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Northern Espirito Santo, Brazil

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I have been splitting my time between a small town in Northeastern Espirito Santo and Boston. Outside Brazil Espirito Santo is not all that well known, although its offshore petroleum, its exported granite, and other exported products (coffee, coconut water, charcoal, cellulose) find themselves across the globe. Within Brazil Espirito Santo is affectionately known as Minas Gerais' beach, much like the relationship of the communities on the North Sea to Germany, Belgium, and central European countries. Geographically ES is commonly discussed as Northern ES and Southern ES, the Northern part comprised of the more agricultural regions stretching from Vitoria to the borders with Minas Gerais and Bahia. I am mostly going to talk about the Northeast (closest to Bahia) and not discuss the South which includes some of the largest oil producing fields (on RJ/ES border) and the large resort town of Guarapari.

In Brazil Espirito Santo is most well known for its entry in the competition of Moquecas between Bahia and Espirito Santo -- the moqueca capixaba, made in the handmade clay pots "panelas de barro." The panela de barro, as well as names invoking Minas Gerais and to a lesser extent the wood stove (fogao a lenha most commonly associated with Minas) are commonly used in restaurant names. If you are travelling to the Northeast Espirito Santo and arrive by plane, you will land in Vitoria. The airport itself is very close to the bairro Goiabeiras (about 10 minutes by taxi) which is known for its "paneleiras" (pot makers) who sell their wares alongside the road and have formed a trade association representing them. So its easy to make a quick side trip there, although the pans can be bought across the region both in small stands in the summer, craft stores (artesenatos), and in highway-side stores. The cities of ES are linked with cities all over Brazil by bus, but in Brazil buses stop at well equipped truck stops (parados do onibus) and in ES these usually sell panelas de barro at a small premium over the ones roadside. If you do invest in a clay pot, keep in mind that they should be seasoned, that quality varies significantly, and before making an expensive moqueca (I have seen people waste $100 of fresh striped bass) make something inexpensive like rice just to be certain you are not getting off flavors. Packing them for travel is another topic altogether.

The Moqueca in Espirito Santo differs from the Moqueca Baiana in the use of olive oil (called azeite doce or sometimes neutral oils) instead of Dendê (palm oil), the use of urucum for coloring (annato, sometimes paprika) often in oil form, and the lack of coconut milk. Something interesting is that in the Northeast these rules are not as firm as they are in the Southern part, a few capixabas (not Bahian expatriates) add coconut milk. There are similar differences between Bahia and ES in making Bobó de Camarão (a yuca and shrimp stew), although the addition of coconut milk in ES is more common than in a moqueca and I have even heard one capixaba cook say she likes the taste of dendê in bobó. Another signature of Espirito Santo is the Torta Capixaba featuring assorted seafood and hearts of palm (palmito) which you will see a lot around Vitoria and in Guarapari and is traditionally eaten during Semana Santa -- from Palm Sunday through Easter. Interestingly its not something seen much on menus in the North and several cooks I asked professed not knowing how to make it. Lastly some of the mariscos (shellfish) used in it are less common in the Northeast, so it could be something which is more common in the South or maybe during Lent it does appear more. Lastly crab (siri & caranguejo) appears all over the place in ES -- its pretty exciting to order a shredded crab pastel (pastelao de siri catado) in a dirty bus terminal and get one with fresh lumpy crabmeat. And salt cod, despite the expense, is popular along with palmito.

Ethnically in Espirito Santo Italian immigration has made a large mark on the culture. A huge percent of the population are descendents of Italian immigrants. This includes areas like Santa Teresa (North of Vitoria) where Italian traditions are on display (architecture, festivals, wine making, street food like fried polenta). However, all across the state these traditions have a more subtle influence: people who mix beans and pasta instead of eating with rice, communities which have special pastas they make and serve in broth made with stewing fowl. When you get outside the cities into the agricultural areas, these influences are seen. There are also several large communities with descendents from Germany, including communities where a German-Portuguese dialect is still spoken. Also close to Vitoria is Domingos Martins a city with a large population of German descent and offers various German festivals, including Oktoberfest. In addition to wines from these communities (which get limited distribution in the state), there are some small microbreweries such as one outside Santa Teresa in Santa Maria de Jetibá one of the bilingual cities settled by immigrants of German descent from Pomerania (many of them "old lutherans"). However, again there is not much distribution within the state and European-influenced brewing is not as common as in the South of Brazil. The Serra Capixaba (the mountaneous region North of Vitoria) sports many of these communities and you can purchase "productos caseiros" (homemade) European influenced sweets using Brazilian fruits from these areas across the state. Santa Teresa in particular has a lot of production of these sweets and other homemade products, in addition to producing large quantities of vegetables.

Other European influences through tourism and workers are seen, you can for instance buy jamon serrano in supermarkets you would expect and see ads for a "paella valenciana" on signs while driving to beachside towns. Though not a well known regional cusine such as that from Minas Gerais, various states in the Northeast (Pernambuco, Bahia) or the strong european influence in the South of Brazil, Espirito Santo is a place of diverse influences and offering a huge variety of fresh agricultural products.

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  1. I love all great moquecas, whether they be capixaba or baina. I've had great moqueca capixaba in Sao Paulo, and we even have a regional capixaba restaurant in the Los Angeles area, that has a professional chef from Vitoria. She cooks in the panela de barro.

    Are the moqueca restaurants similar to the beach stands in Bahia?I've been to Ilheus and Salvador. And torta capixaba, where do you find that?What style of eateries? And does the Italian cooking differ from Sao Paulo?

    5 Replies
    1. re: streetgourmetla

      streetgourmetla when I first posted this I thought I would have a chance to follow up with some more information so there will eventually be some useful info here. :-) There are a couple of ways to get up to the Northeast part of ES, all based on BR-101. I prefer the road food options overall on that direct route, but when leaving Vitoria you can enter at the Barrio Laranjeiras (officially in Serra which has some good malls and a large churrascaria) and follow the senic Litoral route through Serra (Jacaraípe), Fundão (Praia Grande) and Aracruz (several praias) before meeting up with BR-101 again. That route has several pousadas and some restaurants which specialize in culinaria capixaba, plus there are a number of restaurants across from the beach in Jacaraipe (its only in the smaller fishing towns where you can sit right on the beach and order a moqueca). The place with the most (seafood/moqueca) options along that route and definitely offers a torta capixaba is the Cabana de Luiz which is a bit off from the beach.

      As I mentioned in the Northeast part I haven't seen the torta capixaba on menus, including one pousada with a large menu (aratu) and two restaurant cooks I talked to didn't know how to make it. I don't know if its just more common from Vitoria south, maybe it is available but just around Easter because the ingredients are hard to get (some frozen at the supermarket, there is one oyster farmer in Barra Nova but even they don't always have oysters). There are a lot of options in Vitoria and I think you would enjoy the culinary mall Hortomercado which has a upscale Culinaria Capixaba restaurant "Panela Capixaba." There also is an annual festival by the association of the paneleiras which which has a tent restaurant offering it.

      I have had several tortas de palmito made without a crust with salt cod which remind me of a simplified version of the torta capixaba -- no fruits of the mar, little or no egg whites but similar seasonings. Arimas in Sao Mateus makes one and I think the other one I had was at the Arimas and the other might have been in the rodoviaria in Vitoria (or the parada colorado in joao neiva). All in all while I enjoy the torta capixaba (and good palmito in general), it doesn't appeal to all tastes universally like the moqueca so I was simply surprised at first that I couldn't find a restaurant which specilized in culinaria capixaba. But having gathered my bearings, I am happy instead to have things like a fisherman who owns a bar that serves a moqueca with cacão (a small shark) they themselves pull out of the sea.

      1. re: streetgourmetla

        Most of the Italian cooking I was thinking about is more rural and definitely different from Sao Paulo (like the example of beans served with spagetti). Vitoria because its both the capital and because of the large Italian descent definitely has more to offer ingredient and restaurant wise at the high end, but its a much smaller capital.

        Something sort of interesting is polenta in ES is often seasoned with garlic and other items, whereas in Minas its Angu where for the most part the avoid salt, in SP its usually polenta with salt/water, and Bahia is most known for stuffed angu -- so there are a lot of regional variations with a simple dish. Some of the Italian families take it very seriously and only cut with string.

        1. re: itaunas

          The lack of salt seems to be that their cuisine had to develop without it, in Minas Gerais. That's great that they maintain their tradition of natural flavor from tempeiro mineiro. I did get to visit Uberlandia for a minute, and Sao Paulo has plenty of Minas Gerais cooking that I've enjoyed.

          I've been through 10 states, but not Espiritu Santo. Books and websites talking about cuisine usually list some dishes that you just won't find in many places, like sopa de leao veloso in Rio, which is in a handful of places, but by no means ubiquitous.

          "Stuffed angu"-Are you speaking of escondidinho? Love it.

          I like to read up on a place, but I'm more concerned with what the locals eat on a daily basis, that's the real cuisine, and how their dishes differ in seasoning, and presentation from neighboring states.

          1. re: streetgourmetla

            streetgourmetla I think you are getting neo-mineiro on us :-) Salt may have been expensive and scarce in MG, but plays a large role in the cusine. Certainly some of it is via preserved foods: the largest consumers of salt cod in Brazil, salted meats particularly pork, cheese (preserving of milk), they even have more pickles than elsewhere in Brazil. They are know for their tempero verde, but other states have tempero verde (in Bahia its often green onion/cilantro/and parsley, in MG it can vary but some places rely on parsley more than others, ES its more often just cilantro and parsley). But prepared pastes for seasoning meats (perhaps derived a bit from the portuguese massa de pimentao) are common in colonial recipes and I feel they also use "meat" as a seasoning (beans, couve, etc made with lard... salty torresmos on top of tutu also likely made with lard). And no mineiro worth their salt would eat fried lambari without a good does of salt. :-)

            When it comes to polenta Bahia's biggest export is "angu a baiana" -- polenta served with a tomato meat sauce. The traditional recipe uses offal and I think with the meat on the side, but today a lot of people just make a polenta lasagna with tomato ground beef sauce, top it with cheese, and call it angu a baiana like escondidinho but with fuba. However, my guess is that in Bahia itself most of the polenta or angu is eaten with galinhada not angu a baiana. I think ES and BA both season the polenta similarly (garlic, salt, maybe bay leaf) and they both use mint with the galinhada.

            A lot of Espirito Santo is rural, so rustic hearty (farmer) food whether they are of italian or other descent is most common (hence the beans and spaghetti). When people ask me what is the favorite dish in Brazil, I often say without joking rice, beans, fried egg and farinha. ES doesn't have quite the variety in farinha as the Northeast (eg there primarily is what Nordestinos would call "farinha seca"), but you can get good fresh farinha de mandioca at the mercado or feirinha which is something which makes a big difference between Brazilian cooking in Brazil. But given a long weekend, religious holidays, or special occasions, people love to make much more involved meals. And despite the Internet, Brazil in general is somewhere where a person can build their fame on one special occasion or unusual dish they know how to make.

            1. re: itaunas

              Haha, well I know they have salt now, and salted meats and ingredients provide salt. I actually don't know a Brazilian here in LA that doesn't constantly reach for the salt shaker.

              These meals are great. The beans, rice, egg, and farinha with great cooks. I'm kind of an egg junkie, so these things have much appeal to me.A lunch of couve , carne seca, and abobora at Bar do Mineiro in Rio is such a memorable meal. With some rice,beans, and some farinha, and peppers to condiment.

              Regions with fancy dishes, multiple recipes, always get highlighted, but I really love these other places just as well, and they have equal value for me.

              Espiritu Santo seems to rely on simple ingredients, and great cooking.

      2. Any good recs for southern ES, around Vitoria or Guarapari? I would be very interested in trying one of these Italian-influenced places as in my travels to Vitoria/Guarapari I have yet to encounter or even hear about this in southern ES. In fact, the best lower-end food that I have found in the area is comida Arabe, which is great and very affordable. Unfortunately between that and higher end places like Guaramare, there is a real gap in the gastronomy in the area, IMO.