Homecoming: a journey to Macieó

Homecoming: a journey to Maceió

by Marcello Tully 17 March 2016

Brazilian-born Marcello Tully, who now runs the Michelin-starred Kinloch Lodge on the Scottish Isle of Skye, reminisces about his hometown of Maceió in northeast Brazil, bringing to life the food found throughout the region.

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Born in Brazil and inspired by the flavours and street food culture of South America, Marcello Tully knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef despite his father’s initial protestations. He moved to the UK when he was still a boy and began his career at fourteen working as a commis chef in a French restaurant, gaining a passion for French cooking and appreciation of technical skill that would develop further throughout his career.

Marcello Tully, the only Brazilian-born chef in Britain to have held a Michelin star, continues to delight visitors to Kinloch Lodge with his fresh, locally sourced ingredients and multicultural flair.

Brazil is as rich in culture as it is in the diversity of its food. The country’s cuisine is steeped in history and incredibly traditional – most Brazilians would agree that the strongest influence in what they eat is African in origin, but the Portuguese colonists and native Indians contributed their fair share, too. African slaves around Bahia supplied some of the more well known dishes which are famous throughout Brazil, and with the arrival of European immigrants from various countries, Brazil has developed into a multi-cultured society, with French, Dutch, Portuguese, German, Italian and at a much later stage a Japanese contingent. People from Europe, Africa and Asia have settled all over the country, and as the fifth largest country in the world with a population of more than 203 million, Brazil is definitely a country for a diverse eating experience. I was born in Maceióin the state of Alagoas, northeast Brazil, where I was raised with my three brothers.

Maceió has some of the best beaches in the world and is lined with palm trees outlining the walkways which meander along the coastline, with pastel colonial houses and a nineteenth century cathedral in the distance. The city emerged from an old sugar mill and plantation complex in the 1800s, thanks to the arrival of ships taking wood from Jaraqua bay. With the installation of the sugar mills, Maceió started to export sugar, then tobacco, coconuts, leather and some spices. Prosperity made it possible for the settlement to become a village in December 1815, then thanks to its continued growth, it became the capital of Alagoas state in December 1839.

The city has a typical tropical monsoon climate, with warm to hot temperatures and high humidity all through the year. However, the constant breeze from the ocean is welcome relief from the more extreme temperatures. January is the warmest month, with an average temperature of 32°C and a minimum of 22°C.July experiences the coolest temperatures, with a maximum of 27°C, high rainfall and much higher humidity.

Street vendors
Street vendors line the beautiful beaches offering all sorts of local delicacies
The cuisine of Maceió is similar to that of Salvador, the capital of Bahia

Local delicacies

The cuisine here mirrors that of Salvador in Bahia, which is just over 360 miles away and more widely known (it is the fourth largest Brazilian state). Its capital is Salvador, which is known for its cobblestone streets, sixteenth century architecture, Catholic churches, lively festivals and Bahian food markets, selling delicious traditional street food with seated squares for visitors to relax and savour the flavours at their best. Delicious acarajé, made from the pulp of black eyed beans, deep fried in the heavy aromatic red dende oil (palm oil from the fruit of the palm tree), then sliced and filled with vatapá (a paste made from bread, prawns, coconut milk and peanuts). Rich, sweet coconut custard cakes known as quindim served in dainty rice paper dishes as well as the cheese puff bread Pao de Queijo (originating from Minas Gerais in the south of the country, but a national favourite) are just a few of the delicacies on offer.

People in Maceió can sit on the beach and be served food and drink all day long without moving a muscle. Acarajé, coxinha (shredded chicken covered in dough and deep fried), boiled quail eggs, cashew nuts and prawns cooked in their shells are always available, and there are plenty of innovative street vendors recycling old tins into a makeshift portable barbecue, filled with hot coal to grill cheese on sticks (queijo quente), washed down with aqua de coco (coconut water) – utterly delicious!

The cuisine is heavily influenced by coconut milk, as well as spices such as paprika, ginger, cumin, coriander and malagueta (a small and hot aromatic pepper). It is reported that in the olden days, Bahians were known to use ginger and malagueta to season wine and beer! These staple ingredients are further enhanced with the bountiful local supply of exotic fruits, the availability of seafood both fresh and dried and an abundance of fresh and dried meat.

Seafood is an incredibly important local resource, and the city is home to a huge fish market
Maceió's pristine beaches are famous throughout Brazil

Fruits of the sea

Maceió has the most amazing fish market, which as you would imagine operates in the very early hours of the morning, before the heat of the day kicks in. It is possible to buy a huge variety of fresh fish and shellfish at very reasonable prices, perfect for vatapá de peixe e camarão – one of the most popular dishes in the north east. Cassava root is also very popular and is often sold on its own, literally from a seller pushing a wheel barrow through the streets shouting ‘macaxeira!’ It is usually cooked in the same way as potatoes – parboiled and then deep fried.

One of my favourite dishes is moqueca, with its wonderfully spicy and rich coconut and lime sauce. There are many recipes but the fundamental ingredients tend to remain the same; it is a stew, usually made with fish, although chicken or vegetables can be substituted equally as well. In the early days a traditional moqueca would have been wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in embers.

I have very fond memories of being outdoors in a hot and sunny climate filled with amazing views when I was in Maceió. The air was filled with music and the hollering of busy street vendors, selling their amazing snacks with the most delicious aromas, making it impossible to walk past without buying something. I remember big family gatherings at the weekend, where people would head for the beach, listen to music, play beach ball, go snorkelling or surfing or have parties in the street. Neighbours would be pop into one another’s houses where the front doors were always open. I also remember the absolute eeriness of deserted streets and beaches on World Cup home games, where crowds would gather in houses or barracas (beach bars) dotted along the beachfront to watch the match, cheering and screaming at the television with every goal or near miss.