Colorful jarred foods at the market

Photo © Michael Sommers.

Although it is not a terribly alluring city, I have developed a real fondness for Belo Horizonte, capital of the state of Minas GeraiS, referred to by Mineiros as “BH” (pronounced “BAY ah-GAH”). Translated literally, Belo Horizonte means “beautiful horizon,” an allusion to the fact that the city is spread out along the slopes and bottom of a valley surrounded by Serra do Curral mountain range. Traveling around BH is akin to sliding up and down the sides of a gigantic bowl. The higher up you happen to be, the more fetching the horizon.

Brazil’s first planned metropolis, construction of Belo Horizonte was initiated in the late 1800s. The modern capital of perpendicular streets and parallel avenues – modeled in part after Washington D.C. – was built to replace the former capital of Ouro Preto, with its tortuous cobblestoned streets and fading baroque architecture, whose fortunes had dwindled with the end of Minas’ great gold rush of the 18th century. Those seeking colonial charm in Minas should head to the so-called “cidades históricas” of Ouro Preto as well as Tiradentes, and Diamantina, two smaller and particularly well-preserved towns.

Due to its modern layout and ample greenery, Belo Horizonte is an agreeable place to wander around.

However, fans of modernism are in for a treat in Belo Horizonte: the city is replete with interesting houses and buildings from the 1950s (and quite a few gems from the preceding decades). Moreover, in the 1940s and early ’50s, Belo Horizonte served as a three-dimensional drafting board for an ambitious young architect by the name of Oscar Niemeyer. His earliest, and still surprisingly vanguard, buildings can be seen in the city center as well in the in the upscale neighborhood of Pampulha.

Due to its modern layout and ample greenery, Belo Horizonte is an agreeable place to wander around. Aside from a handful of museums, a thriving cultural scene, and some top-notch surrounding natural and cultural attractions, Belo Horizonte is also a terrific place to sample traditional Mineiro food. One of my favorite places to do so is at the Mercado Central, located right in the center of town on Avenida Augusta de Lima, 744.

Covering an entire city block, the building is a nondescript 1960s pavilion (the market itself was founded in 1929) that is hardly inviting from the outside. Step inside, however, and you’re treated to an amazing exhibit of “Mineiridade” with gleaming white tile stall after stall displaying a spectacular array of typical wares and produce from all over the state. My Mineiro friend, Luiz, and I visited the market last week to stock up on local produce and soak up local atmosphere. Nowhere in Brazil will you see markets in which everything is so precisely and artfully arranged in a manner that mingles beauty and bounty with an immaculate sense of organization that, according to Luiz, is a Mineiro attribute.

Those with a fondness for cookware will find it difficult to resist the ridiculously low-priced enamel cups and plates as well as pots and pans made of copper and soapstone. The latter are fashioned from the same bluish-gray stone used by genius Mineiro sculptor Aleijadinho (“Little Cripple” – a name inspired by the debilitating disease that left the 18th-century mulatto artist deformed), whose expressive soapstone carvings of saints and other religious images for the ornate colonial churches of Ouro Preto, Congonhas, São João del Rei, and Tiradentes set the standard for Brazilian baroque.

Meanwhile, foodies will have a field day with the edible delicacies on display such as the bottles of hot peppers in traffic light hues of red, yellow, and green and the jars stuffed with preserved green papayas, guavas, and oranges in syrup. Equally enticing are the jars, blocks, and individually wrapped squares of doce de leite, a rich caramel-like concoction made from boiled milk and sugar, which is as beloved by Mineiros as the bricks of goiabada (guava jelly).

Among the more exotic typically Mineiro fruits you’ll happen upon are dark, purply jabuticaba and bright orange pequi whose soapy perfume verges on nauseating, but whose delicate, rarefied flavor, muted during cooking, is unique. Frango com pequi (a chicken stew) and arroz com pequi (pequi rice) are common rural dishes, but I’ve also tried pequi dipped in chocolate and pequi liqueur (served chilled), both of which are pretty divine. Luiz (who makes a mean frango com pequi) and I are both unconditional pequi junkies and while he purchased an intriguing bag of farinha de pequi (pequi flour), I indulged in a jar of pasta de pequi (pequi spread).

Minas is famous throughout Brazil for its creamy cheeses. Unless you buy them counterfeit (by law, the real cheese can’t be commercialized outside the state), the industrialized versions produced from pasteurized milk that are sold throughout the rest of the country are a far cry from the artisanal queijos made from fresh milk that follow centuries’-old recipes. You can purchase fresh and creamy versions of queijo de Minas (known as queijo frescal) as well as aged, or cured versions, which are harder, with a yellow skin, and have a delicious mild tang to them. If you ask to “provar um pedacinho“, vendors will comply and slice a thin wedge from the gleaming rounds on display.

Of course, Minas is also legendary for its fine cachaças. Ronaldo Licores e Cachaças (Loja 141) is the best place to pick up a bottle. The shelves of this small boutique are stuffed from floor to ceiling with more than 450 varieties of Mineiro pinga (“drop” – slang for cachaça), ranging from the most basic brands to the king of cachaças, Havana, an aged bottle of which goes for R$480. The staff is knowledgeable and will invite you to sample the wares. The variety of tastes is impressive as are the beautiful labels that adorn the bottles. Although, the market vendors have boxes of all sizes and are expert packagers, if you’re worried about packing liquids in check-through luggage, opt for the cachaça jellies or truffles.

You can also savor cachaça at the market’s traditional bars, the most atmospheric of which are located near the Rua dos Goitacazes entrance. These bars constitute a beloved pit stop for Belohorizontinos who cram the narrow corridors between them on Saturdays and Sunday mornings. It’s certainly hard to resist the estupidamente gelada (“stupidly icy”) beer, especially when the bottles, covered in a gauzy layer of frost known as a veu de noiva (“bridal veil”) are held out seductively to passersby by barmen (and women) who climb onto the tiled bars and sing their praises. Once installed on a rare bar stool (more likely, you’ll be standing), order a portion of figado com jiló. Grilled on the spot, this classic market dish consists of grilled liver, onions, and jiló, an oblong, dark green fruit (used as a vegetable), whose usually bitter taste evaporates with cooking. If you’re not a fan of liver, you can opt for grilled beef instead, which is what Luiz and I did when we visited last Sunday. We didn’t leave until the iron gates were pulled down at 1pm (closing time), leaving us out on the street, in a contented daze, our stomachs full and our knapsacks overflowing.