Belo Horizonte, Brazil's haven for food and football
As thousands of visiting football fans have discovered during this World Cup, Brazil is a country of immense cultural diversity. Rio has Copacabana, Cristo, the elegant MPB (musica popular brasileira) of Chico Buarque, and sensual samba. Sao Paulo has money, vastness, and more entertainment options than a small European country. The northeast has music (the jaunty folk stylings of forró, the pop frenzy of axe, the pounding drums of maracatu) and beaches and folklore and huge, frenzied Carnaval celebrations.
In the middle ground of Brazil, culturally if not geographically, lies Belo Horizonte, a pleasant, unshowy metropolis of about 4 million people, where Brazil will play Chile on Saturday in the last 16 of the World Cup. Belo Horizonte doesn't really do music, apart from the touched-by-the-hand-of-god genius of Milton Nascimento and his Clube da Esquina (Club on the Corner) movement back in the 1960s, the grizzly death metal band Sepultura, and a few uninspiring pop-rock guitar strummers in the 1990s.
Landlocked BH, as the locals dub it, doesn't do beaches, either -- the unofficial motto of the city, which supposedly boasts more drinking establishments per head than any other town in Brazil, is não temos mar, vamos pro bar ("we've got no beach, so we may as well go to the pub"). Nor is Belo Horizonte much of a Carnaval hotspot -- the city's February festival has grown considerably in recent years, but still remains a largely middle class, student-dominated affair, a far cry from the mass popular street parties of cities such as Recife and Salvador.
What Belo Horizonte and the surrounding state of Minas Gerais does best is food. Amazonian exotics Belem and Manaus (Pato no Tucupi, or duck in a manioc sauce, is a local favourite) may protest. Salvador (with its spicy seafood and palm oil specialities) may complain. But comida mineira, as the cuisine in Minas is known, is arguably Brazil's best.
Belt-looseningly stodgy, most dishes are based around pork and chicken, vegetables such as couve (similar to kale), and tutu, a thick sauce made by grinding beans with manioc flour (farinha) and then cooking the results. One of the region's most famous dishes is tutu a mineira, roasted pork served with tutu and garnished with steamed couve and torresmo (pork scratchings). Then there is frango ao molho pardo, a gruesome-sounding but flavoursome plate of chicken cooked in its own blood.
There are alarmingly sugary desserts, too, such as brigadier, a throat-gaggingly sweet chocolate snack, and doce de leite, a goopy caramel concoction. And the whole lot can be washed down with a few glasses of some of Brazil's best cachaças (sugar cane rum).
Pride of place, however, goes to feijão tropeiro, which translates as mule driver's beans -- a salty, astonishingly tasty mix of pork, bacon, beans, onion and spices.
Feijão tropeiro also provides the missing link between food and football in Belo Horizonte. The dish was the traditional snack at the old, pre-World Cup redecoration, Mineirão Stadium, a vast feed with a fried egg slapped on top for good measure. Prematch digestion was more often than not aided by a few glasses of watery Brazilian beer.
The dish was a symbol of the old stadium and of a time when tickets were cheap and crowds were massive -- in 1997 a stadium record of 132,000 people elbowed their way into the ground for the final of the Campeonato Mineiro between one of the city's two big clubs, Cruzeiro, and Vila Nova, from the neighbouring town of Nova Lima. At the same time, Atletico Mineiro, Cruzeiro's hated rivals, regularly pulled in average crowds of about 40,000, despite not having won a national or continental title since being crowned the first official Brazilian champions in 1971.
Cruzeiro, meanwhile, won the Brazilian title in 1966 and again in 2003, when the club clinched the triplice coroa ("triple crown") by also claiming the Copa do Brasil and Minas Gerais state championship. And there were Libertadores titles in 1976 and 1997. Even so, until last year the club had endured a 10-year major trophy-free dry zone.
Belo Horizonte's lean spell came to an end in spectacular style in 2013. After a two-year exile -- when the teams played their home games in the nearby town of Sete Lagoas while the city's two football stadiums were being rebuilt for the World Cup -- Atlético and Cruzeiro had returned home in 2012: Galo ("the rooster", Atlético's nickname) to the cramped but rowdy Independência, and Raposa ("the fox") to the more spacious Mineirão.
The results were spectacular. Atlético, inspired by a certain Ronaldinho, pushed eventual winners Fluminense hard in the 2012 title race before finishing second and qualifying for the Copa Libertadores for the first time in 13 years. Then, after an improbably dramatic campaign, Galo won South America's biggest footballing prize in July last year, beating Olimpia of Paraguay in front of 60,000 fans at a seething Mineirão.
Undoubtedly spurred on by their neighbour's success (the rivalry between the two teams is bitter and intense), Cruzeiro invested heavily in new players, such as strapping Vasco da Gama defender Dedé and gifted attacking midfielder Everton Ribeiro, and won the Brasileirão national championship by a landslide a few months later.
With football in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo in a miserable state (not one club from the latter, Brazil's biggest and richest city, managed to qualify for this year's Copa Libertadores), and Cruzeiro currently leading this season's top flight, there is no doubt that Belo Horizonte, often overlooked by the Rio- and Sao Paulo-dominated national media, is the current capital of Brazilian football.
Not everyone was happy when the Mineirão reopened, however. One essential part of the Belo Horizonte match-day experience wasn't right. The traditional feijão tropeiro, now reduced to a small bowl of beans, farinha and not much else, was a shadow of its former self. The complaints were immediate and vocal.
"It's nothing like the old tropeiro," Wilker Telles, a Cruzeiro fan, told the O Tempo newspaper. "It's tropeiro with no eggs, beef or sauce. It's a joke." A campaign to Bring Back Our Tropeiro began. A few months later, stadium administrators Minas Arena relented and a new, more generously proportioned tropeiro was introduced.
Belo Horizonte may be a long way from Rio's glitz, São Paulo's swagger or the folksy charms of the northeast of Brazil. But with winning football teams and full bellies, plus the prospect of seeing the Seleçaõ hopefully take another step toward the fabled hexa (a sixth World Cup title) on Saturday, the locals aren't complaining.