It's been a while (May, to be exact) since this itinerant cookie decorator hit the streets. But last week I satisfied my growing cookie wanderlust by trekking to São Paulo, Brazil and back for the 1º Encontro de Designers de Cookies, aka South America's first-ever cookie decorating convention. The event was organized by the talented Margaret Cotrim of Cookieria by Margaret, who - as fortune would have it - also happens to be one of the most organized event planners I have ever known.
Margaret first contacted me about the possibility of this event back in late 2013, and by CookieCon in March 2014, all of the key event details - time, place, schedule, etc. - had been clearly pinned down. I would be a featured guest, and Margaret would need two projects (spanning four two-hour demos) from me. As fortune would also have it, Margaret attended my decorating classes at Nicholas Lodge's school in Atlanta in April. Between sessions, we had a chance to grab coffee, get to know one another better, and settle all remaining loose ends. To my two project demos, we added a couple of hands-on workshops about wafer paper flowers and the needlepoint technique. And we agreed that I'd bring a dehydrator from the US so students could experience it firsthand - and Margaret could avoid the extortionate import taxes! See, Margaret thinks of everything!
All of this planning resulted in a week of glorious cookie-ing that went off like clockwork, as you'll soon read . . .
Day 1, Tuesday, August 26
As with my recent trip to Italy, Day 1 is technically Day 2, because I arrive at Lambert Airport (St. Louis) at 1:25 pm on August 25 and don't land in São Paulo until 6:25 am on August 26. As is typical too, I sleep barely a couple of hours on the plane.
It's closing in on 10 am by the time Margaret and I reach my hotel and the site of the weekend's event, Hotel Regent Park Oscar Freire. (Turns out that the usual 20-minute ride from the airport is about 2 hours in rush-hour traffic!) Eyelids weighing heavily, I stumble into my room, grateful to Margaret for accompanying me every step of the way. (If left to my own devices, I'm pretty sure I would have gotten lost before I ever emerged from the airport. São Paulo is HUGE! Or at the very least tripped over my hotel room threshold in my state of semi-slumber.)
My eyes momentarily turn saucer-like as I spot the gargantuan goodie basket that Margaret has assembled for me. (Apologies, again, for the fuzzy iPhone photos, but cookies trump cameras when you've got scarce packing space!)
Gargantuan goodie basket in my hotel room.
It overflows with Brazilian specialties - papaya, kiwi-bananas, guava paste, dulce de leche, "chocolate" made from the fruit of Theobroma grandiflorum (a rainforest tree related to cacao), cheese, crackers, and wine! As much as I'm eager to dive in, fatigue prevails.
Fortunately, Margaret had the foresight to build in some programmed downtime. (I told you, she thinks of EVERYTHING!) After she leaves to deal with event stuff, I first check my cookie caddy to make sure my "show" cookies arrived safe and sound. (Wonder of wonders, they did, even though tipped on their sides for nine hours in overhead bins.) Then, I sleep for a healthy four or five hours. And then, I clear my mounting email, just in time to meet Margaret, her daughter Eleonora, Rose (co-mastermind of the event), and her daughter Mariana at about 8 pm. We head for drinks and dinner atop the roof of the Unique Hotel, where I sop up the panoramic city views, get briefed on the week ahead, and suck down a very potent caipirinha! Believe me, there are few better night caps than Brazil's national drink and the company of cookie fanatics!
Me in front of the two-story bar at the Unique Hotel.
Day 2, Wednesday, August 27
The night before, I was informed that today and part of tomorrow would be sightseeing days, and that I'd be left in the good hands of Gaby Barlow, owner of Sweetheart Cookies and my designated translator/sous chef during the event. I meet Gaby in the lobby at 10 am to be bowled over by yet another edible surprise - cookie men and women in traditional Brazilian garb, hand-decorated by none other than Gaby! How sweet! I can immediately tell that we'll get along fabulously!
A lovely cookie gift from Gaby.
Gaby explains our itinerary. She has planned a food-centric tour, punctuated by stops at other notable city landmarks, which suits this foodie just fine! After a brief visit to the historic downtown train station, we head to Mercado Municipal de São Paulo, where we spend most of the day (or so it seems) admiring the colorful food stalls and sampling the endless hand-outs of tropical fruits! Here's a small taste of the market's delicious sights:
One of five (or more) extraordinary stained glass windows lining the market.
Festive fruit stall - one of many!
Funny looking grapes at one of the stalls. Apparently, you can get them in the southern United States, but I had never seen them before.
Monstrous mortadella sandwiches - a market specialty.
A traditional Brazilian cake, typically filled with either dulce de leche or guava paste.
Gaby is intent on catching a tour of the city's Municipal Theater, a turn-of-the-century building of considerable architectural significance (with some kick-ass stained glass to boot)! So by mid-afternoon, we eagerly make our way across town (albeit slowly by foot through a busy shopping district), hoping to catch the last tour of the day. Now I've seen all sorts of cookie and cake decorating shops in my day, but none quite like Rei Dos Cortadores (aka King of Cookie Cutters), a small street-side cart that we stumbled into along the way!
A street-side cookie cutter vendor, well known for his wares.
At one time not so long ago, El Rei was apparently the only cookie cutter game in town. And I can see why! He's packed an immense array of cutters into little more than 50 cubic feet. We get sucked into his assortment for a good 15 to 20 minutes before we remember our original mission - the theater tour (!) - and we scurry on our way.
Outside the Municipal Theater.
We make it to the theater in time to marvel at its gorgeous stained glass exterior. But - alas - we've just missed the last tour of the day. We vow to return tomorrow at 11 am sharp to catch the next possible glimpse inside.
Gaby drops me at the hotel, where I tend to Cookie Connection's impending server migration for a few hours. But then it's back to food again! Margaret picks me up for dinner around 7:30 pm, and en route, we check out a local grocery store. In the US, a grocery store tour is usually boring at best, but not here! This place is nothing short of spectacular. (It too has stained glass windows, not to mention impressive floor-to-ceiling displays of mortadella. The Brazilians clearly love their meat!)
Just your average (not!) Brazilian grocery store!
A wall of mortadella and other sandwich meats in the grocery. The fruit aisle was equally impressive.
Dinner tonight is at a Moroccan restaurant within a few blocks of the hotel. Just perfect - because after my three glasses of wine, I'm eager to hit the sack.
Day 3, Thursday, August 28
By morning, the threat of Cookie Connection's server migration (and possible site downtime) looms large, and - honestly - it's got me a little on edge. But, I've never been to Brazil before, and I'm going to do my best to keep the computer at a healthy distance.
Gaby arrives at 10 am, and we travel across town by bus to the Municipal Theater. We have to make the first tour. We must. We must.
But . . . the traffic is thick this morning, and we miss the tour by a mere two minutes. No matter how loudly we protest, the theater bureaucrats are adamant that they can't add two more people to the paltry four that have already signed up. (Really?!)
Gaby is noticeably bummed (she's never taken the tour herself), but I'm happy just to be experiencing a new place. We walk a few blocks to one of the city's tallest banks and decide to take in a glorious view of the city from the very top. The density of buildings and people in this city can be daunting (as you'll see), and I am grateful to have Gaby as my able tour guide.
Gaby atop the bank.
A jam-packed city view.
It's a short sightseeing day for us, as Gaby must fetch her twins from school and I need to start wrapping my head around tomorrow - the day that event setup begins!
Day 4, Friday, August 29
Much to my dismay, I awake to find Cookie Connection down, so the early morning is spent trying to reach my web guy (who is not so handily on vacation all week). Fortunately, he quickly comes to my rescue (bless his heart), and I am free to start organizing for the weekend's demos. I draft all of my icing prep lists, and then quickly get mixing in my hotel kitchenette. Margaret's team left me eggs and several bags of powdered sugar the day before, so I am well equipped.
I soon realize how little I know about powdered sugar - after all these years of decorating! The União brand with which I'm working is much coarser than the C&H that I use in the States. União is fine for broad strokes and topcoating, but I struggle with it when piping delicate lines for needlepoint. Gaby arrives at the hotel at 3 pm, and we swap notes on the powdered sugar. Turns out, she uses another brand (ArColor or Snow Sugar) for more fussy decorating. We send one of Margaret's assistants back to the grocery to make a speedy exchange, and, before you know it, all of the icings are mixed and packed snugly into the mini bar fridge.
The meeting area opened for setup at 3 pm, so I hustle downstairs to survey the lay of the land. In order to be ready for tomorrow, I still have to organize my demo station and lay out all of my projects. When I arrive, Margaret and her team are cranking! Cookie cutters and other trinkets for swag bags are everywhere! And the signage looks great!
(Left to right) Rose, Gaby, and Mariana readying the cookie store.
Margaret unpacking various cookie tools and trinkets.
Cookie tools and trinkets, now unpacked and poised for goodie bags.
The event signage was so well done.
Gaby's a pro! Thanks to her assistance, I get situated in under two hours, leaving me time to fully outline the flow of each demo on flip charts - and Gaby time to translate it.
Gaby, ready to translate my flip charts.
At 10 pm, I call it an early night. The weekend is going to be crazy (in a good way), and I need all the rest I can get.
Days 4 and 5, Saturday/Sunday, August 30/31 - THE EVENT!
The next two days are a whirlwind of cookies, icing, and good cheer! I can barely separate one moment from the next. (Thus, the merging of two daily entries into one! )
First, there are personal introductions (of all 40 attendees); then there are demos by me, Margaret, and four other South American decorators, which cover everything from decorating technique and cookie photography to packaging and pricing. There is a cookie swap, a cookie cutter swap, and even a game of cookie Bingo!
Margaret making her opening remarks.
A lavish cookie display put together just for show.
A sampling of the cookies in the cookie swap.
My demo station, all set for my first of two demos on Saturday - bridal bouquets!
On Sunday, my station is set for two Christmas ornament demos.
One of the Christmas ornaments assembled in the demo.
But, without a doubt, the high points for me are the champagne-infused dinner on Saturday night, where I chillax and get to know many cookiers more personally, and the parting photos (all 150 of them) on Sunday. The cookie love is overwhelming!
All of us on the last day! (Parting is such sweet sorrow.) - Photo by Diana Freixo
Day 6, Monday, September 1
This is departure day, but it still feels like my trip is revving up.
I thought I had a lot of stamina, but Margaret clearly has me beat! As exhausted as she must be from the weekend and all of the prep that came before, she's declared that we will have a half-day of sightseeing and an authentic Brazilian lunch, all before I depart for the airport in the early evening.
By car, we tour one of the more posh neighborhoods in the outskirts of the city. And, along the way, we pass by the favela. Here in São Paulo, you can find the extremes and every manner of living in between. My favorite stop is at Igreja Nossa Senhora do Brasil, arguably one of the most beautiful churches in the city, where the handpainted Portuguese tiles and Sistine Chapel-inspired ceiling spur several new cookie designs.
The altar at Igreja Nossa Senhora do Brasil.
A long view inside the glorious Igreja Nossa Senhora do Brasil.
A side sanctuary within Igreja Nossa Senhora do Brasil.
Around, 2:30 pm, we finally head to lunch feast.
Margaret across the table from me at our final lunchtime feast.
Classic sweets (dulce de leche, guava paste, pumpkin paste, and coconut conserve) and cow's milk cheese for dessert!
The day - and my trip - couldn't end more sweetly - over conversation with the amazing Margaret and a sampling of traditional desserts! I am deeply indebted to Margaret, Rose, Eleonora, Mariana, Gaby, and the many passionate cookiers who made this journey a once-in-a-lifetime treat. Thank you.