A Peruvian Primer

This is one in a series of re-posts from past travels by Culinary Collective founders Betsy Power and Pere Selles to Spain and Peru. Culinary Collective travels the world to find the very best gourmet traditional foods, supporting small producers who have strong ties to their lands and their communities. We hope you enjoy the journey as much as the ultimate destination – delicious food! 

by Betsy on 1/22/13

It was cold and dark at 4:30 a.m. I was told it was best to travel this early to avoid the terrorists. The native bean producers I was on route to visit were only 60 miles from Huancayo, but in the Peruvian Andes this equated to a butt-numbing 3 hour ride on some of the worse roads I have ever felt.

Once over the 14,000 foot pass, the sun started to rise and bring the blood back to my extremities, but it also shed light on the frightening precipice to my left as we crawled along, clinging to the side of mountains.

This is my third trip to Peru in search of native sustainably produced foods. And I have fallen in love – with the country, its people, and especially its food. In the last three weeks I have visited an organic trout cooperative in a lake neighboring Lago Titicaca, producers of kañiwa and quinoa in the high altiplano, a community of farmers who grow maize and native beans using the corn stalks as beanpoles, a family of native potato farmers, a cooperative of gooseberry producers, a community of Quechua women who harvest sauco (elderberry) from their wild trees to supplement the family income, a community of fair trade cacao producers in the fringes of the Amazonian jungle, and an association of mesquite producers who jointly manage an organic native mesquite forest.

Considering the amount of energy it takes to reach these producers, it is not difficult to understand why some of these foods have never made it out of their immediate region, let alone the county. And why it is extremely rare for these communities to receive outside visitors, especially a blue-eyed, freckled Gringa. In many of the surrounding countries, native cuisine was lost to outside influences, but in the high Andes and the low jungles, the native people fought to preserve their cultural and culinary customs.  In recent years, the western world has begun to benefit from this foresight with such unique and highly nutritious grains as amaranth and quinoa (known as the “mother grain” to the Incas), tropical fruits like the gooseberry, and enervating supplements such as maca. But have you heard of kañiwa, tarwi,  lucuma, panca chili, camu camu, huacatay or pussac punay beans?The Andean region is home to one of the most important centers of genetic diversity in the world. Peru alone has over 35 species of corn, 2500 varieties of potatoes, 3000 varieties of sweet potato, and 650 native species of fruit. Because of Peru’s unique geography, its pre-Incan heritage, Spanish conquerors, and influences from a plethora of immigrants ranging from African to Japanese, Peruvian cuisine combines the flavors of four continents.


Ceremonial Pachamanca

In every case, the producers are either certified organic or working towards certification, in a country that places no value on organic produce. It is a leap of faith for these producers to go against the norm and they look to the outside world to keep this faith alive. In many of my visits, I am the first and only Gringa that has ever visited their farm, town, or community. As in the outskirts of Huancayo, where the tiny village of Dos de Mayo received me with a heartfelt speech and the ceremonial Pachamanca – a traditional meal cooked in the ground for three hours. Layers of native potatoes, whole chickens, homemade sweet tamales (humitas), and fresh lima beans in their pods, intermixed with hot stones, covered in cloth and earth. When it is time to eat everyone starts digging to uncover the wonders that the earth has provided. It was perhaps the most amazing meals I have ever participated in.

But despite the rough roads (the threat of terrorists, the lung-collapsing altitudes or smothering jungle heat, the bugs, the latrines, and at times questionable hygiene), rooting out these foods is well worth the effort. It is inspiring to meet farmers dedicated to producing native products in ways that are restorative to their environment. I have learned so much about the food that we import and that I eat on a regular basis – did you know that mesquite trees can grow to 40 meters in height, with a similar depth under ground? Or that cacao trees are polygamous, producing many different varieties of pods on the same branch? I have a notebook full of information and a hard drive overwhelmed with pictures and videos. And I will be sharing all of this in subsequent blogs as I continue to write of my travels and travails, seeking out foods that are truly rooted in their communities.