Carnival culture: the beauty of Rio de Janeiro

Carnival culture: the beauty of Rio de Janeiro

by Marcello Tully 29 March 2016

Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's most famous city, with iconic landmarks and a party atmosphere. Regular visitor Marcello Tully sheds some light on its culinary culture.

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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.

In 1925, at twenty-one years of age, my grandfather, who was born in Edinburgh, emigrated to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil as a partner with Price Waterhouse. He met and married a German girl and in 1943 my father Guilherme was born and became a Carioca – the name given to a person who is a native of Rio.

At the age of twelve my father was sent to Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, where he was schooled until he turned sixteen and returned to Brazil to finish his education. A few years later he met and married my mother Graça, originally from Maceió.

Some years later, when I was six years old, my parents separated and my father brought my two brothers and I to London. Having transferred from their Rio office, my father was still working for Varig Brazilian Airlines and with the perk of free airline tickets we visited Brazil often, always stopping in Rio for a spell.

When people think of Brazil, Rio is the city that springs to mind; however, it is often mistaken for the capital. In fact, the newly built Brasilia took over that role from Rio in 1960. Rio is the only city outside of Europe to have been a capital of a European country, thanks to the Portuguese royal family who retreated there to escape Napoleon.

To me, there is nothing more breathtaking than the panoramic views of the city, both from the Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pão de Açứcar) and the Christ the Redeemer statue (Corcovado). From these viewpoints you can see the world famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema; the harbour and the Maracanã football stadium – the largest in South America and once in the world.

Sugar Loaf Mountain
Sugar Loaf Mountain is 600 million years old and can be reached via cable car
The favelas of Rio are infamous for poverty and crime – although the government is trying to make them safer

Iconic beauty

On many occasions my father took us by train to the statue of Christ, a twenty-minute journey to the top of the granite mountain some 710 metres above sea level. Sometimes the weather closed in and formed a blanket of cloud engulfing the view, but on a clear day we could see the large lagoon (Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas) where we hired pedal boats and spent many an afternoon rather noisily challenging one another to a race, much to the despair of the adults accompanying us! The statue of Christ is a further thirty-eight metres up the mountain and is truly magnificent, especially when bathed in golden light at dusk. Behind the statue there is a winding road and many steps to the foot of the monument itself, which is hard work for both young and old legs!

The Sugar Loaf Mountain, a natural monument of 600 million-year-old granite, is another famous landmark and vantage point to gain mind-blowing views. I remember the aerial cable car so well, particularly the time we broke down on our way to watch the sunset over Rio. Thankfully we weren’t stranded for long.

There is of course a flipside to Rio’s beauty – there are over 700 favelas in the city. These impoverished neighbourhoods cover large areas and are ruled by drug barons. The government, through its police force, are now trying to take steps to overrule the favelas and make them safe and some can be visited through ‘favela tours’.

Rio’s carnival is the largest in the world and great numbers flock to the city every year. The event lasts for two weeks and is made up of the official carnival, with numerous samba schools parading on large floats with flamboyant costumes, jesters, magicians, drums, percussion and samba; the Brazilian dance with an African influence. A VIP box to watch the Sambadrome procession will cost around £2,000, but the street bands and parties in each neighbourhood in Rio are mostly free.

Carnival isn’t exclusive to Rio though; it’s celebrated in towns and villages throughout Brazil.

My brothers and I were fortunate to be able to join in with Carnival no matter where we were in the country but our father was ever mindful that we should not look like gringos, which could cause unwanted attention.

Carnival is hugely important all over Brazil, but is most glamorously celebrated in Rio
Churrasco might have originated in the south of the country, but it is now one of Rio's most popular ways of cooking

The food of Rio

One of the many reasons Rio was such a great place to stay was the chance to eat a diverse range of foods. Bob’s, the Brazilian equivalent of McDonald’s, was a special treat when, every once in a while, my father would break the rule of avoiding fast food restaurants and allow us to indulge! More frequently we would head to a Churrascaria (all you can eat) restaurant comprised of barbecued meats as well as buffet-style accompaniments, or a Comida por kilo restaurant – a self-service buffet where food is weighed (minus the plate weight) and you literally pay per kilogram. The pricing structure would depend on location and type of food served. For example, sushi would be more expensive in the southern part of Rio.

Both restaurants serve Feijoada – Brazil’s national dish made with dried black beans and pork offal such as ears, snout, tail and trotters. There are two interesting stories relating to the creation of this dish. One is that it originates from the colonial slaves who worked on coffee and sugar cane plantations, who incorporated the inexpensive, undesirable offcuts, infrequently given to them to make their staple diet of beans and rice more delicious. The other is that it derived from southern Europe, where cooking less noble cuts of pork in a thick bean stew was commonplace, normally using kidney beans, white beans or chickpeas. Brazilian Feijoada materialised with the inclusion of black beans.

For my brothers and I, sitting in a restaurant environment was quite tedious at times and what we loved most was hanging out at the beach and enjoying a quick, convenient snack – street food. A favourite was kibe, which originated from Lebanon and is a delicious mix of minced beef, bulgur wheat and seasonings, often served on a stick or just in a serviette. The other was a pastel – a very light pastry, similar to filo, with delicious assorted fillings. We also loved Espetos de frango – barbecued chicken pieces served on a skewer – or Salgados de peixe; whole fried mini fish, similar to whitebait.