Tiradentes is a historic town in the state of Minas Gerais (central Brazil) which looks like somewhere that time decided to take a break back in the 18th century, and then just continued to stand still.
In reality, the art nouveau façades of the two-street town’s buildings and churches have been carefully restored in the 1970 – complete with a vintage steam train that runs through it, transporting tourists between the picturesque town and nearby São João del Rei.Combined with a genuinely friendly hospitality amongst the locals, and a laid-back vibe that cannot be manufactured, the town has an irresistibly romantic appeal. Rapidly emerging as an important culinary hub of Brazil, Tiradentes has food festivals such as the Festival Cultura e Gastronomia, playing out here every year – when chefs and foodies from all over Brazil and overseas descend on this tiny village – and some seriously good restaurants specialising in both Comida Mineira (Mineira cuisine) as well as contemporary gastronomy.
Mineira cuisine is defined by big, robust flavours, an emphasis on slow cooking – with the traditional wood-fired ovens a fixture in many modern homes too – lots of meat and an abundance of cheese. Cheese definitely features high on the Brazilian culinary priority list, with over 50 varieties produced here. The most traditional cheese in the region is simply known as Minas cheese – a mild white cheese often eaten as dessert, accompanied by fruit jams or preserves.
Cassava flour, locally known as manioca, is used widely, whether it’s in the quintessential Brazilian street food Pao de Queijo (cheese bread, which happens to be gluten-free, as it is made with said cassava flour), that is, in fact, native to Minas Gerais; as a side toasted with herbs (farofa); or thrown into stews or purées – no meal is complete without it.
Chef Yury Feliciano, who has a day job as a lawyer, also owns and cooks at his gourmet restaurant Archote Clube in Tiradentes, where you can expect innovative takes on steak – another Brazilian staple. But on my quest for country cooking, he took me along to Virados do Largos, a charming restaurant tucked away in a quiet by-lane off the busier main streets of Tiradentes. Owned and run by the lovely Beth, a member and exponent of the Slow Food movement, the restaurant offers fresh, home-style food with most of its produce coming from its own backyard garden. It was here that I had my true taste of Mineiro food and hospitality, with Beth bringing out plate after plate of steaming, generous sharing-style food to our table on the verandah overlooking her herb garden – where she grows everything from lettuce, tomatoes and papaya, to local herbs such as orapronabis and couve, a type of kale.
It was a meat fest, if there ever was one, whether it was the more-ish linguica sausage sautéed with onions and orapronabis; the platter of succulent roast pork shoulder with crunchy crackling topped with fried eggs; the tutu (a traditional specialty in Mineira cuisine, beans mashed with roast pork loin); toasted farofa with beans and bacon; or the mouthwatering chicken with couve, all washed down with the tastiest caipirinhas I’ve ever tried, made with local cachaça. I didn’t want any dessert after this meal, but Beth insisted on feeding me her homemade Minas cheese ice cream – a creamier, more delicate ice cream was never made – as well as a delicious slice of homemade Minas cheese served with guava jam.
The best way to work off this artery-clogging meal is with a wander around the cobblestoned streets of this pretty town, lined with art galleries and antique stores, where you will find photo-ops aplenty as well as souvenirs galore to take home – from jewellery and handmade linens to local sweets and of course, cheese. Don’t miss the walk up to the picturesque Baroque-style Santo Antonio church – which has the second largest amount of gold foil in its interiors in all of Brazil – from where you can enjoy an incomparable vantage point for views of the green vistas that surround Tiradentes.
It is this landscape of abundance that probably makes Minas Gerais cuisine so unique and varied; as one of the chefs I was chatting to put it, “everything is grown here, so you can choose the best”. That, and the slightly slower, community-centric pace of life, that allows people to spend time creating food that is a labour of love. “Minas has a rich culinary heritage, and what we are doing is to maintain the tradition, create new things without losing the history,” Beth says (at least that’s what I think she said, based on her Portugese being translated to me in broken English!). She, although cooking for 23 years, is just one of a new wave of chefs who are part of a culinary renaissance of sorts that seems to be taking place in Brazil. Chefs who are taking the regional cuisines and showcasing its traditional qualities, bringing back forgotten techniques, while reinventing the wheel at the same time.
Much as I love my churrasco as the next person – and yes, in Brazil, it is as ubiquitous as you’d expect, with not only numerous Rodizio restaurants dotting each town, but even highway truck stops serving up delicious versions of the picanha steak – it is this lesser known side to Brazil’s gastronomy that I think should be hitting headlines next.
A version of this feature was previously published in BBC Good Food ME.