RIO DE JANEIRO — Ask Milton Ponce to describe the flavor of the round, little, baked snack that he has been producing for more than 50 years, and he sounds a bit stumped.
“Crunchy, light,” he says through an interpreter.
Hmm. Those are not flavors.
“It doesn’t have preservatives,” he says, trying again. “It doesn’t have dye; it doesn’t have trans fat.”
“You can’t stop eating them,” he went on, brightening as though he had found an answer. “You eat one, and you keep eating.”
So it tastes like. …
“After 50 years of making it, I can’t say what it tastes like,” he said. “I can’t even perceive the smell because I spend so much time in here.”
For Ponce, “here” is a roughly 5,000-square-foot, four-oven operation in the Centro neighborhood of Rio, where he, two brothers, a nephew and a small group of employees make what is known as Biscoito Globo. (“Globo” is the name of the company — not to be confused with the Brazilian media giant of the same name — but also what everyone calls the product.)
To the American palate, a Biscoito Globo is basically an oversize Funyun minus the onion, or what you would get if you ordered a Cheez Doodle, hold the cheese. It is crumbly texture and nothing else — air turned into a doughnut-shaped wafer. Pop one in your mouth, and it is as if your teeth are at a party to which your tongue was not invited.
“It doesn’t really have much of a taste, but it’s still good,” said Hugo Calderano, a Rio native and a member of Brazil’s Olympic table tennis team.
Biscoito Globo is thus part of that grand culinary tradition of regional edible darlings that perplex outsiders. But their distinctive flavorlessness also makes them a perfect symbol for food in Rio. With the Summer Games underway, thousands of athletes and foreign fans are learning this city’s unhappy secret: The restaurant scene here can most charitably be described as “meh.”
First, the requisite caveat: There are superb and inexpensive juice bars all over the place. Street vendors with mobile carts sell churros that are molten and sublime. The city also has a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants, and regular visitors, and more than a few locals, swear there are some mid- and low-priced gems with inventive menus scattered here and there. There are also those ever-entertaining churrascarias, a genre of restaurant featuring waiters roving the floor with machetes and skewers of meat. You pay a flat fee and dine to your bursting point.
“The city has never had a thriving food scene,” a recent issue of Condé Nast Traveler opined in a guide to Rio. Then the magazine went on to list a handful of restaurants that “won’t disappoint.” Among them was the Michelin-starred Lasai, which, it is worth noting, offers Basque-inspired food.
By keeping his biscoitos almost willfully bland, Ponce and his colleagues are catering to an audience they know well. He and his brothers opened Globo in the mid-1950s, and by 1963, they were trudging up and down the city’s beaches on weekends, giving away samples.
“It’s enough to survive,” he said of the money he earned. He works seven days a week in the summer, with days off only when it rains. Asked about the last time he took a vacation, he said vacation was not really part of his life. “I sell Globo when I travel,” he explained.
“I remember visiting my aunt and grandmother in Minas Gerais,” she said, referring to a state in southeastern Brazil, “and they would make biscoito and serve them with coffee. There are a lot of different types, but the ones we made at home were a lot like these. A little bigger, harder. But they taste about the same.”
Maybe the ingredients offer some clues. The list on the bag reads as follows: sour starch, water, coconut fat, eggs, milk, salt and sugar.
The “sour starch” is manioc flour, which is derived from an indigenous tuberous root of the same name, also known as cassava. This is worth noting because if Biscoito Globo has any flavor, manioc is its source — and because Brazil’s embattled president, Dilma Rousseff, praised manioc in a speech last year as one of Brazil’s greatest achievements, prompting antigovernment demonstrators to wave manioc in derision during protests.
Some of his rivals in the business put cheese and ham in their biscoitos, he said, but he is not doing that. Yes, a description of the flavor of Globo is elusive. But so, apparently, is the flavor.