Twelve years ago, on a piss wet through Thursday lunchtime, I was camped in the psychedelia section of Piccadilly Records, eyebrows lowered under a mop top of very fucking questionable hair, thumbing through a rack of obscure compilations from the ’60s and ’70s, mesmerised by the historical, musical, geographical and political education I was receiving from the sleeve of each LP.
There was scuzzy Turkish garage, far out jungle grooves from South Sumatra and ultra secretive Xian pressings, recorded covertly away from prying eyes and ears during Franco’s Catholic facist regime in Spain. But among this mind altering landslide of LSD powered freakouts was the Holy Grail my 21-year-old wannabe vinyl experimentalist never knew he needed.
BRAZILIAN GUITAR FUZZ BANANAS
Up until this seismic day in early 2010, my only reference points for Brazilian culture were sun kissed shots of Copacabana Beach and Christ the Redeemer from terrible early evening terrestrial holiday shows, the World Cup squads of ’94, ’98, ’02 and ’06, that Nike advert in the airport, City of God, the old Brahma bottles that were designed to curve perfectly into the grip of your hand and, of course, Bem Brasil on Deansgate.
Admittedly, not a bad little assortment of sporting, artistic and culinary achievements, but hardly one that was indicative of a country as gigantic and diverse as the largest in Latin and South America. Now, here I was, eschewing the usual pre-pub playlist of mid noughties indie and pretty much anything where someone shouted ‘TERROR SQUAD’ or ‘FLIPMODE’, for a selection of Tropicalia tinged cuts that were as far removed from Samba as you could imagine. But between the extended, kaleidoscopic covers of the Batman theme tune and odes to Jimi Hendrix was a cover of Beatles penned Rolling Stones hit ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, by an outfit called The Youngsters. A two minute, 24 second slice of pure ’60s pop, only one that was now far raspier, grimier and let’s face it, far far fucking better having circumnavigated the Amazon and fought it’s way through favelas.
This was British produce spun a thousand different ways by Brazilian artistry and ingenuity, the likes of which I’d never experienced.
Now fast forward to a Baltic night on Blossom Street, Ancoats, January 2022. Only a couple of minutes up the road from where Joel Stones’ compilation skills bent my simple young mind over a decade prior, I was once again experiencing a sensory immersion of British goods twisted majestically by Brazilian decadence.
With her São Paulo Project pop up at Blossom Street Social, chef Caroline Martins is educating the masses that there is more to her homeland’s cuisine than churrascarias, feijoada and caipirinhas. Seminal though those dishes and drinks may be.
Instead, we are greeted with a welcoming drink of Brazilian acacia honey, Norfolk lavender and Three Rivers gin. This is a Baileys in the hands of a chef who has spent the majority of her career in the kitchens of multiple Michelin Star restaurants. It’s playful and inventive without the desire to overwhelm you.
No sooner have opening drinks been downed than a trio of canapés are presented in a sleekly carpented hexagonal wooden chest. When you discover that Caroline was once a Theoretical Plasma Physicist in a past life, everything begins to make sense.
The opening course is plucked straight from one of Willy Wonka’s fever dreams, luring you in with the appearance of a miniature banquet of desserts, when the reality is these effervescent works of art run deep with umami.
Beginning with a Crofton cheese, heart-of-palm & parsley mousse atop a disc of Holy Grain bakery crouton sounds pleasant enough, doesn’t it? Almost quintessential fare for the commencement of a fine dining taster menu. But then pair that with a pickled walnut and passion fruit purée, crafted into the appearance of a miniature succulent, and suddenly there’s a spark lighting the fuse you were unaware even existed before the first bite.
Similarly, the tartlet of smoked salmon and Exmoor caviar, adorned with edible flowers from Platt Fields Market Garden is another picturesque effort worthy of the most meticulous of afternoon teas. Only this one comes with a thump of flavour from a ‘Brazilian’ style cream cheese and a disguised crunch of Brazil Nuts. The finale – a fun size olive green cornetto – ambushes your tastebuds with a chicken liver & açai parfait that has no right to work as well as it does. Spooned inside a spinach cone it is accompanied by a gel of catuaba which is ordinarily a herb that, according to WebMD is used to perk up male sexual performance and alleviate anxiety. The five glasses of wine I knocked back with this meal would render the former perk irrelevant even in the unlikely event it was true, but I certainly felt very fucking content upon polishing it off, which would suggest there was a degree of truth to the latter.
That the following course was simply entitled ‘Bread Course’ is a disservice the size of Sugarloaf Mountain. The bread in question was a brioche infused with calabresa sausage, a Brazilian favourite that has its origins in, unsurprisingly, Calabria in Italy. Not too far removed from its spreadable cousin n’duja. The crescent of toffee toned caramelised onion butter sitting alongside would have been more than indulgent enough as the partnering spread, yet here we felt the full force of Caroline’s scientific, Michelin starred origin story.
Lighting up the middle of the table is a candle that smells suspiciously like a Sunday roast. A Celtic striped swirl pools around it and we are informed that this is to be dipped in.
It’s a fucking beef fat and rosemary candle.
I can only surmise that my reaction resembled a dog attempting to understand a magic trick.
Brioche rolls thoroughly waxed, there is a temptation to just start fucking biting everything in sight, just in case that proves itself to be another of Caroline’s haute cuisine creations. Instead, I sink my teeth into my beefy candle sausage cake bread and smile like a lunatic. I guarantee you’ll do the exact same thing.
Not only does the candle of cow blow the collective minds of everyone in the room, it also serves as the crankshaft that powers the combustion engine of the meal to come. Hand dived scallops graced with cassava mousseline, heart-of-palm and dehydrated papaya seeds usurps the beefy tea light at the table, providing a delicate reprieve from the bovine courses between which they are sandwiched.
Course number four is undeniably the main event and perhaps most traditional meshing of the two cultures (can’t bring myself to say fusion, sorry. Save it for Howard Moon in the midst of a jazz funk odyssey). Dry aged Picanha from Butcher’s Quarter is flanked by baroness potato, celeriac and horseradish sauce, lovage oil and an absolutely brilliant, salty dusting of bacon and corn cassava crumble. The beef rump cap is served blissfully medium rare atop the crumble, dramatically crimson in contrast to the citrus aesthetic of the potato and sauce.
A cheese course sourced from the impeccable Crafty Cheeseman consists of a generous slice of smoked Lancashire, a hefty smear of Wigmore, a wedge of Cumberland farmhouse and a reliably excellent Baron Bigod. Yet no member of this quartet steals the show in the way the spiced banana compote does. Seriously, let us one and all start spicing the fuck out of our bananas and making sauces out of them to dress sandwiches, crackers, kebabs, chips and everything inbefuckingtween with. Mama Z has been knocking out her audacious banana ketchup for a good while now and it’s as good a condiment as you could be fortunate to have in your kitchen cupboard. So let’s get bang into spicy banana spreads in 2022. Or else.
Dessert is a deal with the psychedelic, much like those ‘Fuzz Bananas’ I procured from Piccadilly Records all those years ago were. A toadstool, it’s cap a glistening ruby red of guava parfait and guava jam, propped up by a stem of parmesan genoise sponge and Sangiorgio’s Minas cheese, sits among a garden of Dormouse chocolate and lime crumble and more edible blossoms from Platt Fields. A very Alice In Wonderland take on the classic Brazilian ‘Romeu & Julieta’ dish, which is ordinarily served as either a dessert or appetiser, but rarely as creatively. The saliva inducing saltiness of the cheese, a specialty of the state of Minas Gerais, blends effortlessly well with the cartoon sweetness of the guava, while the tang of the lime and chocolate crumble underscores a truly bombastic dish.
This is, ordinarily, where you would expect to depart into the sub zero night air, final dregs of wine polished off and the Shudehill tram stop beckoning. The cheese guava toadstool a seemingly unstoppable finale. Yet Caroline is here to remind us that for all the expert nuances that have elevated each of her and her Sao Paulo Project team’s dishes into another dimension, Brazilians, with their Portuguese, Dutch, German, Italian and African infused heritages, are often at their most crowd pleasing when subtlety goes out of the window. And the menu’s showstopper – a baked Tunworth cheese, surrounded by brioche rolls and crowned with a big triumphant dollop of guava paste, rosemary and thyme, is bigger than a tractor wheel and just as intimidating when it hurtles towards you.
Given what has just preceded it, the Tunworth Terror could have perhaps been held back a few extra minutes while Super Mario World-esque toadstools and steak flavoured lighting digested a tad more. But on the other hand, to turn down a smear of this colossus would be unforgivable, so it is well and truly dug into, until there is no more digging to be done and the brick wall is collided with, stomach first.
Caroline’s enthusiasm matches her flavours and never wanes once throughout the night. The imagination that has gone into crafting such a bold, visionary concept is clear evidence of why she enjoyed a successful run to the latter stages of Brazilian Masterchef and will also be gracing our TV screens as part of the upcoming new series of Great British Menu. This hearty dose of experimentalism has as much technicolour tropicality as it does rural ruggedness. It’s a partnership that, in the wrong hands, would be knackered by a desperation to show off. Instead, Caroline showcases her precision for pairing boisterous flavours with a dappling of ingenious undertones that tie together proceedings beautifully, rather than ostentatiously meshing everything into a clumsy muddle.
The Sao Paulo Project will be serving up its Latin x Local collaborations for the next three months at Blossom Street Social, so YouTube as many tunes off Brazilian Guitar Fuzz Bananas as you can and get yourselves down there. Make 2022 the year of the Beef Candle.