Eyes peeled

Ju­dith Elen un­earths Peru­vian culi­nary trea­sures in the in­ter­na­tional year of the po­tato

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

S my jour­ney to Peru pro­gresses on the flight from Auck­land to the Chilean cap­i­tal, San­ti­ago, din­ner comes dom­i­nated by two round boiled pota­toes, like the aban­doned eggs of some large bird. My lunch at San­ti­ago air­port, await­ing the con­nect­ing flight to Lima in Peru, in­cludes a plate-fill­ing pil­low of herb-green po­tato puree.

I am par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated by this fo­cus on pota­toes be­cause I’m for their prob­a­ble birth­place, on the shores of Lake Tit­i­caca on the Peru­vian Al­ti­plano, where they have been eaten for more than 8000 years. Their ar­rival in Europe, via the Span­ish con­quis­ta­dores in the 1570s, is yes­ter­day in com­par­i­son.

When I visit the po­tato re­search cen­tre, Cen­tro In­ter­na­cional de la Papa in Lima, I dis­cover the po­tato is not as fa­mil­iar as I had thought. It comes in about 5000 va­ri­eties, most of them found in the Andes, and most (from 100 wild species) held, un­der the aus­pices of the UN, in CIP’s gene bank. I see sam­ples: pink, gold, shades of pur­ple, blue and black, and looking like noth­ing I have seen be­fore. One, the name of which trans­lates as pan­ther’s paw, is longer than my hand, black-skinned and shaped for all the world like its name.

Pota­toes ap­pear in most tra­di­tional dishes here, and in the high­lands they are a vi­tal sta­ple. I fly to Ju­li­aca air­port to reach Puno be­side Lake Tit­i­caca, 3800m up in the Andes. Here small farm­ers grow nu­mer­ous po­tato va­ri­eties in ro­ta­tion with maize, quinoa and okra.

Stay­ing overnight with a fam­ily on Taquile Is­land in the lake, I share a meal of thin po­tato soup, fol­lowed by an or­ange-yolked fried egg atop po­tato chips and plain rice, served with muna, a herb tea. I later read that celebrity chef Gas­ton Acu­rio, of restau­rant Astrid y Gas­ton in Lima, names home-cooked fried egg with rice as his favourite dish. When we’ve eaten, our host takes me into the yard, where we stand in pitch dark­ness and gaze up at a sky ablaze with stars while he ex­plains how crops are grown and har­vested ac­cord­ing to phases of the moon and stars.

In the morn­ing, my guide Noelia takes me to the cantina in the vil­lage square, where we break­fast on Peru­vian pan­cake with straw­berry jam and mate, a tea of in­fused coca leaf, the coun­try’s other sta­ple.

If the Peru­vian po­tato is ex­otic, the cui­sine here takes even stranger turns. The haughty, long-necked al­pacas I see stand­ing in the dust be­side adobe farm­houses out­side Puno are a favourite. At the Casa An­d­ina Pri­vate Col­lec­tion ho­tel, be­side Lake Tit­i­caca, I or­der al­paca ton­nato, a Peru­vian ver­sion of the Ital­ian clas­sic, with slices of pale al­paca meat re­plac­ing the veal and masked in tuna may­on­naise. Later, at a cov­ered mar­ket in Puno, I spot an al­paca head ly­ing on a butcher’s stall.

The guinea pig, too, is a del­i­cacy. It is brought to restau­rant ta­bles whole as a sign that it is, in­deed, the spe­cial­ity and not some lesser sub­sti­tute. My daugh­ter re­ports or­der­ing it in a Lima restau­rant where it ar­rived a la suck­ling pig, a carved carrot cap atop its head and a sliver of carrot in its mouth.

Less chal­leng­ing, and on menus ev­ery­where, is trucha, or trout. In Puno, it comes farmed or wild from Lake Tit­i­caca. Cross­ing the vast lake by ferry, I watch fish­er­men tend­ing their nets from small boats. A typ­i­cal fam­ily meal in this re­gion, Noelia tells me, is soup of quinoa or maize or creamed veg­eta­bles, and fried trout with fried po­tato and rice.

In the evening I hit the streets, idly wan­der­ing into shops sell­ing al­paca wool cloth­ing and lo­cally crafted jew­ellery. Sev­eral restau­rants look dis­creetly wel­com­ing but I choose a tiny hole in the wall with two ta­bles and an open-fronted clay chim­ney, which smokes pro­fusely. There’s a set four-course menu for 14 soles (about $4.60): a creamy av­o­cado with salsa, fresh as­para­gus

Make a meal of it: A woman on Lake Tit­i­caca with tra­di­tional cook­ing pots

Go na­tive: Peru­vian pota­toes come in many va­ri­eties soup, trucha and fi­nally warm chocolate cake. Fresh ba­nana and pineap­ple juice is in­cluded. The ex­cel­lent pisco sour — Peru­vian white spirit, egg white and lime juice — is ex­tra and, at about $2, soon dou­bles the bill. The cui­sine here arcs from the earthen-floored rooms of vil­lagers cook­ing over open hearths in the bar­ren high coun­try to the classy restau­rants of Lima’s in­ter­na­tional ho­tels, where a re­cent move­ment, var­i­ously called no­van­d­ina, nou­velle An­dean or nou­velle Peru­vian, flour­ishes.

Link­ing th­ese ex­tremes is food ac­tivist Is­abel Al­varez, an an­thro­pol­o­gist who has stud­ied colo­nial cui­sine and teaches the his­tory of food at St Marcs Uni­ver­sity. She owns El Seno­rio de Sulco, a cliff-edge restau­rant over­look­ing the sea in the el­e­gant Lima sub­urb of Mi­raflo­res. Al­varez, of An­dean (Quechuan) and Cata­lan de­scent, is evan­gel­i­cal about pre­serv­ing au­then­tic dishes, such as the pre-His­panic hu­a­tia sul­cana, beef braised in a clay pot and strewn with aromatic herbs, which is on the restau­rant menu. She says there has been a re­vival of in­ter­est in Peru’s rich food his­tory and at­ti­tudes to cook­ing as a pro­fes­sion have changed. Sons and daugh­ters of well-to-do fam­i­lies are em­brac­ing the for­merly lowly work, train­ing in Lima’s 20 or so cook­ing schools.

Al­varez’s son, Flavio Solorzano, ex­ec­u­tive chef at the restau­rant (she prefers to cook ideas), is a lead­ing light at Columbia Cui­sine School in nearby San Isidro.

An­cient in­gre­di­ents are be­ing used in new ways and young chefs are just learn­ing how to use the thou­sands of po­tato va­ri­eties, Al­varez tells me. In the high Andes, grains are used that are not seen so much in tourist ar­eas. La tunta ,’’ she says, fasci­nanto .’’ She is re­fer­ring to the dried pota­toes known as white chuno, or tunta — the In­cas’ white gold — which are still pro­duced here and are thought to be the form in which the Span­ish first took the tu­ber to Europe.

My next stop is Columbia Cui­sine School, where nou­velle Peru­vian chef Luis Munoz is whip­ping up lunch. There are po­tato cakes with cilantro, or co­rian­der, and a ma­gret of duck coated in chuno, with pear puree and a pear and honey salsa. A po­tato puree mixed with egg and milk is wrapped in pro­sciutto and baked, and there’s cara pul­cra, a mole of yel­low po­tato, chocolate, peanuts, cinam­mon, chilli and cloves.

At Le Cor­don Bleu Peru in Mi­raflo­res, a branch of the renowned Paris-based gourmet school, I meet lead­ing young chef Jose Meza, who says Peru­vian food has be­come trendy in the past six years. A grad­u­ate of the school, he has worked in New York and Wash­ing­ton. Of the new in­ter­est in An­dean cui­sine, he says other cul­tures have taken up prod­ucts such as quinoa, Yet we Peru­vians have not taken ad­van­tage of th­ese her­itage prod­ucts.’’

Mean­while, CIP con­tin­ues its work in the back­ground, con­serv­ing and re­search­ing na­tive pota­toes. The pur­ple-fleshed va­ri­eties are es­pe­cially high in an­tiox­i­dants, stored in the pig­ment, while yel­lowfleshed va­ri­eties are higher in avail­able iron. An­dean high­landers serve red, yel­low (yema de huevo, egg-yolk po­tato) and blue in a sin­gle dish. But even along the Inca high­way, some na­tive va­ri­eties have been lost. In this, the UN’s in­ter­na­tional year of the po­tato, aware­ness is the key to keep­ing cul­ti­va­tion and re­search funds flow­ing. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Cen­tro In­ter­na­cional de la Papa. www.peru.info.com www.cipotato.org www.seno­ri­odesulco.com

Pic­ture: Ju­dith Elen

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