Shrove Tuesday in the UK may be little more than an excuse for pancake throwing, yet in Brazil it’s the middle of one of the world’s most spectacular festival times, Mardi Gras, a technicolour sensation that offers a host of theming possibilities.
The renowned Rio Carnival, where even the poorest residents save all year for their costumes, creates an atmosphere where anyone can change places and assume a different character. This masquerade aspect can give extra sparkle to a South American food and wine theme.
The food of Brazil uses lots of pulses and vegetables and smaller quantities of meat than most Western cooking. The variable quality of meat means that traditional dishes that do include meat call for slow stewing.
The flavours of Brazil (apart from chilli peppers) are tomatoes, lima beans, ordinary potato and sweet potato, garlic, maize tortillas, limes, papaya, squashes, yams and coconut. In common with most of Latin America and the Caribbean, the most popular spices are cumin, coriander, and cinnamon.
Brazilian wine is almost unobtainable in the UK. It would be better to go for the better-known wines of Chile and Argentina, both for quality and availability.
To give some authenticity, try a cocktail promotion offering Caipirinha, a mix of lime, sugar and white rum or vodka (Brazilians use Cachaça – a rum-style sugar cane spirit). Coconut cocktails are also popular in Brazil and give them some novelty value by serving in a half coconut with a multi-coloured straw and sunshade cocktail stick.
To set the right atmosphere in the restaurant have male staff dressed in flower-patterned shirts and white trousers, female staff in brightly-coloured dresses with a flower in their hair. To create the carnival spirit, decorate the room with flags, streamers, fresh flowers and coloured balloons. Remember Brazil is football-crazy, so have some football boots and posters of the national side hung on the wall.
For background music, play samba, bossa nova (Girl from Ipanema, for example) and Brazilian rhumba tapes.
Hamilton Rotella, proprietor of the Amazonas Restaurant, west London, has noticed a recent upsurge in interest in Brazilian culture and food, helped, he believes, by this year’s World Cup.
His suggestion for a fiesta atmosphere is to fill balloons with confetti, so when they explode there is a shower of colour. On what makes for recognisable Brazilian food, Rotella says that while humidity and non-stop revelling lead Brazilian carnival-goers to opt for cooler dishes with less chilli and heat than normal, Mardi Gras menus in the UK can be much more wide-ranging.