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Brazil

Day 9: Belém

 
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Filhote, pride of the Amazon.
Michael Palin - BrazilWith us is a tall, well-built youngish man with a fine head of hair and a broad brow which overhangs deep, coal-black eyes. With his wide shoulders tapering to a wafer-thin waist, Thiago Castanho looks like a film star but is in fact a culinary star, owner of two of the most fashionable restaurants in the city. He's here to buy lunch for us and a couple of hundred others. There is plenty of choice, with 2,000 species of fish in the Amazon Basin. This profusion is reflected in the overflowing white slabs that fill the main hall. The pirarucu is over two metres long and so big that it hangs down over the front of the stall. It has a lung which enables it to survive in oxygen-depleted water, but only at the expense of having to break the surface more frequently to take in air, which of course makes it a sitting target for fishermen. Others of impressive proportions are the tambaqui and the filhote. The latter is Thiago's favourite – big, fat, thick, juicy – and he discusses the finer points of today's catch with his regular supplier before buying some enormous fillets. There's a constant coming and going beneath this great iron-ribbed roof. Men and women tasting the prawns, looking quizzically at the surubim with their intricate black and silver stripes, gauging the freshness of the piranha, sampling tacacá, shrimp soup straight from the bowl, or admiring the shining gold and black tucumari. One man, wearing a beatific smile, walks around banging two lavatory seats together. I'm mesmerized but no one else seems to give him a second look.

Having made his choice, Thiago leads us through to his favoured fruit stall. It's run by a large lady in late middle age, wearing the cling-wrap hair cover obligatory for anyone involved in the food trade. She's stacking a pile of what look like coconuts but actually are brazil nuts still arranged, like segments of an orange, in the hard shell in which they grow. I'd never seen them in their natural state before, but as I make to touch she waves me away, fiercely. And the camera even more fiercely. But once she knows we're friends of Thiago she warms up and starts to ply us with all sorts of exotica. I recognise the pupunha, the fruit from which the Yanomami made their celebratory brew, and also the little hairy red fruits from the juice of which they made their body paint. I try a cupuracu, a soft, rather heavy taste, ace, the so-called wonder-fruit whose fame has spread far beyond the Amazon, and something embedded inside the tendril of a liana which has to be twisted open to reveal the fruit beneath. I'm sure there is huge goodness in all these rainforest fruits but it's an acquired taste, and I found some of them rather smooth and glutinous compared to the crispy citrus with which I'm more familiar.

Leaving Thiago to make his purchases we move on, sampling many of the Amazon fruits in juiced form, at the popular plop da frutas stalls. Bacuri, murici, graviola, tucumã, manga, maracujá. Not a single one I'd ever heard of. And not a single one was I allowed to miss out on by the large, persuasive ladies who made them up.
 
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Thiago talks big fish to Priscila and me.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 9: Belém
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belém
  • Book page no: 51

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