The most impressive way to approach Belo Horizonte is from the south, over the magnificent hills of the Serra do Espinhaço, on a road that winds back and forth before finally cresting a ridge where the entire city is set out before you. It’s a spectacular sight, as Belo Horizonte sprawls in an enormous bowl surrounded by hills, a sea of skyscrapers, favelas and industrial suburbs. From the centre, the jagged, rust-coloured skyline of the Serra do Espinhaço, which gave the city its name, is always visible on the horizon – still being transformed by the mines gnawing away at the “breast of iron”.
The most popular trips out from the capital are to the cidades históricas, but there are several other sites that also warrant a visit: to the southwest is Inhotim, a wonderful contemporary-art centre set amidst stunning landscape, while to the east, lying beyond the nearest of the cidades históricas, Sabará, is the beautiful Parque Natural do Caraça.
Minas Gerais’ tasty (if heavy) regional food, comida mineira, is one of Brazil’s most distinctive – based mainly on pork, the imaginative use of vegetables, couve (a green vegetable somewhat like kale), and the famous tutu, a thick bean sauce made by grinding uncooked beans with manioc flour and cooking the mixture. Many of the dishes originate from the early mule trains and bandeirante expeditions of the eighteenth century, when food had to keep for long periods (hence the use of salted pork, now usually replaced by fresh) and be easily prepared without elaborate ingredients.
Comida mineira is not difficult to find; outside Belo Horizonte it is rare to come across restaurants that serve anything else, and the capital itself has plenty of authentic establishments, provided you know where to look. There are also small stores everywhere serving Minas Gerais’ doces (cakes and sweetmeats), local cheeses, made both from goats’ and cows’ milk, and, of course, cachaça, usually drunk neat here before a meal “to prepare the stomach” and then again after a meal “to settle the stomach”. Typical dishes include:
A straightforward, rich stew of either beef or pork, cooked for hours until tender.
Stewed ribs of ham.
Tripe stew cooked with sweet potatoes. Stews (including the two above) often include the excellent Minas sausages, smoked and peppery.
A rich caramel sludge.
(“Mule driver’s beans”). A close relative to tutuamineira, with a name that betrays its eighteenth-century origins; it features everything that is in a tutu but also has beans fried with farinha (manioc flour), egg and onion thrown into the mix.
Definitely one for hardened carnivores only: essentially chicken cooked in its own blood. It’s better than it sounds, but rather bitter in taste.
Chicken roasted with okra and served sizzling with a side plate of anju, a corn porridge that mineiros eat with almost anything.
Most common of all dishes, found on every menu; roasted pork served with lashings of tutu, garnished with steamed couve and torresmo (an excellent salted-pork crackling).