Low grey clouds scudding above rain washed streets. People hunched against horizontal freezing rain, scuttling to get home before it gets dark by four. The next time you have one of those bus stop moments where you find yourself giving the far side of the road a thousand yard stare whilst a trickle of cold rainwater makes it way down your neck, take some time out to visit Katesgrove’s tropical oasis at 89 Mount Pleasant, the Pau Brasil café.
The proprietor of Pau Brasil, Evie Pierce, comes from Niteroi (across the bay from Rio de Janeiro) where she worked as a secretary at a bank and a shipping company. She first came to the UK 28 years ago to study and improve her English, where she met her future husband.
“I had come straight from Rio in January, where it was 40 degrees, to stay with my cousin in Wantage where it was about minus three. I was quite shocked that it was so grey and so cold,” said Evie. “I don’t mind the cold so much now as you get used to it, but the lack of light really bothers me.”
Evie and her husband decided to go back to Brazil to explore the country and its culture but returned again to England where Evie worked in fashion retail in Maidenhead. She was offered the post of a manager for a shoe concession in Reading and eventually moved to the town.
“I thought we should move to Reading because there’s a rich mixture of people and cultures here. I thought we would feel more at home, and we did.”
Evie opened the Pau Brasil café in 2004. The café’s name means Brasil wood, a tree that was a major export in Portuguese colonial times and after which the country itself was named.
“I think the idea of the Pau Brasil café only came alive by talking to friends and people who live here in Reading. I enjoy working with the public and I like being in contact with people who come from the same culture as me; sharing Brazilian culture through food. A community has grown up around Pau Brasil, so I think I use my experience not only for my own commercial benefit, and I’m happy doing something I consider useful.”
“It was hard to execute the idea because I didn’t know much about regulations. I researched the project for about two years and I had help from someone who later left the business,” said Evie.
“There are so many obstacles you have to face opening a not very visible foreign café in a residential area. Initially we were taking very little money and it was very tough and stressful, but enjoyable too. I remember preparing sandwiches and custard tarts in a basket and taking them around local offices. I even used to go to the funeral directors at the bottom of the hill, which they found funny. I was very welcome there because not many people knock on their doors! It was tiring, but you have to go through it and I’ve never regretted it. We’ve now been here for 11 years and we still get new people coming through the doors.”
The building Pau Brasil occupies used to belong to a picture framer before being renovated by the current landlord and redecorated in colours based on the colonial Portuguese city of Paraty in Brazil.
“Pau Brasil fits in quite well here. In Brazil, my café would also be in a local neighbourhood. Here, we’re close to the university and an independent place like us could never afford to be in the centre of town. Town centres are much the same everywhere you go in the UK and our uniqueness now works to our advantage because we get customers who want an alternative to chains.”
The café regularly serves a Brazilian national dish called feijoada, a beef, pork and bean stew.
“I don’t really have a set menu. I just set the national dish and I might change the menu every week or two. I like to do things like that because it’s more spontaneous. I might cook something Afro-Brazilian like moqueca which is a fish stew with chillies, palm oil and coconut milk.”
“There isn’t a very big Brazilian community here, but you do get Brazilian students at the University and many international students identify themselves with the style of relaxed café culture. We get people coming here from the wider area too; Maidenhead, Farnborough, Bracknell and Basingstoke,” said Evie.
Pau Brasil used to host live music nights and occasionally show films at the café and at the Rising Sun Arts Centre and there are plans to get the music going again very soon.
“I miss a lot about Brazil, the style of life and the weather, but you adapt to a new way of living and there is good and bad in every place. In Brazil each day seems to be a surprise, and not always a good one. England is generally much quieter, more predictable and respectful of people’s individuality.”