From apothecary to pub

Image: Jan van der Zee


Comment on the recently released book by journalist Néli Pereira

A literary launch in 2022 delimits several areas of intersection between sociology, history, popular culture and folklore. From apothecary to pub, by journalist Néli Pereira, is an essay dedicated to “plants, bottles and Brazilian cocktails”. The author proposes to investigate the relationship between the pharmacy of native peoples, Europeans and Africans, linked to ancestral traditions and religious background – the traditional bottled drinks – and the emergence of secular drinks based on these mixtures, the famous alcoholic liqueurs and syrups. .

At first, this would just be a book about cocktails with herbs, bark and roots. But what we observe is that the author carries out a meticulous research work on the origin of several famous and globalized drinks that are based on ancestral recipes, such as famous liqueurs, bitters, amaros, gins and vermouths. Often these mixtures of herbs and alcohol were created by physicians on European colonization expeditions to the New Worlds, taking advantage of information from local cultures.

The naturalist Guilherme Piso (William Pies) compiled and published, in 1648, a Medicinae brasiliensis with 110 plants used here by the indigenous people. Von Martius wrote, in 1844, Nature, diseases, medicine and remedies of the Brazilian Indians, where, botanist that he was, he described several species that are popular today in any bar, such as catuaba, carqueja or umburana.

Néli Pereira opens her book with an epigraph by Guimarães Rosa and a timely quote to the work of researcher Maria Thereza Lemos de Arruda Camargo, an ethnopharmacobotany. This specialty “is an offshoot of ethnobotany and aims to rescue from human groups the knowledge about medicinal plants and their uses based on simple and compound folk remedies and the respective therapeutic indications”.

This means not only going after indigenous tribes in the Amazon, but also researching terreiros, quilombos and stalls at rural fairs, talking to healers and healers, investigating what comes from the pharmacy and ends up in the bar, with all the cultural context that surrounds it. .

Sounds familiar? Of course, we are in the field of anthropologists and sociologists such as Câmara Cascudo (Food History in Brazil), or Gilberto Freyre, who dedicates a beautiful chapter of his most popular work, Casa Grande and Senzala, to the description and analysis of food and drinks in colonial Brazil. He would later dedicate a volume to Sugar and all the culture created around sugarcane.

The author of From Botica to Boteco respectfully drinks from these sources, and also dares to fictionally create encounters with witches, shamans, healers and European monks in their search for mixtures of herbs with alcohol. Necessary information: not only is she a researcher, but she puts into practice what she learned in a cocktail bar-atelier in São Paulo, Zebra. She prepares drink cards and shares classic and authorial recipes in the book. She holds a master's degree in Latin American cultural studies from University of London, has several journalistic articles published on the subject.

There is a healthy tendency in books about food and drink to research historical sources and origins, creating a sociology all their own. For a layman, like the author of these lines, this may sound like an academic veneer that guarantees quality, or like a real intention to seek the cultural roots of habits, customs and actions.

When Néli Pereira talks about jurubeba, butiá, sassafras or mastruz, when he describes his encounters with masters of the bottle in an indigenous village or at the Ver-O-Peso market, when he mentions sambas by Ney Lopes or Arlindo Cruz, he is demonstrating how much of popular culture is distilled down to the trendy bars. He goes from research, learning from books and people, to enlightening and creative experience, in a fluent and original way.

In an ideal world, we would know where that drink that we love so much comes from and how it was made, no matter the origin. That would be culture. In the academic world, the supposed repository of all formal culture, it would be ideal to return in immoderate doses to the project of Gilberto Freyre, Câmara Cascudo and other researchers, never leaving aside the flavors, colors and perfumes that are present in the formation of any people, any nation.

*Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.


Neli Pereira. From Botica to Boteco – plants, bottles and Brazilian cocktails. São Paulo, Companhia de Mesa, 2022, 208 pages (

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