In Recife, we sweat as one. The visible line of airconditioners at the city’s Gilberto Freyre Internacional drip a steady stream of coolant due to overuse, causing a puddle or two to form around the moist rubber of the carousel belts. Step outside and your pores instantly give way, forcing shirts to cling to backs just as a Tibetan infant’s harness grips his mother’s spine.
Then the skies sigh and wipe a brow, flicking down a spray of light drizzle. It drizzles often in Recife and all of Brazil’s nordeste (northeast), but it causes little respite from the region’s extreme humidity. Today, it is in the late nineties. So along the shoreline, even the reefs (the Portuguese term for reef is Recife) are perspiring, squirting packets of chlorophyll seaward to make all of the Atlantic shimmer green.
“Only one way to beat this,” says my taxi driver Eduardo, a beast of a man who looks and glistens like an otter in the late morning sun. How, what, where, I ask, all at once. “I take you to Bar do Armando.”
With a swerving U-turn, Eduardo is now steering us to the former Dutch colony of Olinda, a small township just north of the city. Our luck seems to be moving the same way too. Zig-zagging through a maze of pastel-coloured houses, we finally reach the colonial square of Praca do Carmo. And by it, Eduardo’s drinking hole.
In Recife, we also think as one, apparently. At 11:30am on a midweek morning, the dingy Bar do Armando is half-full. Yellow and red plastic chairs sit on either side of a long, creaking wooden bench. Carminha, owner Armando’s daughter and the bar’s head waitress, kisses Eduardo on the cheek and leads us by hand to the head of the table.
“So what are we drinking today?” I ask with thirst and earnest. Instantly, otter-face Eduardo looks like I’ve insulted his family. But he laughs and so does Carminha on translation. Now the creaking wooden bench is really rattling because half the bar’s occupants are slapping their knees and guffawing. Finally, after much deliberation, Eduardo wipes tears from his eyes and sweat from his forehead and says: “Not agua (water), of course.”
Of course. In Armando, Olinda, Recife and all of the nordeste, alcohol is consumed in two varieties. One is clear as agua and arrives in a shot glass; the other is frosted like ice and arrives in a plastic thermos. Carminha places both variants on my side of the bench, along with a slice of raw lemon. “That is Pitú,” Eduardo explains, pointing at the liquid in the shot glass. “We thank the Dutch for it, like you will soon thank me.”
I do. I really do. Named after a red reef-crab, Pitú is the most revered drink in Brazil’s northeast. It is extracted from fermented sugarcane juice, quite like the national concoction of Cachaça. But unlike Cachaça, Pitú doesn’t set fire to your throat and belly despite containing 40 per cent alcohol. “It’s a lot smoother, like tequila,” says Carminha in Portuguese, before adding: “But it will set fire to your mind.”
Too late. I’ve knocked it back in one go.
Quite like the crustacean it is named after, toxic Pitú begins clawing my brains out. “Which is why we follow it with the lemon and chase it with this,” says Eduardo, giggling as he points at the thermos. I lift the lid and am glad to see a cold bottle of beer. Sorry, make that the coldest bottle of beer. Ever.
In Recife, the locals seem to take the term ‘ice cold beer’ a little too literally. ‘Antarctica’, as the cerveja label aptly reads, spouts out a decent amount of pasty beer-frost once the bottle cap is whisked off. “We freeze it at -11.5 degrees,” says Carminha, pointing at a set of red digital numbers on her red refrigerator. “And which is why, in Recife, we serve it in a thermos. Beer should never go warm, never.”
I yank the bottle out of its insulated shell and pour Eduardo a frothy glass of the golden liquid. Within a few minutes of being placed out of its cold comfort, the ice settles and is replaced with rising bubbles. To ease my spinning mind, I watch the bottle perspire from its neck, just like the rest of us.