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!
The chicha looked good an hour ago, a refreshing corn and strawberry drink served up in glasses the size of a big gulp by an elderly Quichua woman. But here, a few thousand feet above the Sacred Valley market town of Pisaq, gasping for oxygen, my stomach was having regrets. Was it the fermented corn (she promised it was not alcoholic!), the filthy glass, or the altitude that was making me want to heave? I stopped on an ancient Incan step to catch my breath, and coax my stomach down, wondering to myself why I was the only gringa silly enough to actually climb the two hours to the ancient ruins instead of taking a taxi like the rest of the sun-creamed tourists. And then Amuro bounded up, a young Quichua man offering his guide services. “No, no. I’m fine, thank-you.” But he trotted along side me anyway, regaling me with stories and playing ancient Incan tunes on his flute. Ten minutes later, we passed two men lounging in the sun, chewing on coca leaves, the best cure for altitude sickness. They kindly offered me the ancient remedy, and I happily accepted. Coca, fermented corn, why not pile it on?! Fortunately the latter seem to counteract the former and I made it to the ancient site with at least one lung left.
I have been in Cusco for almost a week, but have spent most of my time catching up on sleep and work, with a well-worn path to the public market for delicious juices and local food. Today was my first excursion out and I was determined to get some exercise. But why start small? Fortunately hiking down was a lot easier than crawling up – and I made it back to town in time to catch some grub in one of the stalls before the market closed up – counteracting the narly hygiene with enough hot sauce to blow a hole through my stomach.
In the last three weeks I have visited an organic trout cooperative in a lake neighboring Lago Titicaca, producers of kaniwa 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 quichua 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.
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. In the outskirts of Huancayo, 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, home-made 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 one of the most amazing meals I have ever participated in.
It is not difficult to understand why it is rare for these communities to receive outside visitors. Getting to them is no easy task. The native bean producers are only 60 miles from Huancayo, but we left at 4:30 am, for 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. I was told it was best to leave this early in the morning to avoid the terrorists.
The village with the native sauco trees is only 25 miles from Huanuco, but two hours by car. As we pulled off the glorious pavement onto the bone-jarring country route, Violeta, one of my hosts declared “the first hour is on good road like this, the second hour the road gets bad.” I thought she was joking until we hit hour number two. If we hit 10 miles an hour we were cruising! Our trusty vehicle was my other host’s beautifully maintained blue Datsun ’77, which was either produced without shocks, or lost them somewhere along the way. Poor Roger had to stop every 30 minutes to pour water over his radiator to keep us from overheating. By the time we were on our way back home late in the day, and a very large Quichua women, begging a lift, piled in with a sack of chickens and cuy (guinea pigs), I gave up trying to make sense of it and dreamed of a hot shower which never materialized.
But the voyage to the mesquite producers tops the list of most astonishing form of transportation. My hosts picked me up at the airport at 5:30 am, dropped my luggage off at a hotel, and drove me 90 minutes to a bustling town alongside a river. They told me that the mesquite forest and the producers were on the other side of the river, but there is no bridge. They had not wanted to warn me of this prior to my arrival because they thought I might not come. “um, do you mean we need to swim?”. “oh, no, no. We take an innertube!.” Dozens of men were lined up along the river’s edge each with his own large black innertube. For $0.30 I had the privilege of climbing aboard and being pushed, towed, and swum across the river, while all the passengers going the other way stared at the blue-eyed stranger. It was a new experience for us all! (watch the video here)
You can imagine that by the time I reached Cusco, I was thoroughly exhausted. Yet it is all well worth it. 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. I think that my own internal hard drive has reached capacity, and I look forward to heading home in a couple of weeks after another round of visits.