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Day 42: Belo Horizonte

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The new Minas Gerais government complex on the outskirts of Belo Horizonte. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brasília.
Michael Palin - BrazilAn hour and a half's drive south of Cardeal Mota a huge city springs up, almost out of nowhere. The winding roads of the mountains are transformed into a network of sweeping, swirling, criss-crossing highways and the natural forest into a man-made forest of thousands upon thousands of tower blocks. The rain and cloud of the Serra do Cipó have been swept away, and on this bright sunny morning Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais and one of Brazil's fastest grow- ing cities, is, as its name suggests, like some shining city on the hill. A hundred years ago it was a small provincial town; now it has two airports and upwards of five million people living in and around the city limits.

Though mining is the primary source of the city's wealth, it's also the centre of a rich agricultural area and Minas Gerais is the heartland of one particular product which Brazil has an awful lot of. Coffee. It's an industry that is worth some seven billion dollars a year and it's not surprising to find that in the centre of Belo Horizonte there is a place dedicated entirely to the preparation, consumption and dispensation of Brazilian coffee. The Academia do Café (the Academy of Coffee) is a two-storey town house overshadowed by twenty-storey tower blocks on a corner of the Avenida do Contorno, the ring road. The owner, Bruno Souza, boiling and simmering like one of his own machines, exudes information and enthusiasm at a breathless pace, and it doesn't altogether surprise me to learn that in an average day he will drink a litre and a half of brewed coffee and two or three espressos. Of the two main species of coffee, Arabica and Robusta, it is clear which is his favourite. At a sampling table, laid with bowls to test the consistency of the flavour, we both sip, hiss the air into our mouths and spit out. The level of exactitude is way beyond me, but the pure Arabica beans, grown on his father's farm, give a much more fruity taste than I expect from coffee. That, says Bruno, is because I'm used to Robusta beans which contain more caffeine and are preferred by the big coffee-shop chains. Arabica has less caffeine, so delivers more of a taste than a buzz. Despite his massive daily intake he still sips it as if it were a fine malt whisky. And, like whisky or good wine, the location of the plantations is all-important. One of the best local coffees is grown inside a volcano.

It is a great source of pride to him that forty percent of all the Arabica coffee in the world comes from Brazil, and he talks, mouth-wateringly, of the prospects opening up as China and Korea and other Asian countries begin to get a taste for it.

For more than half an hour Bruno and I have been sipping, slurping, spitting and generally analysing some of the finest coffee beans in Brazil and all I want now is a decent cup of coffee. But there is a catch here. I have to make it. Bruno, eyes gleaming, says he can give me a specially abbreviated version of his barista training course. Six minutes instead of six months. All I can say is that I do get to make coffee on the fabulous La Marzocco, doyenne of espresso machines, handmade in Florence and retailing at a touch over £6,000. I can almost hear it wince as I try, unsuccessfully and embarrassingly clumsily, to click the portafilter into place. With a little help from Bruno the coffee I've ground and tamped down does eventually appear as a liquid, and it's a deep, dark colour – and, I have to say, rather delicious. Bruno produces some high-grade cachaça which complements it perfectly. There can be few more pleasant ways to greet a new city.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 42: Belo Horizonte
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Belo Horizonte
  • Book page no: 177

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