In crowded markets and cool cafes, Joanna Savill discovers the unique produce of the Andes and a new generation of chefs.
'Wee on it," my hostess says helpfully. "That will get rid of the sting." It's my first night in Peru, in a 1920s railway hotel on the train line to Machu Picchu, and my thumb is prickling and hot. The charismatic American artist Wendy Weeks has lived here for more than 30 years and owns the hotel. Like most Peruvians, I discover, Weeks knows all about folk remedies, including the best way to annihilate the itching fibres of a sweet-fleshed prickly pear embedded in my right thumb.
The fruit was the final course in an impressive dinner that featured a dozen ingredients that are new to me, including fruity yellow chilli, a minty herb called huacatay and pink slices of alpaca meat. Despite the skin irritation, it's an intriguing introduction.
Fortunately, the sting has worn off by the time I reach my bed in an upstairs garden room at Weeks's El Albergue, as the hotel is known. I ascribe my recovery to a few salutary shots of compuesto, a powerful home brew made from cane spirit and herbs. Before throwing down a shot, drinkers must dribble a few drops on the ground. "For the pachamama," Weeks says - the Earth Mother, in Quechua.
We're in Ollantaytambo in the heart of the Andean region known as the Sacred Valley. Spirits are a serious force in the Andes and respect must be paid. After all, the pachamama has given Peru an abundance of native produce. This is the home of potatoes, mushrooms, avocados and, probably, tomatoes, as well as capsicums and chillies, chocolate, pumpkins, peanuts and corn. But while shoppers in Westernised supermarkets would be familiar with two or three varieties of each, here there are hundreds, if not thousands. Then there are the subtropical fruits and mountain herbs, the wonder grains such as quinoa and kiwicha (also known as amaranth) and a larder of other fascinating ingredients.
Andean Peru is also the land of great hats. Next morning, I'm greeted by a group of villagers in full bright-red ponchos and fabulous saucer-like boaters. (I become a serial hat spotter in the following days; the styles vary by village, gender and social status.) This crew is digging a pachamanca, or ground oven, in which they will bake 15 types of potato as well as rounds of fresh cheese and fat broad beans in their pods.
The main course will be cuy. Guinea pig. It's considered a festive dish of ritual importance in the Andes and will be roasted with a paste of garlic, salt, cumin and huacatay - a local herb with a minty, petrol-like taste that bears a remarkable visual resemblance to marijuana. We take the cuy to be roasted at the local horno, a communal oven in a simple bakery in Ollantaytambo's maze of walled, cobbled streets.
As a food journalist who takes her brief seriously, I can hardly refuse to try cuy, not even after watching these furry rodents run wild in local kitchens, feeding on scraps and sleeping in earthen burrows tunnelled into the walls. (I won't elaborate on the way our cook, Marta, wrings their necks, guts and scalds them, then shaves off the remaining bristles with a disposable razor. The ancient Incan art of Gillette.) Let's just say that cuy tastes OK. I eat it several more times before I leave Peru and it improves with every meal.
The potatoes (papas) are glorious, however. They have been baked in tinfoil under glowing-hot stones. First, the stones are piled high into a squat pyramid and fitted together with all the innate skill of a culture that produced not only Machu Picchu but also the formidable Incan terraces and fortifications that surround the town. A fire is lit beneath and when the embers burn down, the pyramid is knocked down carefully around the potatoes. The hot rocks are covered with cardboard, grass, plastic sheeting and a pile of earth and the ground oven works its magic.
Raked out from the heat and eaten with an uchucuta (a dipping sauce of tangy tree tomatoes, huacatay, chilli and peanuts), the potatoes are variously buttery, floury, caramel-like and savoury and coloured yellow, purple, orange and white with red, brown and purple skins. We peel and dip and drop the skins on the floor. For the pachamama. Or maybe just the guinea pigs.
Afterwards, we drink chicha morada, a sweet-spiced drink made from corn boiled with pineapple peel, cloves and cinnamon and spiked with lime and sugar. It's bright purple and sweet but refreshing. It's definitely more palatable than the alcoholic version - made from sprouted corn that's been dried, boiled and fermented - served in huge plastic glasses in impromptu taverns all over the Andes. Like a kind of sly-grog den, they are marked by a red plastic bag tied to a pole outside. Judging by the number of red plastic bags we see in the villages around Ollantaytambo and Cusco, I reckon the pachamama gets a good dowsing every day.
Andean culinary traditions are one thing. But it's in the beautiful World Heritage-listed town of Cusco, 60 kilometres north-west, where eating becomes even more surprising. Cusco's enchanting mix of Incan and Spanish colonial architecture, ancient tradition and modern style is carried into its food and restaurants.
My culinary guide here is Manuel Cordova, a chef with the upmarket Cusco Restaurants group. On our way to the markets, we pass street eateries selling chicharones and adobo, two hearty, heart-stopping pork dishes that are the legacy of Spanish colonisation. We pass a cafe selling local coffee and elegant, flaky pastries filled with manjar blanco, the milk caramel that's a staple South American sweet. We check out a quinta - an outdoor eatery with set menus, Peruvian music and beer - a bit like an Aussie pub bistro. Fried guinea pig and a schooner, anyone?
At the markets we drink juices blended from dozens of local fruits - from the familiar avocado and strawberries to curious passionfruit varieties and lucuma, a strangely dry vanilla-caramel-flavoured fruit from the sapote family, also known as eggfruit. I sniff herbs and chew kernels of toasted red corn, frighten a frog-soup vendor (who doesn't want her picture taken) and marvel at strange-looking vegetables, chillies, decorated breads and cheeses. Cordova patiently explains the medicinal properties of each ingredient and the combination of seeds and herbs used in tonics such as emoliente. There's also coca tea - a bitter brew that's a great antidote to altitude sickness and very handy in the thin air of Cusco.
Later, I'm in for another surprise. Cordova is the head chef at MAP Cafe, an ultra-modern glass box in the courtyard of Cusco's Museum of Pre-Colombian Art (or MAP in Spanish).
Though Cordova has a deep affinity with the medicinal properties of traditional ingredients, his cooking is all cutting-edge foams, purees and stacks using Andean flavours and produce. This is Novoandino (New Andean) cuisine.
I eat mushrooms simmered with huacatay and guinea pig (again) but this time as a flaky confit, preserved and poached in duck fat. The desserts are superb: a chocolate bombe with manjar blanco, lucuma and a sable crust; meringue with tapioca, pineapple and a coconut milk and mango custard; salted manjar blanco ice-cream with sushi-like rolls of quince paste and goat's-cheese mousse.
My first meal, at El Albergue, remains memorable - and not just for the prickly-pear stings. Simpler than MAP Cafe, it combines European dishes and presentation with local flavours. Cassava chips come with a sauce (uchucuta) of tree tomatoes, coriander, parsley, chilli and cheese. The tender, pink alpaca steaks (think lamb, kind of) come with an elderberry sauce and the beef with a local pepper called molle. I think, on that first night, that the chef is remarkably creative. In the next few days, however, I realise there's something amazing happening in this country.
There are lots of highlights. I dine at Cicciolina, a bright-spark Cusco restaurant run by an Australian, where I have guinea pig (again!) also confited but served on causa (a traditional favourite of mashed yellow potatoes with olive oil and chilli) with caramelised apples. I try pisco, the Peruvian grape spirit that's reworked into every kind of clever cocktail imaginable, including one with chilli called aji seco (at MAP's sister restaurant, Limo) and a traditional pisco sour (with lime juice and fluffed with egg white) dusted with dried coca-leaf powder. That should take care of altitude sickness, if nothing else will.
From Cusco to the capital, Lima, I fall in love with ceviche (aka cebiche) - a refreshingly simple combination of fine white fish tossed raw with lime juice, red onion, coriander, chilli salt and white pepper. Everyone has a recipe for extracting the leche de tigre (literally, tiger's milk), the milky juice produced by the marinating fish that is thought to complete the dish. I visit a quirky back-street eatery in Lima named Chez Wong run by Javier Wong, an elderly Chinese-Peruvian identity in a flat white cap who uses only one kind of fish and cuts his ceviche to order.
Also in the capital is the superbly contemporary food at Central, run by a young chef named Virgilio Martinez, who will soon open a satellite restaurant in London. He has his own vegetable garden and water-filtering plant on the roof and is installing a chocolate cellar, full of the best cocoa-bean products he can find. At Japanese-Peruvian Mitsuharu Tsumura's stylish Maido, I sample Nikkei cuisine - Peru meets Japan on a piece of sushi. It could be duck liver with native potatoes and eel sauce on sushi rice, or a tiradito (sashimi with a highly seasoned dressing) of silver fish with a tangy yellow-pepper sauce. And I eat New Amazonian food, using more native produce, at a cleverly creative restaurant called Malabar, run by the charming Pedro Miguel Schiaffino.
And finally, to La Mar, a flagship restaurant of Peru's culinary rock star, Gaston Acurio (see story, top right). It's a huge, triangular room in bright blues and blacks - and it's buzzing. Seafood specials are chalked on blackboards, smartly dressed Lima families snack on plantain and cassava chips with dipping sauces, and slurp parihuela, a traditional fish soup with seaweed strands. We order a line-up of ceviches - a classic version with lime and coriander, others with green and red peppers, a sweetish soy-and-ginger variation with raw tuna, another with black clams and a perfect creamy concoction of sea-fresh sea urchin. It's all served, as tradition dictates, with sweet potato, white corn and canchita (toasted red corn). And it's superb. I'm heading to the airport immediately after my meal. And all I want to do is come back and eat some more.
Joanna Savill travelled courtesy of LAN Airlines and World Expeditions.
The feats of Gaston-omy
CONSIDERED the father of modern Peruvian cuisine, Gaston Acurio's influence has been extraordinary on Peruvian chefs and in taking the flavours of Peru to the world. The former law student studied cookery in Spain and Paris before opening his first restaurant in Lima in 1994. He now owns a string of restaurants in the US, Europe and Asia. "It was a process of liberation," he says, describing the beginnings of what has, in effect, become a movement. "We came from a training in French skills but, returning to Peru, we started trying to understand why we were being chefs."
The answers came, he says, "just remembering our childhood, looking around our ingredients and flavours but also reconsidering why we were making French food in a country where we had so much to work on."
Beginning by putting simple local dishes such as ceviche on his contemporary restaurant menus, Acurio says the rest was easy. "After a couple of years, our food was modern, original and refined but no longer French. It was Peruvian."
These days, Acurio is regarded as more than just a successful chef. He speaks like a politician.
"We saw that we were living in a very rich country, living at the same time with hunger," he says. "Let's create flavours and experiences on the plate but also opportunities and promotion of our products. Let's use Peruvian food as a reason to share our country with the world."
Lan Airlines has a fare to Cusco for about $2460 low-season return from Sydney, including tax. You fly via Auckland to Santiago, Chile (about 17hr, including transit time), then to Lima (4hr), where you spend the night at your own expense, before flying to Cusco (75min). Melbourne passengers pay $100 more and fly Qantas to Sydney to connect and back from Auckland.
World Expeditions runs 30 itineraries in Peru, including a 16-day culinary tour led by food writer Joanna Savill, departing on November 10. It includes market tours with expert guides, cooking classes with Peruvian chefs, cocktail classes, special dinners and sightseeing at Machu Picchu and in the cities of Arequipa and Cusco. It costs $5990 a person, including touring, accommodation and some meals. Phone 1300 720 000, see worldexpeditions.com.
El Albergue, a hotel at the train station in Ollantaytambo, serves contemporary dishes with a Peruvian twist. Machu Picchu is 90 minutes away by train. See elalbergue.com.
MAP Cafe offers an almost "molecular" route through Peruvian cuisine. At the Museum of
Pre-Columbian Art, Plaza Nazarenas 231, Cusco; see cuscorestaurants.com.
Limo Cocina Peruana & Pisco Bar has great views of Cusco's main square over cocktails and ceviche. At Portal de Carnes 236; see cuscorestaurants.com.
Cicciolina is a colourful, lively Cusco institution serving Italian-style food with Peruvian notes. On the second floor at Calle Triunfo 393; see cicciolinacuzco.com.
Chez Wong is an eccentric cafe serving only ceviche and stir-fry, run by the enigmatic Javier Wong. At 114 Enrique Leon Garcia, Lima; phone +51 1470 6217.
Maido is a classic example of the Nikkei (Peruvian-Japanese) cuisine that made Nobu famous worldwide. At Calle Colon 192, Miraflores, Lima; see maido.pe.
At Central, Peruvian ingredients get cutting-edge treatment in a superb modern space. At Calle Santa Isabel 376; Miraflores, Lima; see centralrestaurante.com.pe.
Malabar serves the flavours of the Amazon in highly original dishes. At Calle Camino Real 101 San Isidro, Lima, see malabar.com.pe.
At La Mar the focus is on seafood — and what seafood! — from its famous ceviche degustation to a legendary seafood rice. Great service, too. At Avenue La Mar 770, Miraflores, Lima; see lamarcebicheria.com.