Baby Boy was not leaving Trancoso without a fight. Or at least not without a bit of bare-bum protest.
And so on our last morning in Brazil, in the hippest little beach town south of the Equator, he refused to put on his pants. Or slip into the sneakers that he had not worn in two weeks. Or get back into a New York state of mind. We had all eaten cake, sipped exotic juices, lolled in the sun and learned the secrets of the local Bahian cuisine. He just wanted to keep his place at the beautiful table… Can you blame him?
For two weeks, our lives had revolved around copper sand, calm sea and Trancoso’s town square and emotional hub, the Quadrado. The 5-acre stretch of grass and de-facto soccer field is protected on one end by a simple, white-washed church built by Portuguese settlers in the 1500’s. On the other end, and along the sides, are brightly painted former fishermen’s houses that are now vacation homes to the rich and lucky (think Anderson Cooper, Swedish expats, Brazilian models). Look left: beach and salvation. Look right: quiet money, crepe stands and a caipirinha cart that opens around noon.
Where had I been vacationing all my life?
Brazil found us. And we are so grateful she did. Even better, she came with two guides, Bob and Lili, and one luxurious hotel, UXUA Casa Hotel & Spa. I’m not even sure that the word “hotel” fits because UXUA is more like an idea of living your best life and your best moments and – boom!- suddenly you’re nestling your passion fruit caiprinha in the sand and riding horseback on the beach with a baby boy who is so happy and utterly relaxed that he decides to take a little snooze.
UXUA describes itself and the eleven refurbished homes that comprise the hotel as “having soul.” Wilber Das, the founder and former creative director of Diesel, lovingly collected the ‘casas’ and restored them to their former beauty- and then some. They’re vibrant expressions of local culture with their thatched roofs, natural floors and local Bahian artwork. To my eyes, these homes- where we laughed, tasted, sipped and tip-toed our way into a very foreign culture- showed incredible patience and joy on the part of Das. Exuberance and restraint. Modernity and mysticism. And aren’t these juxtapositions what 21st-century Brazil is all about?
But back to Bob and Lili. While Jamie, Parker- even Baby August- and I rationally knew that the co-owner of UXUA and his right-hand lady (and resident culture & culinary expert) had more important things on their agenda than to take us to the local produce and spice market to sample passion fruit the size of grapefruits, that’s what they did. They also didn’t need to hop a speed boat and show us the best spot in Northern Brazil for paddle boarding, just where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caraiva River.
They rallied the UXUA bartender, Richardson, to climb the garden’s cacao tree to pick and muddle fresh cacao pods for our caffeine-fueled lunchtime caipirinhas. The hotel’s resident culinary genius, Bernardo, taught us (twice!) the secrets to his creamy, shrimp-studded moqueca and bobo while the folks down at the Praia Bar (read: chic beach bar constructed from a former fishing boat), grilled big, fat coalho cheese skewers for August every day and squeezed about a hundred limes for Parker’s llAM limonata.
Our mission while at UXUA was to learn the local food and customs. We were their ‘chefs in casa,’ tasting and asking questions at every turn. Sometimes that meant learning how bananas are the perfect complement to a savory seafood dish (read: the heavenly garnish of farofa), other times it was touring the aforementioned church and learning about early settlers, still others it was something as simple as racing Tonka trucks with other baby boys in the Quadrado.
Trancoso, UXUA and every smile that greeted us were glimpses into the heart of a different culture. Hot moqueca and cold caipirinhas, coconut trees and spice markets, boat trips at daybreak and soccer at sunset. Why would we ever want to go back to New York? Well, we didn’t. It was a kicking and screaming kind of thing. So when the four of us become too, too nostalgic for the warm breezes and sand the color of unpolished gold, well, we do what we do best- we cook. Make this moqueca and experience a little taste of UXUA, and Brazil’s best little beach town.
UXUA’s Moqueca (Bahian Seafood Stew with White Fish, Shrimp and Creamy Coconut Broth)
- 6 oz medium-sized shrimp
- 6 oz white (and firm) fish (we like grouper)
- 24 fluid oz coconut milk
- ¼ cup manioc flour
- 2 TBSPs palm oil
- 1 diced green pepper (mixed with red & yellow pepper)
- 1 diced tomato
- 1 diced onion
- 3 diced red chili
- Chopped parsley and fresh coriander
- Juice of half a lemon
- Salt and pepper
- Season the fish and shrimp with salt, pepper and a little lemon juice. Set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a large pot and then add the onion, tomato and peppers. Add the fish and saute well. Add the coconut milk and simmer for about 3 minutes. Next, add the shrimp, chili, parsley and coriander. Stir gently and cook for around 10 minutes. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
- Serve with white rice, banana farofa and pepper sauce.