Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Good Life

It's only my third posting and food once again dominates. No doubt most of you shared my excitement at the recent discovery of a chocolate that is actually good for your heart. Not so much a discovery but the culmination of fifteen years of research. Time very well spent. This story was always going to be a favourite, combining two undeniably alluring topics - chocolate and Brazil. The first of two stories filmed in one hectic Brazilian week (the other story on Brazil's alternative fuel aired a few weeks ago), it was based at the Mars Cocoa Bean Research Farm in Ilheus, a major city located in the southern coastal region of Bahia (430 km south of Salvador).

While incredible, it was actually one of the most physically tiring shoots due to an unfortunate run of delayed flights that left us with no more than one hours sleep prior to arriving and heading straight out to film. We missed our connecting flight from Sao Paulo to Ilheus (because our initial flight from Miami to Sao Paulo was delayed). Then on arrival into Sao Paulo at 11pm, we learnt that the only flight to Ilheus was the following morning at 3:30am. So after one precious hour of sleep, we hurried to the airport only for our flight to be cancelled yet again. Delirium had well and truly set in by this stage and doubt was making a fierce debut. We were due to begin filming at 9am that day and there was no way our shoot could be rescheduled. Fortunately a 7am flight was soon confirmed. Unfortunately it was taking off from another airport across the other side of town and we didn't have long. So we unloaded our 21 bags of luggage and equipment from the carousel, divided them into five tiny cabs, and sped across Sao Paulo. My exhaustion gave way to adrenalin filled excitement as we zipped in and out of traffic, the sun making its first glowing appearance on the foggy horizon. What a way to start the day – whizzing through the city at sunrise with a driver who spoke no English but, on hearing me hum along to the radio, proudly whipped out his compilation of Beyonce and Black Eyed Peas hits for the ultimate sing-along session. It was such a buzz to be back in Brazil.

We greeted our chocolate research team at the airport and stopped briefly at our little beachside hotel to shower and change. Then it was a 45-minute trip inland to the cocoa fields, during which we received an intense lesson in chocolate production and the importance of flavanol preservation. Flavanol can be described as a health-promoting compound that occurs naturally in cocoa beans. Scientific studies suggest it could help to lower cholesterol, relax blood vessels, and ward off heart disease. In fact, a Professor at London's William Harvey Research Institute has applied for permission to trial the effects of dark chocolate (believed to contain high amounts of flavanol) on 40 patients with cardiovascular disease. While the exact mechanism of action underlying these effects is still unclear, there is strong evidence linking these physiological effects to an increase in the availability of nitric oxide – an important signalling molecule. Traditional methods of chocolate production destroy the beneficial flavanols. CocoaVia chocolate however (right), developed by Mars Nutrition for Health and Well Being (a new division of Mars), claims to be a heart-healthy snack that contains more than 100 milligrams of flavanols per bar.

In between bouts of rain, we managed to film several sequences at the cocoa farm including an interview with our chocolate expert, Professor Howard Shapiro. It makes the filming process so much easier when you have great talent (on-camera interviewees) and Howard certainly fit into this category. It can be difficult to condense and communicate such a wealth of knowledge and information often gathered over many years and sometimes a lifetime of work. Howard did it with ease and was also willing to let loose and have a bit of fun. He also proved to be a helpful technical addition to the team on our second day of filming, when we realised that we didn'’t yet have a wide shot of the research farm. It was so dense, like the Amazon Jungle I had visited 18 months earlier in the northwest of Brazil, and we needed to convey its magnitude in the story. Our only answer was an old water tower (above) positioned at the end of an ascending dirt track. It was quite scary climbing to the top, but luckily we had a few extra hands to carry equipment (thanks to Howard and our translator, Fernando). As you can see, Fernando was also recruited to help out with the fleckie (the silver or gold screen that reflects light into the shot). The 360-degree view from the top was breathtaking– dense shades and textures of green merged into distant mountains and a variety of birds could be seen and heard. Although we only filmed a few pieces to camera and scenic shots, it was a few hours before we eventually returned to the ground.

That night we celebrated a successful few days of filming (and surviving the water tower!) Howard invited us to the beautiful hilltop home of his close friend to enjoy a traditional Brazilian stew called Feijoada (meat with black beans) and Skol beer. It really hit the spot. From up in the hills, we could hear the loud cheers and music of locals celebrating a regional win in the soccer below. Once again I was reminded of what it is that makes Brazil so appealing - simple but satisfying fare, good beer (and capirinhas), and a zealous appetite for life.


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