Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Cultural Brazil – The Alambique

Você pensa que cachaça é água

Cachaça não é água não

Cachaça vem do Alambique

E água vem do ribeirão

This Carnaval Classic was my first introduction to Alambique, learning the words of a Brazilian song while dancing behind a Rio trio electrico driving along the Ipanema Beach road one sunny afternoon. I looked on maps and in guide books and couldn’t find this place from where Brazil’s famous firewater originated. It took me a few months, maybe even a year – not of constant searching obviously – before I realised that Alambique was more of a place in the house rather than a place in the world.

I had never visited one though. Having seen the menu of a cachaçaria, I knew that Minas Gerais has hundreds, the mountains of the south have a few, and even places I have visited such as Paraty have plenty. The original alambiques were powered by water running down mountain streams, with the water-wheels turning the grinding wheels to squeeze the caldo de cana from the harvested plants.

I also knew that my Florianopolis had many little alambiques around the coastline and in the hills, but that almost all of them had closed down. I felt a little shame that I had been in Brazil so long without actually visiting one, even though I don’t particularly enjoy drinking pinga pura. It hurts too much. Still, after an afternoon’s struggling through half-closed trails in rural Floripa hills, with Blondie scratched to bits and turning into a sulky 6 year old girl while also blaming me for her choice of footwear, I celebrated like we’d arrived at Eden when I saw the magical sign – Alambique do Zeca. It explained why I just thought I’d seen somebody walking down the trail with a urine sample for the doctor.

One of the only two alambiques left on the island, the other run by his brother, Ze makes what is regarded by those who know as some of the finest cachaça in Brazil. So he told us. He built the barn himself, and I can’t imagine any alambique looking more perfect – wooden wheels; packed-soil floor; stained and stencilled barrels; smoke; copper furnace; and the smell of all those things and more, mingling together to enter your senses, exactly the same earthy odour found in any alambique in the colonial history of the country. Brazil was built on that scent.

The whole cachaça process is simple but labour-intensive and done by Ze’s own fair hand, the planting, harvesting and processing of the sugar cane. He leaves the juice to ferment on its own, before stoking his fires and distilling the proceeds to produce one of the simplest spirits around. The evil liquid is then transferred to barrels of different sizes and colours to sit for a year, two years, five years, however long our cachaça expert prefers.

We arrived in daylight and left in the dark, stumbling down the down the dusty track with the lights of the beach villages twinkling way below. It didn’t seem so long, but we went through the different types - white and yellow; and the different flavours – apple, ginger, banana, honey, plum and one rocket fuel that would only bow down to absinthe. I could barely remember my own name when we hit the trail with still miles to go until we found the road. I remember some of the story though – that in spite of being one of Brazil’s oldest traditions, the alambique is a dying art. The artesans are prevented from burning their fields to regenerate the soil. I can understand if this if for environmental reasons, although it makes me wonder if the big business of Brazil had a hand in such decisions. It would be a shame if such an important part of Brazilian culture was to disappear at the hands of the larger factory operations.

Everyone should visit an alambique if spending enough time in Brazil. Do it soon though – while you still have a rustic old alambique to visit.

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