‘Rio’s Carnival for the Senses Ends at the Food Line’ | The New York Times

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.)

 The biscoitos produced in this space are arguably the city’s most ubiquitous food, sold at supermarkets and newsstands as well as a chain called Casa do Biscoito (House of Biscuits). They are all over the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, where they are hawked by a small flotilla of men, many of them also selling sweet tea called matte.

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.”

 This will probably surprise the uninitiated, who may think of Rio as the American answer to New Orleans, a party town that caters to the senses. But taste is one sense that Rio has yet to fully develop.

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.

 But don’t assume that you will find one of these standouts by chance. Without a plan, you are more than likely to wind up at one of the city’s many subpar pizza parlors or a Japanese establishment pushing undersize nigiri. Inevitably, you will come across a self-service, food-by-the-kilogram joint with a buffet of dispiriting variety (salads, pasta and sushi?), along with racks of steak, chicken and sausage. Tell the grill master what you want, and he starts slicing.
Many comida por quilo restaurants, as they are known, are a fine way to eat for a reasonable sum, but they underscore that the cult of fresh ingredients, which swept other cities years ago, has yet to arrive here.

“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.

Today, dozens of freelance salesmen show up at Globo’s bakery early in the morning, buying a sack with 50 bags for the equivalent of about $15 and selling it at double or triple the price. There are regulars who have been at this for decades, like Carlos Robertos, 62, who said this was his 31st year. He stopped to chat as he got ready to head to the beach, sack in hand.

“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.

 Globo’s baking facility is an oversize kitchen that looks as if it has not been renovated in a few decades. There is a wall of industrial ovens and a man wearing a hairnet feeding them tray upon tray of what look like soft, white bracelets. Fifteen minutes later, these bracelets have fattened by a good inch or so. From there, they are cooled and then bagged.
 Ponce has a hard time saying exactly how much Globo he produces a day. His crew starts baking about 5 a.m., and a late shift knocks off about 9 p.m.
 The product is familiar to many Brazilians; variations of biscoitos have been made at home for decades. On a beach in Copacabana, a newlywed named Marina Leal was munching through a bag of Globo and having a Proustian moment.

“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.”

Leal could only laugh when asked to describe the taste.

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.

Globo actually sells two different kinds of biscoitos — a sweet version, which comes in a bag with light red graphics, and a savory version, which comes in a bag with light green graphics. Yes, this belies the notion that these products are merely crispness delivery vehicles, because they do not taste the same. But the differences are subtle. Ponce said it all boiled down to the ratio of sugar to salt because sugar and salt are ingredients in both.

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.

“We know it’s unique,” he said, “because our competitors try to imitate it and they can’t.”
Fonte: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/sports/olympics/rio-games-biscoito-globo.html

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