The Women of the Hidden Valley – A Culinary Experience

The Women of the Hidden Valley – A Culinary Experience

By Elisa Spampinato

This is the story of the invisible traditional communities of Brazil, hidden in the Ribeira Valley. The story of brave women, empowered by their own culinary culture.

In the Ribeira Valley, an area of more than ten million square miles, there are 88 Quilombolas communities, direct descendants of the former slaves taken from Africa in the 16th century to work in the fluvial gold rush. Until now, these communities have been continuing the rich agricultural and culinary tradition of their ancestors, whilst living among luxuriant, rainforest vegetation, 300 miles from the metropolis of Brazil.

By choice or by chance, tourists started visiting the  Valley communities , and among them, have been  renowned chefs, such as Bel Coelho and Guga Rocha,  who have been researching and studying Quilombolas cuisine for decades.  Describing it, Chef Guga said: “Cuisine is not only food, cuisine is culture, territory, and history”.  Whoever has visited the Quilombos could not agree more.

It’s culture!

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.

It’s territory!

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. Methods of conservation and preservation were developed over centuries to allow them to live independently. This is how their innovative agricultural system, Roça de Coivara, was created. Practised for the last three centuries, it has been scientifically proven that this original system has not only maintained, but even enriched, the biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest.  According to Professor Manuela Carneiro da Cunha, it plays “a crucial role in ensuring the food security of our whole planet”.

It’s history!

The unique preparation of some dishes such as cooking by burying the food underground and covering it with banana leaves maintain the traditions.

This rich history and culture have been taken to the capital São Paulo, by Elvira da Silva and other women of Ivaporunduva Quilombola, the most organised of the Quilombos communities. They’ve walked on stage, spoken to large audiences, smiled with pride, while sharing their everyday knowledge.

Photo credits: Rogerio Albuquerque

The women have also entered the kitchens of very famous restaurants in the metropolis 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  exploring 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 are no longer invisible thanks to their strong, brave women who suspended their daily field and housework to spread the word about their roots and passion.

Photo credits: Rogerio Albuquerque

CONTACT: To book an experience with one of the Quilombolas communities of the Ribeira Valley, contact Araribá Tourism & Culture (arariba@arariba.com).

For the full version of the article, please visit Elisa’s Blog.

Elisa is a researcher and consultant based in London. As a freelance consultant and researcher on sustainability, social innovation and local development Elisa is involved with local communities, international NGOs and universities throughout Latin America and in Italy.

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