Sanctuary in a Brazilian Ice Cream Store
Our second week in Brazil was spent in Mangue Seco, a two hour drive northeast of Salvador. I will write more about this spectacular corner of Bahia, which gave us one of the most restful and remote vacations we had ever experienced. But for now, allow me to indulge in one of our favorite pastimes: a daily visit to Recanto de Dona Sula, quite possibly one of the best ice cream shops I have ever visited.
Recanto de Dona Sula is owned by relatives of Jorge Amado, one of the great Brazilian novelists of the twentieth century. Amado's later works were often written at this cozy store, which sits on the village's sandy plaza. Our daily routine in Mangue Seco was simple: spend most of the day exploring the endless beaches and sand dunes, with enough time to traipse on over to Dona Sula's for a cold, creamy dessert. If we went during the day, we only had a 5 minute walk along the beach--but once high tide hit, we had a 15 minute walk circumventing the sand dunes that would collapse under the march of our flip-flops.
I'm not sure what was more comforting: the care of the store's owner, Ana Flora Amado and her daughters, Roberta, and Renata--who happened to be visiting from São Paulo and Vienna, respectively--certainly gave us the opportunity to learn more about Mangue Seco and the changes it had endured since a Brazilian soap opera put this tiny peninsula on the map. The ice cream, the recipes of which Mrs. Amado learned from her mother, was sublime.
Mrs. Amado prepares her ice cream in small batches, and the quality shows. Each day we had to plunge into two delicious scoops: I think my favorite was the guava with cream and the toasted coconut. But there were other flavors that sent our taste buds in a frenzy: chocolate with cashews, cashew fruit (cajá), dulce de leche, peanut (NOT peanut butter--there is a difference!), mango (with chunks of sweet fibrous flesh), and plum. Some flavors, such as pitanga and passion fruit (maracujá), were not available, because Ms. Amado only will prepare what is seasonally available. Keeping the store stocked is not an easy task: vendors selling produce only arrive about once a week by boat, so Ms. Amado has to buy supplies in Estancia, a small town across the river from Mangue Seco, or Aracaju, the state capital of Sergipe which is about a two hour boat and car trip away.
Ice cream is just the store's beginning. Homemade candies flood the store's displays, and we were lucky to try Renata's marzipan, which she had brought from Austria. The stewed fruit, especially the cajá, was rich and compacted with flavor. Then there were the snacks that made for a perfect small (but not light!) meal: empanadas of chicken, beef, or cheese; little sandwiches of sliced tomatoes, raisins, cheese, and mayonnaise, hardly intuitive but perfect on small rustic bread rolls; and pizza, which was only available if you gave them a three hour notice. And if you have more money to spend (as there is hardly any place to spend your money in Mangue Seco), the store's shelves are adorned with local crafts, gifts, and necessary supplies like toothpaste and sunscreen. If you hadn't picked up one of the ceramic baianas (Bahian woman in traditional dress--not your most p.c. caricature!) on your trip, Recanto de Dona Sula is a fun place to pick one up.
Despite all of Recanto de Dona Sula's wares, the ice cream is the star. I rarely buy ice cream because in the USA, it's either too sweet or complicated. A good ice cream should be simple, with just one or two flavors complementing each other. The trip to Mangue Seco is not easy, but the memories of evenings spent in this charming little store, surrounded by little more than sand, coconut palms, and placating river breezes, makes the trip, without a doubt, well worth the effort.