This is a story of a hidden valley in the invisible universe of the Brazilian traditional communities.
But this is also the story of brave women empowered by their own culinary culture.
A bit of context
In the Ribeira Valley -an area of more than ten million square miles- live 88 Quilombolas communities, direct descendants of the former slaves taken from Africa in the 16th century to work in the fluvial gold rush and in the rice plantations of the region. Since they were established, these communities have been carried on the rich agricultural and culinary tradition of their ancestors. Immaterial cultural heritage living among the luxuriant rainforest vegetation, at 300 miles from the metropolis of Brazil.
Studies of the Instituto Socio Ambiental (ISA), among others, show that here it can be found the largest remnant of Atlantic forest in the whole country, equivalent to a quarter of what remains of the biome. This shows, with no doubt, a connection between the presence of these communities and the conservation of the natural environment and the rich local biodiversity.
An innovative way of living in harmony with the forest
Over the centuries, these communities have turned the wild environment of the region into their home, adapting to it by finding a long-lasting healthy balance within it. In an area declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve due to its diversity, live 10,000 species of fauna and flora, the quilombolas -traditionally isolated communities- needed to find their way of surviving, a way of planting and harvesting in the hostile environment of the forest. In the last three hundred years, the quilombolas communities have been practising an agricultural system that has been certified by the National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN), as a national patrimony. The so-called Shifting Cultivation System (Roça de Coivara) is an innovative agricultural system created independently by the Quilombolas to be able to survive and produce their subsistence crops. This system has allowed its inhabitants to survive in a balanced relationship with nature. Moreover, according to the results of scientific researches, the Coivara system has even improved the existence and the quality of the flora and fauna. While enriching the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest, it is “playing a crucial role in ensuring the food security of our whole planet”, says Professor Manuela Carneiro da Cunha of São Paulo University and Chicago University.
To better understand the range of the biodiversity of the area, it is worth highlight that the annual Quilombola Seedling and Seed Exchange Trade Fair in 2009 accounted for 199 varieties of crops, grown in 14 Quilombola territories.
The main products are manioc, corn, bean and rice, which also are the ones with the highest number of varieties. In fact, among all the Quilombola communities are farmed 21 different varieties of manioc, 13 varieties of corn, 18 of bean and 16 of rice. The other 131 crops are vegetables, fruits, spices, medicinal herbs, and arboreal trees.
The annual Quilombola fair is open to the public as well and offer a perfect opportunity to savour the invigorating typical dishes, such as the country chicken with taioba root (frango caipira with raiz de taioba).
The quality of the crops – raised organically without the use of pesticides- as well as their diversity, have probably been the main reasons why renowned chefs, such as Bel Coelho and Guga Rocha, decades ago have started researching and studying Quilombolas cuisine, incorporating ancient knowledge into their dishes.
By choice or by chance, also tourists started visiting the Ribeira Valley communities, and beyond the healthiness and the organicity of their diet the new visitors must have realised that, as Chef Guga, declares: “Cuisine is not only food, cuisine is culture, territory, and history”.
What happens before, after, and during the preparation of each meal is filled with activities, rituals, dance, and singing stemming from practices with much deeper meaning than the activity itself.
A long night of dancing at the rhythm of the forró*, for example, marks the end of the rice harvest time and the community members gather for the collective celebration. Accompanied by the musicians, the pairs move at the frenetic rhythm around a room, dancing away the effort that the group has made in the fields.
*Typical Brazilian dance
Quilombola gastronomy is the result of the unique relationship that its inhabitants had with the inhospitable territory of the Brazilian rainforest, which they’ve chosen as their safe home. The methods of conservation and preservation developed over centuries represent the result of this interaction, based on deep knowledge and a respectful understanding of the rhythms of the natural cycles.
Their innovative agricultural system, Roça de Coivara-previously presented- is the most evident example of this cohabitation.
The unique preparation of some dishes such as cooking by burying the food underground and covering it with banana leaves is another direct expression of the ancestor traditions.
The brave women
This rich history and culture have been taken to the capital São Paulo, by Elvira da Silva and other women of Ivaporunduva Quilombo -the most organised of the Quilombos communities. They’ve walked on stage, spoken to large audiences, smiled with pride while sharing their everyday knowledge.
The women have also entered the kitchens of very famous metropolitan restaurants to share their experience, practices, and recipes with the chefs and customers. They have been invited to international events, such the 1st International Women in Travel & Tourism Forum, to share their stories with other women, to inspire and be inspired, to see and feel that, even though the journey towards full gender equality in tourism hasn’t been completed, we are definitely working towards it with determination.
They’ve also presented at many other national events, such as the Instituto Brasil A Gosto in May to promote and disseminate the lost knowledge of the Quilombola gastronomy to the general public.
The BBC recently published a video report , which explores the cultural and historical roots of the Quilombola cuisine, highlighting its healthy eating qualities.
The communities have attracted women of the Brazilian group Diaspora Black, who organised an experiential trip to get to know the female leaders of valley, creating another opportunity to exchange knowledge and to learn about the communities’ daily life, the management and organization of the work, but, most importantly, to celebrate the centrality of these women.
The Quilombola cuisine has been rediscovered by modern culinary experts and tourism has been the main vehicle for its dissemination but, without a doubt, Jardelina, Diva, Zélia, Marina, Elvira, Sirlei, Laura, Domingas, Marilda, Zilda, Esperança, Gi -and many other women- have been the protagonists of this process.
Along the way, these brave women have been helped to put together a book, Quilombo na Cozinha, (“Quilombo in the Kitchen” in English), which includes many of the recipes of their oral tradition.
Thanks to this book and its distribution, traditional recipes of the Quilombola have been brought to many dinner tables and discovered for the first time by many Brazilians. Their living culture has been transmitted and rescued from the loss of memory.
A new light has been cast on the Quilombolas communities and they are no longer invisible thanks to their strong, brave women who suspended their daily field and housework to walk the stages to spread the word about their roots and passion.
But also thanks to their communities, of which they are an integral part.
For more information about the Shifting Cultivation System (Roça de Coivara) watch the video (in Portuguese).
ISA (Instituto Socioambiental)
A short version of this article was initially published on Equality in Tourism’s Blog on March 13th for the week of celebration of International Women Day.