Down the river: the Brazilian city of Manaus

Down the river: the Brazilian city of Manaus

by Marcello Tully 21 March 2016

Marcello Tully recalls his father's fondness for the Brazilian city Manaus, a city sitting at the entrance to the Amazon rainforest.

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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.

My father Guilheme, who sadly is no longer with us, was very fortunate in working for Varig Brazilian Airlines. This allowed him the benefits of travelling far and wide, often off the beaten track. Never one to opt for a package holiday, he would much rather get back to basics and head to his beloved homeland of Brazil.

One of the most amazing trips, which he often recounted, was a journey to the Amazon on a six-day tour with a party of travel agents who were promoting Manaus as a holiday destination. Manaus is the Amazon’s largest city with a population of 2.5 million people, located on the Rio Negro river. The Amazon rainforest extends through much of north west Brazil, covering 2.1 million square miles and extending into Colombia, Peru and other South American countries. It is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is criss-crossed with thousands of rivers, the most exceptional being the Amazon.

Today, Manaus (meaning Mother of Gods) is the main gateway to the Amazon river and the rainforest, and has its own airport. Electronic and wood industries and oil refineries surround the edge of the city, with the harbour acting as the most important trading centre.

Teatro Amazonas
The Teatro Amazonas is just one example of the extravagant buildings dotted throughout the city
The Caboclos live and work on the rivers around Manaus

Past and present

Manaus was once a dainty little town that flourished during 1890-1920, when the owners of the rubber plantations became extremely wealthy, bringing immense prosperity to the region. With it came immense architecture, such as the Palacio Rio Negro, former home of a German rubber baron before becoming the Governor’s residence. It is now a cultural centre, holding art exhibitions, concerts and performances. The Grand Opera House, known as Teatro Amazonas, is a beautifully constructed building with a colourful dome. It was once deemed to be the ‘Paris of the Tropics’ for so many travelling opera troupes who performed here, until a fatal onset of yellow fever wiped out half of one unfortunate group of singers.

Manaus is now a modern city holding onto its indigenous traditions and thriving from the natural beauty of the land with the popular jungle tours it provides. My father’s enthusiasm and passion for this place was so apparent with the anecdotes from his travels. He was completely humbled by the Amazonian people, known as the Caboclos, and their settlements. The Caboclos mainly work as fishermen, rubber tappers and small farmers near the river margins. Fish is the main protein of Amazonian cuisine, with dozens of exceptionally tasteful species. Large fish are grilled over charcoal and smaller species are marinated and fried in an acidic marinade before being served in a tomato sauce (escabeche), coconut milk or stewed in tucupi (a marvellous sauce, made of fermented manioc juices. Manioc is a long, tuberous, starchy root).

Açai berries are exported all over the world thanks to their status as a superfood
Caimans are a common sight along Brazil's northern riverbanks

Food of the forest

Exotic fruit is in abundance – acerola, graviola, acai, pitanga, bacuri and papaya. The acai berry is rich in iron and regarded as a superfood; it’s also absolutely delicious served as a smoothie or with fresh bananas and granola for breakfast. Guarana grows here and can be eaten in berry form – elsewhere it is made into a tonic and stimulant.

My father was also adventurous when it came to trying new foods, way ahead of any ‘bush tucker trial’. On one of his trips he was served roast paca, a large rodent, and on another occasion sauva ants, which have a zingy, lemony flavour.

His most memorable meal was one that a Caboclo helped him fish for and later cook. His catch weighed around two kilos and was very similar to a catfish. Prepared using the traditional method of wrapping a banana leaf around the fish which had been marinated in lime juice, oil and salt, it is then topped with chopped tomatoes, red pepper, chillies, onion and coriander and grilled for around forty minutes. It was served with farofa (toasted manioc flour) and rice. That particular evening was rounded off observing the caimans (similar to alligators), which is a popular pastime on any eco-tour.