Flavors of the Brazilian Cerrado by Danish chef Simon Lau


When Nordic cuisine meets products from the Brazilian Cerrado, the result could not be more delicious. In essence, the culinary movement advocates for the appreciation of the landscape, culture, and typical ingredients of a region for gastronomic creations. In recent years in Brazil, a major figurehead of this movement is Danish chef Simon Lau, who has been running the Aquavit restaurant in Brasília for almost 20 years.

Lau’s interest in gastronomy stems from his childhood and his family’s roots in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. He grew up surrounded by food and when he was 15, he started working at a restaurant owned by a family friend, which had a Michelin star. He quickly fell in love with the kitchen and decided to pursue a career as a chef. In the 1980s, he came to Brazil on a bicycle trip with a friend and was inspired by the country’s gastronomy. Years later, he was back and decided to move to Brasília, the Brazilian capital city.

Brasília is located on a plateau in the country’s Central-West region, with an average elevation of 1,158 meters (3,799 feet) above sea level. The city has a kind of tropical savanna climate, with distinct dry and wet seasons. It is located within the Cerrado biome, a vast tropical savanna ecoregion marked by its rich biodiversity and unique flora and fauna. This is a perfect scenario for Lau to explore new flavors and ingredients.

After many years of delicious creations, the chef and the Aquavit restaurant have become national references on the use of typical products from the Brazilian Cerrado in gourmet gastronomy. Cajuzinho, pequi, cagaita, and many other local vegetables are part of outstanding recipes that have conquered the Brazilian palate. Lau combines modern techniques with regional products, from traditional to the most exotic. To ensure fresh and always available products, the restaurant has a garden of herbs and fruits.

Cerrado Vanilla orchids in the garden of Acquavit restaurant. Photo: Nina Quintana

One particular ingredient catches Lau’s attention: vanilla. Scientifically named Vanilla pompona, the Cerrado vanilla, or banana vanilla, comes from beautiful yellowish orchids with giant pods compared to the African ones. The pod — the fruit of the orchid — is the spice in question. It can reach up to 25cm (approximately 9.84 inches) in length and has an elongated shape, hence the allusion to the banana. When raw, while still on the tree, it has an oily surface. It grows naturally in the Cerrado biome but also in other parts of Brazil.

In recent years, the delicacy has drawn more attention in gastronomy, mainly due to Lau’s outreach work. “In my restaurant, I only use native vanilla,” he explains, citing fish in creamy vanilla sauce and pork with cagaita jelly (Eugenia dysenterica, a local citrus fruit) and vanilla.

The same pod can be used in several dishes. The seeds can be used in sweets, juices, infusions, and other preparations. The chef says he has been experimenting with the spice in his home for at least ten years and is still surprised by its many possibilities.

Cerrado vanilla pods. Photo: Nina Quintana.

A precious ingredient

Finding Cerrado vanilla is not an easy task. Usually, the plant grows near riparian forests, and not only in the Cerrado in central-western Brazil. There are occurrences of the plant in several Brazilian states, where the tropical climate favors the development of flowers and fruits.

Its cultivation, like that of the African fruit, demands a lot of work. Each flower blooms a few pods per year. In addition, its extraction must be performed delicately. Lau cultivates vanilla in the restaurant gardens, and he says the extraction process is an exercise in patience. For the fruits to develop, extremely delicate manual pollination must be performed. It takes nine months until the pods (still green) start to appear. After being harvested, they are sun-dried and put in a jar with sugar to remain immersed for a few more months until the seeds can be accessed.

“I was in Goiás Velho [a city in the state of Goiás, 167 miles from Brasília] when someone came by selling dried vanilla beans and I was enchanted. When I began tasting its flavor, I first thought that I could prepare a guide to vanilla in the forests, but their occurrence is not so widespread and this would be too much complicated. Today, I think that cultivation can be made more popular, which can generate income for producers throughout the country,” explains Lau.

“From a historical perspective, Brazil has just found out that it has vanilla and that the climate conditions for producing it are also very good.” After 15 years of studying and many dishes flavored with Brazilian vanilla, the chef is in contact with the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA), taking part in the research and cataloging of the plants. “The more I study, the more I see that we still have a lot to learn,” he concludes.