A Sweet and Nostalgic Trip to 16th Century Brazil and Slavery

Brazilian farm houseBrazilian historian-sociologist- anthropologist Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) wrote in his book “Assucar” (Sugar), in 1939, that sugar “sweetened up so many aspects of Brazilian life that it cannot be separated from national civilization.” To Freyre, the sugarcane cycle experienced by Brazil, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, had an indirect influence on Brazilians “in that it made their manners, gestures and words sweeter.”

Being good hosts became a staple practice in households. Sugar directly inspired the then-emerging cuisine, combining European recipes, influenced by Arab cultures, the sweets of the African blacks, and the fruits of the Indians. Cakes and tasty sweets appeared on Brazilian tables.

Nearly 70 years later, a tourist route retrieves these aspects of national culture and shows visitors a bit of the history of the civilization that occupied the Northeast of the country in past centuries.

The route, called “Civilização do Açúcar” (Sugar Civilization), was conceived by the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (Sebrae), and includes destinations in three Brazilian states – Paraíba, Alagoas and Pernambuco. In Paraíba, the owners of 17 mills in 6 different municipalities have already set themselves in motion. They have tidied up the farmhouse and are receiving visitors from Brazil and foreign countries.

According to Regina Amorim, Tourism manager at the Sebrae-Paraíba, the first step of the project consisted of getting a grasp of the whole sugar cycle in the region and its influence on cuisine, architecture, culture, habits and uses of Brazilians. Research work was commissioned from the Gilberto Freyre Foundation, based in Recife, capital of Pernambuco.

The process started out three years ago, and according to Gilberto de Mello Freyre Neto, who coordinates studies on the sugar civilization, the aim was to reflect on the past of the region and “to show people the historical significance of that civilization, which had its values as did any other great civilization, such as the Egyptian, Greek and Roman, for instance.”

According to Freyre Neto, from then on, work started being done on what he calls acceptance by the entrepreneurs, as well as on adapting existing features to the taste of modern tourists.

“The architecture of farmhouses, chapels and mills has its worth, therefore these places must be visited. We must not be ashamed of showing the “senzalas” (slave quarters), because slave labour was unfortunately a part of the civilizing process,” he says. Bringing back the savory regional cuisine and popular celebrations was another part of this first phase of work.

The contents of the study were turned into a seminar, presented to entrepreneurs, containing basic tips for developing the tourist route. “With regard to the cuisine, for instance, traditional local dishes were identified that might receive a new presentation, a re-reading, even of their ingredients, so as to appeal to the tastes of visitors,” explains Freyre Neto. The reason is that strong spices, for example, might not please the tourists.

The art of good catering practiced by farm owners, an important contributing factor to the development of tourism, also appeared in the research material as a key feature of the sugar civilization. This was a lesson that Gutemberg Barreto, of mill Engenho Mineiro, learned from his family in his early childhood, and puts to use when he has tourists and students over at his farm, in the municipality of Areia (approximately 120 kilometers away from João Pessoa, capital of Paraíba).

With good humor and much pride, he explains that the mill is roughly 180 years old. “The house is still decorated with the furniture that belonged to my great-grandparents,” says the entrepreneur. Old colonial-style furniture, oratories, saints and family photographs decorate the living room walls. “All in sugar civilization-style,” he says.

All Ends in Sweetness

At the mill, which produces rapadura (sugarcane candy), things are no different. Cane is still brought over from the fields in the back of donkeys and then gets crushed at the mill. These are the first steps in a process that takes up to four hours, by which rapadura is obtained and then distributed to several cities in the state, especially Campina Grande. Barreto’s mill has production capacity for one ton per day, during six months of the year.

Monitored visits last approximately one hour and end in style. The cook prepares a tasting of cakes, sweets, cheeses, juices and, of course, cane juice. Following the tradition of farmhouses, where recipes were kept in lock, modern-day mills still retain their secrets and special touches. At Engenho Mineiro, sweets made of cashew, jackfruit, and banana are successful.

Cuisine is also a strong point at mill Engenho Lagoa Verde, founded in 1759, in the city of Alagoa Grande. So much so that Vicente Lemos has even opened a restaurant, with capacity for 100 people, in order to receive the visitors. In the menu, pasture-raised chickens, lamb cooked on cachaça (cane spirit), jerky and lots of cassava.

“Those are fairly typical dishes,” he says. The mill has been run by the family for five generations now, and investment in tourism began eight years ago.

Besides the tour of the farm premises, Lemos created other activities, such as tracks for eco-tourism, bicycle- and horse-riding. For such, he invested on forest preservation. “Currently, we have 132 hectares of Atlantic forest, including river springs etc. Now, the woods share space with the cane, which was not the case in the days of the sugarcane cycle (view article below),” says the entrepreneur.

Lemos also established partnerships with travel agencies and has been receiving many foreign tourists, especially Dutch, who come to Natal, no Rio Grande do Norte (200 kilometers away from Areia).

The Lagoa Verde mill has an output of approximately 180,000 liters of cachaça per crop (which starts in October and ends in March). The mill’s brand, Volúpia, is sold in almost every state in the Northeast and Southeast regions, as well as in Brasília (capital of Brazil).

Regarding foreign countries, sales have already been made to France. “But the idea is to expand into other countries,” claims Lemos. The entrepreneur also aims to build bungalows in the property, so tourists may sleep over and spend more than one day at the mill.

According to Luiz Félix de Lucena, president of the Brazilian Travel Agency Association (Abav) in Paraíba, the Sugar Civilization route is going to be presented at the Fair of the Americas, which is held in Rio de Janeiro from October 22 to October 24, and is one of the largest events for tourist operators in South America.

“The idea is to promote the route across all of the Brazilian territory, as well as to foreign countries,” he asserts. Even though there are no hostels within the mills, most trips should be integrated with tourist packages to the cities of Natal, João Pessoa and Campina Grande, for example. One of the advantages of the route, according to Lucena, lies precisely in its nearness to large cities that are already tourist spots.

A Family of Inventors

The name of Engenho Triunfo (Triumph Mill) was chosen by the owner, Maria Júlia de Albuquerque Baracho, inspired on her anthropological studies, and due to the effort that the whole family made in order to have its own business.

“We are not a traditional farm-owner family, but my husband had a dream of owning a mill some day,” she explains. The dream remained on the shelf and only took shape in 1994, when the family received some extra money and decided to invest on the purchase of a mill.

According to Maria Júlia, it was a period of hard work and learning, the latter of which earned her husband, Antônio Augusto, the nickname Gyro Gearloose.

“We had no money to buy machinery in order to make cachaça, for instance, and he started making things up. Those visiting our factory would be in awe of such creativity,” she claims.

From meat grinder to hair drier, everything would become machinery for the still. “Nowadays, these equipment are part of a sort of museum of Engenho Triunfo,” says Maria Júlia.

Sales were another chapter in the account of the Mill’s triumph. Maria Júlia recalls that she would go from door to door offering the product, which was successful at times. At other times, she was not that lucky. “Ours was not a traditional, well-known brand, therefore placing it in the market used to be real difficult,” she asserts.

Diligence and stubbornness have led Engenho Triunfo to its current status. They employ 53 people, produce 180,000 bottles (300 ml), sell to the states of Paraíba, Pernambuco and Rio Grande do Norte, and have already received export orders from five countries. Tourism started in 2006, for university or school students only.

In the following year, Maria Júlia realized that it could be a good business and decided to bet on it. She prepared a room for tastings and, of course, a good reception room. “Presently, it already answers to 20% of company revenues,” she says. Unorthodox recipes, such as coffee-and-cachaça flavored hard candy and cachaça truffles feature in the menu of sweets.

Invention seems to be in the blood of the Albuquerque Baracho family. This year, the son of the couple, Thiago, decided to get down to business as well. A student of Industrial Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, he has developed a method for obtaining alcohol fuel using waste generated by the cane manufacturing process.
Cane heads and tails, parts considered no good due to their high alcohol content and copper residue (the ‘good’ part is the so-called heart) were turned into fuel to be used in the eight automobiles owned by the company. The price: US$ 0.07 per liter. At gas stations, in the city of São Paulo, the average price per liter is 1,20 Brazilian real (US$ 0.66).

All the Way from New Guinea

Sugarcane first appeared in New Guinea, Oceania. It was a native ornamental plant from the island. The story goes that the Persians were the first people to pay attention to cane and develop techniques for producing sugar in its crystallized form. The Arabs, with their cuisine, were next and started producing solid sugar, used in sweets recipes.

The form allowed for the product to spread across the world. That was when the sugar routes were created, and the African Arabs introduced cultivars in the Mediterranean, in islands such as Sicily, Italy.

The product, however, was costly and its consumption, restricted to the wealthier families, hospitals and pharmacies. With the discovery of new lands, Portuguese and Spanish colonizers, who already had experience with cane farming, took the plant to the newly colonized regions, such as the Caribbean and America. Prior to arriving in Brazilian territory, sugarcane was planted in the Madeira and Canary Islands, always yielding good results.

Cane was brought to Brazil by the Portuguese with the aim of catering to a stronger demand, as crop areas grew. Farming was cheaper in the colonies, and the product stopped being a luxury for the few. Europe was consuming more and more sugar by sweetening tea, coffee and using the product in the kitchen.

And the Portuguese wanted to jump at the opportunity. In the productive, abundant Brazilian land, they cut down the native forest and planted sugarcane. The landscape gradually changed, and so did the habits. The green acquired a different shade. African slaves were brought in bondage and piled up at the senzalas (slave quarters) in the farms.

Gilberto Freyre was among those who studied the influence that that culture had on the development of the country, especially in the northeastern states. The first mill started operations in Brazilian land, in a farm in the state of São Paulo, around 1532. In the Northeast, a mill first started running in 1535, in the state of Pernambuco.

Freyre wrote that early cane farming in the region was violent towards the forest, and that, in a short while, “sugarcane began to reign supreme across miles and miles of ground reddened by the slash-and-burn. Devastated by the fire.” It was the monoculture, emblematic of early agricultural exploration in the country. After the cane, there came the coffee.

Pernambuco soon became the leading sugarcane producer state in the country. “The cane frontier went up to the border with what now is the state of Minas Gerais. Alagoas and Paraíba were large producers as well,” explains Gilberto de Mello Freyre Neto. During its heyday, Pernambuco exported some 3,000 tons per year. The destination was Europe.

Mills used to produce from 45 to 150 tons, and the workforce was comprised of slaves. In the late 16th century, Brazil was the leading global supplier of sugar. Besides sugar, many farms also manufactured cachaça (cane spirit). The activity was secondary. The cachaça was used as currency in slave trade, hence its importance.

In the 18th century, however, the Brazilian product began losing ground to the sugar made in French, British and Dutch colonies, which was considered of higher quality due to the refining process. The variety produced in Brazil was brown sugar, and it was defeated by the white variety. As other crops were introduced, such as coffee and cotton, and the gold rush began in the country, the northeastern mills began to decline.

Those that survived were modernized and turned into large plants. Other large groups were formed, alcohol technology was discovered and Brazil became important within the international scenario once again. In 2008, the country should end the year with an output of 32.7 million tons of sugar and 27 billion liters of alcohol. The sugar and alcohol industry should crush 558.72 million tons of cane.

Of Fine Painters and Great Music

The region that concentrates the mills in the Sugar Civilization tourist route is also home to important names of national culture. In the city of Areia, which is national historic heritage, painter Pedro Américo (1843-1905) was born. He painted the picture “Independência ou Morte” (Independence or Death), better known as “O grito do Ipiranga” (The shout at Ipiranga), in 1888, which symbolizes Brazilian independence.

Américo gained worldwide renown and his work can be seen in the main Brazilian museums. In the city of Areia, however, tourists may visit the House of Pedro Américo, where the painter was born and lived until he was nine.

According to Regina Amorim, of the Sebrae-Paraíba, the city is also home to the Museum of Rapadura, featuring all of the machinery used in the manufacturing of rapadura, sugar and cachaça, and the Minerva theater, inaugurated in 1859, in which important plays were staged in Paraíba.

Alagoa Grande, another city in the route, is the homeland of musician Jackson do Pandeiro (1919-1982), the writer and singer of several songs in the Samba, Baião and Brazilian Carnaval tunes.

After becoming known in the Northeast, Jackson traveled to Rio de Janeiro and recorded his first nationwide hit, “Sebastiana,” in 1953, followed by “Forró do Limoeiro”. His rhythm influenced other singers.

Besides Areia and Alagoa Grande, the route includes Alagoa Nova, Bananeiras, Pilões and Serraria. “All of these cities were important to the sugarcane cycle, and they all have attractions that are now starting to be adapted for tourism,” says Regina.


Telephone: (+55 83) 3225 3835

Engenho Mineiro
Telephone: (+55 83) 3362 2310

Engenho Lagoa Verde
Telephone: (+55 83) 9982 0407

Engenho Triunfo
Telephone: (+55 83) 3362 2390

Anba – www.anba.com.br


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