A few hours’ drive down the coast from Rio, more or less midway to São Paulo, is Paraty (also spelled Parati), one of Brazil’s greatest colonial treasures: a cluster of whitewashed villas on a bay dotted with paradise islands and backed by steaming jungle-clad mountains. Historically, Paraty was one of the richest towns in Brazil; the main port and outlet for the gold, diamonds and other precious stones transported down from the mines in Minas Gerais. It was also one of the first and leading producers of cachaça, Brazil’s famously fiery sugarcane spirit. When a shorter and quicker route was found to Rio de Janeiro in the 18th century, however, the town sank into decline. It has found renewed wealth though as a major tourist attraction; its immaculately preserved colonial architecture earning it UNESCO World Heritage status, and its bijou boutique hotels, cafes and handicraft stores, offering a tranquil escape from the hubbub of Rio and São Paulo.
Tucked away down one of Paraty’s cobbled back streets is the wonderfully named “Academy of Cooking and Other Pleasures.” Before you start having inappropriate thoughts about the “other pleasures” bit, however, it should be explained that this is the home of gourmet chef Yara Castro Roberts and her photographer husband Richard. While the delights on offer here may send some into transports of delight, they are strictly of the culinary variety.
For the last nine years, Yara, originally from Belo Horizonte, has been running cookery classes in Paraty, assisted by Richard, from New York. Yara learned cookery in Boston, Cambridge, and Paris, and has taught in schools throughout the US and Canada. A range of different courses is available at her Academy. The most popular are the evening sessions, in which guests are welcomed into Yara’s artistically decorated home, served a potent caipirinha cocktail – Richard’s speciality – and then guided through the preparation of a four-course dinner based on a particular region of Brazil. The budding cooks then sit down to eat their meals, as Yara and Richard join them at the table, and add to the conversation with their culinary, cultural and historical insights. They’re a bubbly and charming couple, and their passion for one of Brazil’s lesser-known wonders, its rich and varied cuisine, adds to a memorable experience.
UK travel writer Huw Hennessy met Yara and Richard during a recent visit to Paraty, and interviewed them for New World Review.
Huw Hennessey: Do you cook dishes from different parts of Brazil, or from one particular region?
Yara Castro Roberts: I base the menus on the best regional cuisine from all over Brazil, dividing the country into different areas: Amazonia; Salvador, Bahia (Northeast); Cerrado (Brasilia and neighboring states); and what I call “The King’s Table”, which includes traditional recipes dating back to the era of King Dom João VI (1807-21).
Which cuisine we pick varies according to what produce is in season throughout the year. Amazonian cuisine includes a lot of fish, unsurprisingly, which has to be brought in from a long way away. Then there are the fruits of the land, and special ingredients, such as hearts of palm, palm oil, crab, and of course, cachaça (the fiery sugarcane spirit, of which Paraty has been a production centre for centuries)
Richard Roberts: Plus, I’d like to add that Yara is like a painter in the kitchen: she uses ingredients like an artist’s palette, creating something new for the table each time she cooks a recipe.
Which is the most popular cuisine in your classes?
Y: A lot of people like the dishes most that have unusual ingredients, which is often the case in the Amazon. Such as tucupi (manioc broth or juice), giant river fish like pirarucu, and some of the exotic fruits and vegetables, which often surprise people for their rich flavours.
What is your favorite Brazilian dish?
Y: Galinha ao molho pardo, a rich chicken casserole in a dark sauce, which comes from Minas Gerais, and which I believe is similar to a French recipe called something like “civet”
Is there anything you really dislike, or something you have always wanted to eat but never have?
Y: I know tripe is popular in many places, such as Normandy, in France, but I’m not very keen on it. I have always wanted to try something really unusual, such as insects cooked in different ways, which I believe they do a lot of in Asia.
R: I don’t like tripe either, or any intestines for that matter. For something new though, I would like to eat an Irish stew in a Dublin pub that James Joyce frequented!
What sort of people do you have in your cookery classes – what age groups and nationalities, etc?
Y: We have had backpackers, CEOs, gap-year travellers, a billionaire, real estate agents, vacationing chefs, long-distance travellers riding BMWs all over Brazil; European royalty; the chairman of the nuclear physics department of a US university, and well-known authors attending the Paraty International Literary Festival (FLIP). A total of 68 nationalities, so far, particularly from the UK, Netherlands, and other northern European countries, as well as other English-speaking countries around the world. In other words: all sorts and all ages!
R: We have thought a lot about this; what our ‘market’ is. And we’ve come up with some common characteristics: our guests are people who share a great curiosity of the world, mostly in their 20s to 40s; they tend to be confident and, as the French perhaps put it best, they are “bien dans leur peau” – roughly translated as ‘comfortable in their own skin’.
Why do people come to you to learn Brazilian cooking? Is it because they want to eat something special in good company, or to show off a new skill when they get home, or something else?
Y: I think it’s because we offer more than just cooking lessons. I talk about the local history and culture; we have a cosy setting here in our home; it’s not an industrial-size kitchen, so it feels welcoming.
R: And after the first welcoming caipirinha cocktail, any inhibitions and tension evaporate. The emphasis is on fun – they’re like kids in Yara’s sandbox! I also think that when you learn how to prepare dishes from the country you are visiting, the journey seems to last longer. In a good way!
Celebrity chefs are becoming more and more popular and influential in the UK, and the US, but apparently we don’t actually do as much cooking at home as we used to. Instead, more people are buying celebrity-endorsed ready-made meals. Is this happening in Brazil too?
Y: Thank God no, or at least not yet! What still happens in Brazil though is that Brazilians attach great importance to the dinner table at homeand family-style meals. Chefs may be looked at as celebrities, and Rio and São Paulo do have them. However, what Brazilians really cherish are the recipes made by family members or by their cook (which is still common in Brazil).
I always make a point about this in our dinners, making sure that people visiting Brazil don’t think of our cuisine based only on what they saw or ate in restaurants.
Does Richard take part in the cookery courses?
Y: Richard teaches how to make caipirinhas. He also helps me host the dinners, and talks about the production of cachaça, the growing of hearts of palm and for the more inquisitive guests he gives general information about Brazil.But most of all, since he is able to perceive such a large range of flavours, his feedback is essential to my cooking.
What do you like most about running your courses?
Y: I’m very keen onthe courses because we get to meet people from all over the world; and they tend to be fun loving, with a shared curiosity about other cultures. So we exchange interesting stories, have a lot of fun, and the evenings are our entertainment at home.
R: People who want to learn how to cook have that in common from the start; but as Yara says, it’s a whole lot more than that too. It’s a sort of self-selection of the people we meet. And we like to show another side of Brazil, beyond the postcard image (of beaches and bikinis), illustrating to our guests why we eat the way we do and to show them that there is another culinary world out there besides Italian food!!!
The evening cookery class costs $190 reais / approx US$108 per person, including recipes, four-course dinner, caipirinhas, wine, coffee, mint tea and a taste of aged cachaça from Minas Gerais. They close for three months per year, and these dates vary.
The cooking school featured in a PBS series about cooking schools around the world, Gourmet Adventures with Ruth, as the sole representative from South America. (episode #7). Yara has also written a cookery book, The Brazilian Table, with most of the photos taken by Richard; published by Gibbs-Smith.
For more details about the Academia de Cozinha & Outros Prazeres, visit: www.chefbrasil.com.
Huw Hennessy, a UK travel writer and journalist, lives in the green countryside of Devon, southwest England. The lure of Latin America has led him astray for 25 years or so, with a particular soft spot for the wildlife and the people. Check out his new book, a guide to Rio de Janeiro, published by the AA (Automobile Association)