Amazon) and jabuticaba (a small black-skinned, white-fleshed fruit, very like a grape in size and colour, that makes an excellent sauce for lamb) were all there and about to become part of my diet.
As I talked to several chefs I realised too that they have been facing similar challenges to their counterparts in Britain in trying to revive and re-energise their national cuisine. Brazilian food has even for many Brazilians become merely synonymous with rice, beans, feijoada, the pork stew once the preserve of the slaves and now served in glamorous restaurants every Wednesday and Saturday, and hunks of grilled meat in the hugely popular churrascarias. Today Brazilian cuisine is far more exciting than that.
In finally setting this renaissance in motion, Brazilian chefs have overcome a very particular challenge – geographic isolation. While they acknowledge the dexterity of their counterparts in Peru with fish and shellfish, they have had little else in South America to guide their path in the way in which the proximity of Paris has inspired so many London chefs. In the past several Brazilian chefs have looked to Spain for ideas but that episode seems to be over. São Paulo's chefs are now charting their own very distinctive path.
The softly-spoken but obviously very determined Mara Salles is the longest serving practitioner of this new, confident style of Brazilian cooking but after 18 years in her comfortable restaurant, Tordesilhas, she confessed to me that, "This is just the beginning and my work to preserve our heritage before we lose it all."
Salles grew up on a coffee plantation learning to cook from her mother, who today at 77 works alongside her in the São Paulo restaurant, while at the same time picking up recipes from the rest of the country via the itinerant coffee pickers as they cooked their own regional dishes. Two of her dishes were particularly memorable. Duck braised in tucupi, a liquid extracted from the ubiquitous manioc, and jambu, an Amazonian herb that, when eaten whole, numbs the mouth temporarily but here gave me a temporary high that brought back memories of my student days. It took three Amazonian fruit sorbets, açaí, cupuaçu and tapioca, to calm me down.
There was considerable discussion among enthusiastic Paulistas as to whether Salles's food at Tordesilhas was more representative than that of Ana Luiza Trajano's at Brasil a gosto but in fact they are distinctly different. While Tordesilhas exudes the same air as a long-established Italian trattoria with waiters only too keen to fuss over you, Brasil a gosto, set in a modern two storey building that is a clever conversion of a former lawyers' office, is vibrant, hip and youthful.
Trajano has achieved this through a clever use of colour (she was wearing a bright red hair band and orange Crocs) that flows from the walls to the waitresses' skirts to the most exuberant and informative menus I have ever encountered. Until December, these menus include a separate booklet dedicated to 'Food and Faith'. Here the highlights were two main courses – half a dozen plump, grilled shrimps with strips of fresh hearts of palm and oranges and Catete rice with a luscious pumpkin purée and nuts – as well as slices of a warm bread pudding, similar to pannetone, with honey ice cream.
Finally, to two diametrically opposed extremes of exciting Brazilian cooking. The high ground is fittingly occupied by Alex Atala, the son of Palestinian immigrants whose initial career was as a DJ, at DOM, which draws its initials from the Benedictine motto Dominus, Optimus, Maximus.
DOM is one of the most elegant restaurants I have ever visited with a five metre high wooden front door inherited from its previous incarnation as a Japanese restaurant, a 50 year old 'elephant' palm just inside, extremely fashionable seats and a row of Indian arrows along one wall. Obviously initially inspired by Catalan gastronomy, Atala and his brigade are now cooking their own distinctively Brazilian food to a very high standard, complemented by punctilious service. A salad of pumpkin, crayfish and squid with Amazonian flowers was as memorable for its look as its fresh flavours, as was a small round of Brazilian foie gras, topped with wild rice nuts and a sorbet of cambuci, served with a mint-scented consommé of bonito, a fish of the tuna family. It worked. A trio of three different fruit sorbets, cajá, umbu and graviola this time, was an excellent finale.
While DOM is situated opposite one of the most expensive apartment blocks in São Paulo, Mocotó is an hour away by car in a much less elegant suburb but it is well worth the time and effort to get there.
The hugely popular Mocotó boasts over 300 different caçhacas (the sugar cane spirit used for caipirinhas) housed behind the bar at the front of this very simple eating places with three different rooms, of which only the balcony is quiet enough for a conversation. Its combination of copious, hearty food, smiling waiting staff and customers simply out to have fun seemed to encapsulate this extraordinary city.
Hotel Emiliano, www.emiliano.com.br,
Brasil a gosto, www.brasilagosto.com.br