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The Literary Dram

A Spirit in one hand, a Book in the other

Category Archives: Brazil

The Cachaça:  Porto MorretesCachaça Aged

The Books:  Budapest and Split Milk by Chico Buarque

Cachaça is Brazil’s most popular distilled spirit, by far. About two billion litres are produced annually. I’d say a fair portion of that is drunk while listening and dancing to the music of the legendary Chico Buarque. And while reading his books.


Porto Morretes aged cachaça lights up the glass with an orange-gold glow. Oak vanilla and caramel round out a spicy aromatic nose. These notes deliver warmly but with considerable force, making for a rich, medium-complex taste experience. There’s flavourful, honeyed fire that eases off nicely. Robust and rewarding. Very danceable. (39.6% abv)

You might consider Brazilian cachaça a cousin to rhum agricole of the West Indies. Both are distilled, not from molasses as is most rum, but from the raw juice of the sugar cane. Premium cachaça is aged in oak. In the case of Porto Morretes, that’s for three years (bearing in mind that the influence of oak is speeded up by the heat of the tropics).

In Brazil the making of cachaça dates from the 1500s. Today there are some 40,000 producers throughout the country. Agroecologica Marumbi Ltda., the distiller behind Porto Morretes, was founded in 2004 and is located in southern Brazil, in quiet, historic Morretes, a town long known for its distillation of cachaça. It lies at the foot of the beautiful Pico Morumbi, within the protected area of the Atlantic Forest. It prides itself on it artisanal, organic production.

The climate is hot and humid, the soil fertile, allowing the pesticide-free terroir to produce a top-grade, unique sugarcane. The cane is harvested and selected by hand, its juice extracted and fed into temperature-controlled stainless steel vats. Fermentation follows, using only natural yeast.

Distillation is in copper stills, where the head and tail of the run are diverted and only the centre portion, the “heart”, ends up in oak barrels for aging. The result — an award-winning cachaça, much of which is exported to countries where it is still little known, finding its way to spirit drinkers looking for a new and exceptional product, running one step ahead of the crowd.


Very rare is the musician who can stand equally tall as a novelist. But Brazil’s Chico Buarque is just such a guy. For fifty years he has been one of the country’s most celebrated singer-songwriters. In the early 1990s, drawing on a life-long passion for literature, he took a side road into writing novels. There have been four to date, best sellers in Brazil, some award winning, all critically acclaimed. All have been translated into English — Turbulence, Benjamin, Budapest, and Spilt Milk.

They would seem to take little if anything from the author’s life as a musician. What they do share with his songwriting is commentary on Brazil’s political and social landscape. Yet, they are far from forays into realism. Budapest especially leans towards the work of Kafka and his successors.

At the centre of the story is a ghostwriter, José Costa. His office overlooks Rio’s Copacabana Beach, but his heart is in far-off Budapest. Having been stranded there for a night on a return flight from Istanbul, he is smitten by the city. And, as a man of words, just as smitten by the Hungarian language — “the only tongue in the world the devil respects.”

He is soon plotting a return to Budapest, leaving his television journalist wife and overweight, aloof young son, in favour of language classes with the intriguing Krista. He works a path through the entanglements of love, language, pumpkin rolls and Tokaji wine. All is not as it appears and when the life of the renamed Zsoze Kósta takes yet another absurdist turn we very willingly give ourselves over to the surreal games that an exceptional writer might play.

The protagonist of the even more accomplished Split Milk lived part of his life in a chalet that also overlooked Copacabana Beach. Eulálio d’Assumpção, a centenarian confined to the ward of a decrepit public hospital, began life in a mansion built on the profits of the slave trade. Through the decades his family fortune waned to such a point that in his old age Eulálio was forced into a hovel on the grimy fringes of the city. The generational descent — from his aristocratic great-great grandfather to a great-grandson who deals drugs — mirrors the changes which overtook modern Brazil.

But if Spilt Milk is a lesson in history it is a subtle one, fed through the highly personal voice of its aged narrator, a man who is by turns charming, irritating, tender, racist, amusing, unforgivable. In his decline he talks on and on to his nurse, his daughter, himself, anyone else who will listen, recounting episodes from his long life, without the filter that failed to follow him into old age and dementia. With their repeated telling, the line between what truly happened and what he imagined becomes increasingly blurred.

Buarque never loses sight of the man whose story he has chosen to tell. A man whose one profound, enduring loss was the sudden departure of his young wife, Matilde, who left him so long ago and without his ever understanding why. The novel is at its core a love story.

One begins to think what a solo career as Chico Buarque the writer might have produced. But then there would not have been his music, a thought which I sense in Brazil would be outright unpatriotic.


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