Returning to your home country acquires a whole new meaning when that country is Brazil—and you are just about to complete the Master in Food Culture and Communications at UNISG. Precisely my case at the moment.
Having grown up in the South (where it feels more like Argentina than the land of Carnaval) I decided to come to Bahia, in the northeast, for my internship. Thus far, to be honest, I feel as foreign as the Portuguese husband I brought along. Actually, even more than him at times.
Bahia’s strong reputation, which up to this point I’ve always considered highly stereotypical, is starting to make sense, in both pleasant and disturbing ways. I grew up knowning about the intense faith held by this people, and their syncretist culture of combining Catholicism and Candomblé. I’ve also become used to people referring to baianos as slightly slower paced, to put it lightly (can’t blame them for that, with this weather and the scenery it’s quite impossible to be a workaholic).
But those ideas only became palpable when my boss, Diego, on a regular Thursday, told me not to go to work. Instead, we all would participate in the Lavagem do Bonfim, a walk of 10K up to a hill, where Bonfim Church is located. Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (aka Jesus Christ) is Oxalá in Candomblé, equally powerful and worshipped. During the celebration, two Catholic masses took place, while baianas performed rituals from the African religion on the attendees, using popcorn and água de cheiro (as opposed to holy water, if I may say). Post ceremony, people gathered to drink and eat local delicacies—acarajé, abará, beijú—deep-fried spicy treats that look threatening, but which you must at least try. May Oxalá be merciful on your stomach.
Our group returned by boat, and before reaching the final destination, we stopped at a slum, one of the poorest and most dangerous in Salvador. Despite the lack of basic living conditions, locals were having a wonderful time and welcomed us to their celebration. Children swam and jumped in the sea, live music played, fried fish and cold beer were served, and the sun was gorgeously setting on the horizon.
As the day approached its end, our long, noisy and diverse table shared an obscenely large bar of heavenly chocolate. The chocolate that brought me to work here, after all. A dark, smooth, and citrusy bar, with notes of tropical fruits. A flavor that translated Mata Atlântica, the rainforest where that particular cocoa—Parazinho—had been organically sourced, protected by the shadow of high tropical trees, and carefully handled by men of the land. Diego offered it for our enjoyment. Every single person was silent and delighted.
After a while traveling around Europe, sampling wines and cheeses, and learning about terroir, there I was. Back in my own country, experiencing all of its contrasts and realizing how my notions of high-quality food translated to Brazilian reality. In the same way that I had gotten used to being generously received at farms, wineries, and restaurants, my hosts during that day offered me the best they had, and our exchange went far beyond eating and drinking.
Although I still get confused by getting, on average, one day off every week (on top of Saturday and Sunday), by witnessing huge social and racial gaps all the time, and by seeing everyone in the company wearing white on Fridays (in glory of Oxalá), something tells me that this is exactly where I should be.
It blows my mind to be more intrigued by my own country than I was by Italy, France, or the UK, but at least now there is no language barrier (er… almost: the accent sounds more like a dialect most of the time, especially when it comes to local fruit varieties). In the end, it seems appropriate to say that I could never be a D.O.C. person. I’ll just aim for enough experience and knowledge to deem myself worthy of an I.G.P. status. No rush.