When you’re born in a city called Belo Horizonte, or “beautiful horizon,” it’s likely that you have a bit of the artistic in you. Sunsets in this south-eastern Brazilian city are legendary- crimson slashes of red set against lush green mountains. Chef Mario Cassini remembers the landscape of his home town as fondly as he recalls the mouth-watering aromas emanating from the kitchen of his extended family’s home.
Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais (meaning general mine) is known throughout Brazil for its flavourful cuisine. Just as the state owes its name to the rich reserve of minerals such as gold, diamonds and quartz, the area’s culinary traditions owes its diversity in large part to the miners who arrived there in the eighteenth century. It’s said that the culinary secrets that make the food there so wonderful, are quietly passed down from generation to generation, like a piece of heirloom jewellery containing a diamond from the surrounding mountains. For Mario, that gift was passed down to him from the skilled hands of his Aunt Maria and Grandfather Bernadino.
“Sometimes I’d be in bed and I could smell that my aunt was cooking next door. I used to get up and go watch her cook. She’d blend beans for soup or the dishes she’d make- and she’d hold me up to see the beans in the blender pureeing,” recalls Mario. His grandfather was Portuguese, and made a cod fish dish in the traditional style of the Mediterranean- with layers of potato, fish, onions and pepper known as Bacalaho Gomes da Sa. “I was about four years old,” says Mario “and I remember my grandfather would get a whole salted cod, cook it- and then I’d help de-bone it. We’d peel the skin off the cod and take our time taking out the bones. It was a lot of fun for a kid.”
Culinary and Cultural Imprints
The cultural and culinary imprints left behind by Portuguese colonials, African slaves, the country’s indigenous peoples and the many others who arrived later, are what makes Brazilian food so unique. Take for example the Brazilian party staple- pasteis. A cross between a Chinese spring roll and an Indian Samosa, the pasteis’ crust resembles that of a spring roll, and the fillings are samosa-like. But that’s where the similarities end because they use local ingredients such as cachaça (Brazilian sugar cane rum) in the dough and hearts of palm in the filling.
When Mario arrived in Canada at the age of 24, he was a young man in search of opportunity. “I wanted to see how the other side of the world lived- to see the lifestyle first hand for myself. I was frustrated with Brazil, with the country’s instability. I was young and had no dreams. I lacked hope and vision.” says Mario. “I was working for the equivalent of the TTC in Brazil on traffic control, routes, trouble-shooting and customer service. We’d go somewhere and need a police escort to get out- because the people in a neighbourhood weren’t happy about a strike or the service. I knew I had to go. Once I got here I thought, ‘you know what? This is it!’” recalls Mario.
Feijoada for New Friends
Once here, he’d cook up his legendary feijoada– braised meat and black bean stew for his new Canadian friends to rave reviews, which got him thinking about going to cooking school. He went back to Brazil to apply for his landed immigrant papers and three and a half years later returned as an immigrant, enrolling in the culinary program at George Brown College in Toronto. “I was 28 years old when I went to George Brown. I knew I had to do something. I worked in construction here in Canada and I hated it. The conditions, the people- it just wasn’t for me,” says Mario.
Many of Mario’s friends and family advised him against a culinary career, some even tried to get him to change his mind. “Yes, it’s a hot, dirty place sometimes. You deal with big egos, and the pressure to deliver is very real,” admits Mario, “but I’ve survived so far!” Ever since he was a little boy, even through adolescence, Mario’s survival skills led him to the kitchen. Mario always knew that given the opportunity, he would own his own restaurant showcasing the food of his native land and share that with Canadians. Three years ago, the opportunity presented itself in the form of Toronto’s Caju restaurant. He’s proud and passionate about Brazilian cooking, the complexity associated with building the right balance of flavours and the different histories behind each dish.
Snack ThiefsOne the stories Mario most fondly remembers related to a particular dish takes him back to his childhood. At every family gathering, big bowls brimming with freshly fried pasteis would be prepared for the guests to nibble on with cocktails. Mario recalls grating the cheese and stretching out the dough in preparation of one his favourite party foods. His mum would stash the heaping bowls out of the way until everyone arrived, but Mario and one of his brothers had different plans. While Mario distracted his mother, his brother would snag some pasteis from their resting place without anyone knowing. Later on, the accomplices would meet to divvy up the loot, gleefully snacking on their forbidden fruits. Mario makes some of his home state’s dishes with flair and offers these three flavourful recipes for your next party or gathering. And best of all- with Mario’s recipes in hand- you can make enough to thrill your guests – and keep your own secret stash!
With summer fast approaching, people will soon begin looking for vacation activities. Camping is a great summer vacation activity as it tends to be relatively low in cost with great rewards. The Queen Charlotte Islands are a great place to take the family camping. The islands are somewhat isolated, accessed only by a seven-hour ferry ride from Prince Rupert or daily commercial flights from Prince Rupert or Vancouver. As such the cost of getting there can be fairly high, but the scenery, history and residents make it incredibly worthwhile.
The Queen Charlotte Islands are made up of two large islands known as Graham Island and Moresby Island along with several smaller islands. Currently there is only major habitation on Graham Island and the northern end of Moresby Island. The southern part of Moresby Island makes up Gwaii Haanas protected area and world heritage site. Moresby Island is connected to the north island by a short ferry ride, approximately half an hour in duration. Both islands provide lots of things to see and do.
Many of the campgrounds on the Queen Charlotte Islands are somewhat rustic but do provide water and washroom facilities, and in several instances firewood for a fee. These campgrounds are for the most part able to accommodate tents, RVs, tent trailers and campers, but be sure to check each individual campground before booking to ensure they are able to accommodate your needs. Also remember to check beforehand if a chosen campsite accepts reservations or not.
There are two provincial campgrounds in Naikoon Provincial Park, along with at least eight private camping providers on Graham Island and at least one camping provider on Moresby Island. This article is going to focus on provincial campgrounds. Information on private and publicly run campgrounds can be found by looking atCamping in Private Campgrounds on the Queen Charlotte Islands .
Within the boundaries of Naikoon Provincial Park there are two provincial campsites: Agate Beach and Misty Meadows. According to The Queen Charlotte Islands’ online visitor guide, “Both Agate Beach and Misty Meadows are equipped with clean outhouses, clean water, picnic shelters with wood stoves, and bear-proof trash cans. Firewood is available for a fee.” (queencharlotteislandguide.com)
Agate Beach Campground; the Queen Charlotte Islands
Agate Beach is on the north end of Graham Island near Tow Hill; a short drive from Masset and Old Masset. Some of the campsites here border the beach itself while others are further away from the beach for those wishing a more sheltered spot. This is a fairly rustic campground; there are no power hookups or sani-stations for RVs, but the view and experience is fantastic. On clear days, looking out across the ocean, a southern portion of Alaska can be seen by a keen eye.
Beachcombing can last all day as long as searchers pay attention to the tide so as not to become stranded if they decide to wander far from the campsite. There are many hiking trails in the vicinity, and at low tide Tow Hill and The Blowhole are only a walk away. The camping experience at Agate Beach is unparalleled, and the sunsets visible from this campground are phenomenal on a clear day.
Do be prepared for wet weather and wind; coastal weather can be somewhat unpredictable. Agate Beach is an extremely fun campsite no matter the weather conditions, with lots to see and do. Remember to watch your step; as the name suggests, agates can sometimes be found along the beach.
Misty Meadows Campground; the Queen Charlotte Islands
Misty Meadows campground is further down the east side of Graham Island, near Tlell. This campground has more of the typical coastal feel to it, with tall ancient trees and plenty of undergrowth. This campground is set back from the beach and is more closely surrounded by trees than Agate Beach, and is therefore more sheltered from the weather.
The beach near Misty Meadows campground is windswept and fairly rocky above the tide line and has plenty of interesting driftwood to explore. There are also many trails further in from the beach to hike and explore, with the opportunity to see wildlife. Deer, squirrels, and raccoons are all possibilities anywhere on the islands, as are bears and a wide variety of birds.
While visiting the Queen Charlotte Islands remember to keep a watchful eye open. There are such a variety of possible things to see, from a tiny deer fawn, to an agate, to some amazing scenery or local art. The islands are truly a beautiful place to visit, and there are many camping opportunities for seasoned and novice campers alike.