Serra Catarinense: Where the Apples Come From

By Rob Packer

“The hills step off into whiteness” —Sylvia Plath, 1965

I’ve recently been reading a fair bit of English and German Romantic poetry and can’t work out why. The ticking clock of coming close to 30? Homesickness for a Europe that seems to be sabotaging itself? Or perhaps it was just a trip two weeks ago to the Serra Geral Catarinense.

The Serra Geral, a mountain range in the southeastern corner of Santa Catarina, looks like the kind of place the stereotyped Romantic would have written about: expansive green valleys, mountains with crags and rock arches, waterfalls, farmland and, all the while, wrapped in mist or fog. In fact, it all seemed a bit like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.

Mountains and valleys in Urubici.

Misty mountains.

A different view in a different part of Urubici.

Perhaps the fog shouldn’t have been much of a surprise: a lot of the trees were covered with mossy epiphytes, making it look like a cloud forest. At the same time, the water for the sheer number of waterfalls the area had to come from somewhere. Read more of this post

Down South

By Rob Packer

It is a peculiarity of Brazilian Portuguese that capital and interior are opposites, which is—as far as I know—not the case in any other language. This is a surprisingly pervasive difference and seems to imply that all capitals are cosmopolitan metropolises, while the interior is a rural backwater or maybe jungle. Read more of this post

Brazilian Hand Rolls

By Rob Packer

It almost goes without saying that sushi will be available wherever you go. Standards might vary (wildly), the preferred variety might be different (in Colombia, it seems to be mostly futomaki, for example), you might not want to eat it; but there it will be. With its large Japanese population (see this blog), Brazil is no exception, even though I think this probably has more to do with global trends in places like Florianópolis. And there are two things about sushi-eating here that seem particularly Brazilian: the rodízio and the temakeria.

The rodízio de sushi, or all-you-can-eat, is something I doubt I’ll be doing again. It conflicted with a certain bias of mine towards the paramount importance of the freshness of the ingredients—as I’ve mentioned before, seeing the staff pack the nigiri in the fridge is something that no-one should see. Added to that, different prices depending on whether you eat maki, nigiri or sashimi just seems plain wrong.

On the other hand, the temakeria is a lot more to my liking: these places serve mainly or entirely hand rolls, or temaki. In Hong Kong or the UK (I’ve never been to Japan), for example, temaki always seemed hard-to-come-by and relatively expensive: in Brazil, it’s a key part of the menu and is normally decent value for money. People have told me that in pre-temakeria days, sushi was too expensive for most people; a Brazilian temaki is just about meal-sized (so is far bigger than any I’ve ever seen in other countries) and available for about the price of a burger.

It’s not all that authentic, it’s certainly not gourmet and borders on fast food, but it’s definitely tasty.


The everything temaki.

The tuna one.

Well, yes, it is a bit like fast food.

Temax Temakeria, Germano Wendhausen #190, Florianópolis

Food: We had two temaki. The Max Temax was a bit overloaded with too many types of sashimi, as it included pieces of salmon, tuna, prawn, kani and octopus; the Atum especial, on the other hand, was pieces of tuna with cream cheese and a touch of tabasco. Neither included much rice at all, so were low on authenticity, but the food is good overall and I’ve been told that other places aren’t nearly as good.

Price: Where the temakeria wins is on price: each temaki cost R$14 (US$8, £5).

Córdoba, City of Doctors

By Rob Packer

While I was in Argentina last month, I took some time out from Buenos Aires to visit Córdoba and Mendoza, the second and fourth-largest cities of this enormous country.

The centre of Córdoba: Plaza San Martín

The ornate interior of Córdoba's cathedral.

Springtime in Córdoba

One of Argentina’s oldest cities and nicknamed La Docta (The Learned One), Córdoba is home to the country’s oldest university (founded 1613) and today has evolved into a centre of arts festivals, especially for theatre. The friends I stayed with, Victoria and Manuel took me to a unique experience: the opening of the Festival Clandestino de Teatro Independiente. As the name suggests, the venue was secret (phone to find out), on a semi-residential street and basically a bedroom. We sat on stools in the corner, along the walls, or on the floor, and the actresses reached between audience members to get clothes out of a wardrobe. For a play about the intimate secrets of two sisters, the space was incredibly effective, and this aesthetic set-up is apparently common in the city. Read more of this post

Manuel Mujica Lainez’s Mysterious Buenos Aires

By Rob Packer

Manuel Mujica Lainez’s “Mysterious Buenos Aires”. A strange choice of cover: the last story is set in 1904 well before cars were widespread anywhere in the world.

Mysterious Buenos Aires by Argentine writer Manuel Mujica Lainez came recommended with a wink from a bookshop owner in La Plata, who promised me beautiful prose and an unpleasant start. Both turned out to be true: this collection of 42 short stories is written in elaborate Spanish and is set over Buenos Aires’ early history, starting with starving Spanish soldiers under native attack resorting to cannibalism.

Compressing over forty stories into less than 300 pages is not an easy reading experience, but Mujica has a knack for interesting premises and most of the stories are inventive and enjoyable. One of my favourites, ‘El hechizo del rey’, is a letter sent to one of the dwarfs in Velázquez’s Las Meninas with homely, and futile, remedies of how to cure the “sorcery” afflicting the appallingly inbred Charles II. In another, ‘La hechizada’, a young boy recounts how a spell was cast on his sister. And in ‘Memorias de Pablo y Virginia’—a story that actually sounds rather dull—a book with little respect for its contents tells its fascinating life story. Others are the stories of Portuguese Jews hiding their religion from the Inquisition, slave traders for the South Sea Company, the hapless sweetheart of a French pirate, or an elderly patrician lady confined to the salon of her palatial home while her fortune disappears.

Mysterious Buenos Aires does not recount an official history of Buenos Aires, with a pompous emphasis on independence and 19th-century political battles: the book tells the stories of people and inanimate objects mostly on the edge of society, and the city comes across as a surprisingly cosmopolitan place (like it did at the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano). The book definitely isn’t for everyone and is only available in Spanish, but if you’re interested in Buenos Aires, it’s worth having a look at a few of the stories.

Ernesto Sabato’s The Tunnel

By Rob Packer

Ernesto Sabato's "The Tunnel"

Buenos Aires has countless beautiful bookshops every few blocks, as well as a second-hand (and apparently pirated) book market in Palermo. For someone with a weakness for books after studying literature at university, this was an enormous temptation that I partially justified as an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Argentina’s incredible literature.

I often feel that Ernesto Sabato, who died in May this year a few weeks from his 100th birthday, comes in as third-most-famous Argentine writer after Borges and Cortázar—especially internationally. Indeed, a quick look through European Amazon sites shows that the only book widely available in translation is his existentialist masterpiece, The Tunnel. His other two novels, Sobre héroes y tumbas and Abbadón el exterminador, and his essays (none of which I’ve read) seem much harder to come by.

I first read The Tunnel years ago and was immediately struck by the acerbic and pessimistic immediacy of Sabato’s prose, as the misanthropic artist (and likely psychopath) Juan Pablo Castel recounts what led him to murder María Iribarne, the “one person who could understand me”. The title and opening quotation refer to a “lonely and dark” tunnel that seals Castel off hermetically from everyone else in society.

Despite the general gloom, some moments of the novel seem comic, when Castel tells someone come to pick him up that he’s not Castel, or has a pang of regret and tries to retrieve a letter he’s already sent from the post office. Others seem eerily familiar as Castel over-analyses a smile or a single word, but then overdoes it drawing pseudo-logical conclusions about his girlfriend’s behaviour based on coincidence or circumstance. The motivation is sometimes understandable: the obsessive and violent results completely incomprehensible.

Prior to becoming a writer, Sabato was a promising physicist, studying atomic radiation at the Curie Institute in Paris after gaining his PhD, and was there when nuclear fission was discovered. The idea terrified Sabato and this, and the contacts he made with surrealists while in Paris, meant that he left the potentially apocalyptic world of science to shut himself in the Córdoba sierras and concentrate on writing. One of the results, The Tunnel, is an incredible and chilling first novel that I can’t recommend enough.

* You can also check out this documentary in Spanish on his life from Radio Nacional de España.

Restinga Recanto: Lunch in Sambaqui

By Rob Packer 

I’ve written about Sambaqui before, but we decided to head back there to make the most of today’s public holiday without spending hours in the traffic jam heading to the east of the island.

We had lunch at Restinga Recanto, a restaurant decorated with traditional papier-mâché models used in the boi-de-mamão dance (a more humane version of bull-fighting, video here) and with one of the most spectacular views in Florianópolis.

Not a bad view for lunch.

The other side of the lunchtime view.

We started the meal with a pastel de siri (a fried crab empanada) and then had anchova à portuguesa with pirão de camarão and rice. If you take away the à portuguesapart (it meant ‘with a mustard sauce’ this time), this is one of the traditional lunches of Florianópolis.


More boi-de-mamão

Restinga Recanto, Rod. Rafael Rocha Pires, #2759, Sambaqui, Florianópolis

Food: Your views on anchovy are very dependent on what you think of oily fish (I like it, my lunch companion is fast going off it). On the other hand, the mustard sauce was just strange: it’s not that it was unpleasant; I just doubt I’ll order it again. The pirão, a mixture of mandioc paste and fish stock that’s much than it sounds, was good.

Service: Service is never great in Florianópolis, the place was very busy and we were in a corner, so waiters’ indifference to my arm-waving is at least partly excused.

Price: That view doesn’t come for free: R$39 (US$22, £14) for the anchovy with sides and it came to R$67 (US$38, £24) between two for the whole meal, which is pretty much the going rate.

Anchova à portuguesa: a traditional dish, but what's with the mustard sauce?

Pirão de camarão: a mixture of mandioc flour and fish stock, with some prawns thrown in.

Pastel de siri: a fried crab empanada.

Inside the pastel.

Some fried yucca to start.

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