Our fourth guest writer, Barbara (Bee) Dieu, takes us to Brazil where she is an educator working at the intersections of language learning, multi-literacies and professional development in online contexts. Over the years I have learned many things from her about teaching and learning online, about working across and between cultures and about being fearless as a teacher, communicator and friend. And now I’m learning from her about gardening in extreme conditions and about cassava–the hard work involved in its harvest and preparation, and the delicious-sounding dishes she makes from it. The video is fascinating!
At the end of last month, after an uninterrupted series of mellow autumn days here in southeast Brazil, a short and unexpected spell of rain set in. Whereas normally a rainfall would be most welcome in this drought-y season, it was the harbinger of winter. It was followed by an early morning frost (the thermometer on the verandah read -1 °C) which coated the vegetation with tiny ice crystals and burnt all tree tops. The green lawn broke out into brown spots of dead grass. My freshly planted purple basil and other herbs crumbled to dust, ending my dreams of a holiday month flavoured with fragrant homemade pesto, pasta and pizza. As a city dweller for five days a week, I am used to finding any ingredient on supermarket shelves at any time. The sudden change in weather in the countryside was a painful reminder that nature has its own seasons and rhythms.
Slowing down in our country place during weekends, cooking and bringing together family and friends is an immeasurable source of pleasure and fulfillment to me. Yet most of our horticultural experiments have turned into disheartening failures. Armies of termites, leaf-cutter ants, longhorn beetles and wood-boring larvae allied to all type of lichens and moulds have won most of the battles over the territory. Lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, green beans, courgettes, beetroots and radishes have been hopelessly nibbled or devoured young in their beds, without the slightest chance of appearing in any of the convivial reunions around the table. Climate and soil do not seem to be our allies either. Lime, tangerine, apricot, prune, persimmon and avocado trees have succumbed, one after the other. Decidedly, gardening is not for the faint-hearted! It requires time, know-how, hard work, and dedication we have not been able to adequately provide.
One of the only edible shrubs left on our brown patch of land that has resisted the successive onslaughts of vermin and bad weather is the cassava (manioc or yuca) root. Cassava is a hardy perennial native to South America. It is known as a crop of last resort because it thrives better in hard-baked earth than any other major food plant. For millenia, it has been a staple of Brazil’s native population, and it currently sustains about 800 million people all over the world. It is versatile and counts among the most genuine of our national foods. However, maybe because it is rural and prosaic, it has not been given the recognition it deserves.
The fresh pulp can be used in fermented drinks, broths and in the making of tapioca, a gluten-free starch, mostly consumed in the form of sweet and salted pancakes in the northeast of Brazil; and polvilho, a by-product used in the traditional cheese bread (pão de queijo).
Pato no Tucupi, a popular dish in the Amazon, is roasted duck simmered in a broth made with tucupi , a milky-white juice extracted from the wild (bitter) manioc root.
Cooked cassava root can also thicken chowders such as bobó de camarão (shrimp in yuca cream) or beef dishes like vaca atolada (“mud-stranded cow”). It can be deep-fried, as a savoury substitute to French fries or made into fritters, both of which are perfect accompaniments to beer or caipirinha, Brazil’s national drink.
Farinha de mandioca (manioc flour) is sold both toasted and untoasted and is used in place of wheat flour in breads, cakes, biscuits, stews, purees (pirão), and poultry stuffing. Most often it is warmed and toasted again in a skillet with a little butter or oil, thus becoming a dish called farofa. Farofa can be enlivened with chopped vegetables, and other complements such as nuts, olives, and raisins, and almost anything that strikes the fancy. I usually add cubed bacon or sausages, chopped onions and a taste of garlic, olives, parsley, cilantro and grated fresh carrot and serve it with barbecued meat and salad or sprinkle it plain over feijoada (a national dish made with salted pork meat, collards, rice and black beans).
Cassava is popular food par excellence: planted on family farms, harvested year-round and found in recipes throughout the country and worldwide. It is on every Brazilian table, in one form or another, irrespective of season or social status.
Join us for the drinks and appetizers and let’s raise a toast to cassava!
Watch Clarice harvesting and preparing cassava:
and see the full gallery of photos. To Cassava!