Roast Guinea pig, ANYONE?

Sharon McKee recounts the culinary experiences of a trek to Macha Piccu

Paddington Bear, marmalade sandwiches, roast guinea pig – that’s what people talk about when you say you’re going to Peru.

Add to this the growing realisation that this trip, already a challenging trek up very high mountains, would feature few vegetarian options and I was starting to wonder about the wisdom of my decision.

I had reached the point of no return, however, and after 36 hours travel we found ourselves at our first stop, Cusco – 3,600 metres high at the head of the Sacred Valley of the Incas and the starting point for Machu Picchu. We were greeted at the hotel with cups filled with large leaves and hot water; our welcome to the coca plant. A traditional stimulant that’s often simply chewed, cocaine is derived from coca leaves (so don’t try to bring them back in your suitcase).

Our guides explained that coca helps ward off symptoms of altitude sickness and, even though it did taste a bit like drinking a lawn, we soon got used to it.

Cusco, built around 1100AD, retains its traditional culture alongside influences from Asia, Spain and Italy. Our ‘last supper’ before setting off on the trek was at Incanto – a smart restaurant in the city centre where we were welcomed with a Pisco sour. Pisco is the local liquer, a grape brandy which is more than quaffable – and potent – when mixed with lime juice and egg white. A good start!

The menu was also a pleasant surprise, with a wide choice of meat, fish and veggie dishes. I had beautifully presented bruschetta for starters and a more traditional vegetable and quinoa main dish.  Grains are staple crops here and quinoa is one of the most widely used in soups, stir fries, stews.

Peru also happens to be the potato capital of the world, with some 5,000 different types. They appear in some guise in the majority of dishes, even dessert (potato cheesecake anyone?).

The Pisco sours were more-ish but dangerous, so we moved onto Inca Kola – apparently the only national beverage to beat Coca Cola in sales. It’s like Tizer, if exceptionally sweet, and the Peruvians’ sweet tooth is also apparent in popular desserts like Tres Leche – three milk pudding.

This is basically a cake soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream, with a bit of Peruvian fruit like lucuma thrown in as a healthy after-thought. Strangely not too sweet or sickly, its calorific value and fat content is best not thought about. When in Peru…

Cusco cuisine was a great start, but I was less sure about what culinary delights the next few days would bring. We were trekking a remote route and would see little beyond barren mountains, Andean farmer folk and llamas. And we were camping. This was hardcore hiking and the stuff of my nightmares.

We met our support team; a local chef (good news), two assistants and a doctor. We’d been warned that high altitude can reduce your appetite but, insisted our guides, we must ‘eat lots’.

And they looked after us superbly. They carried and set up camp daily. In the mornings they cleared up and packed away, leaving well after us yet somehow always managing to overtake us and be ready at the next pit stop. We arrived at the lunch stops and overnight sites to the glorious smell of fires and cooking. The kettle was always on as we crawled our way into camp.

They also knew the best way to wake us up at 5.30am was a cup of coca and a cooked breakfast of pancakes, eggs, sweet breads and jam. Even when we all at some point suffered from the ‘Inca two-step’ we were still encouraged to ‘eat lots’.

At lunch stops we were greeted by the dining tent with a long table set for 18. Chef coped with vegetarians, gluten intolerances and one who couldn’t eat onions, while the ubiquitous potato featured heavily in our canvas cafe, appearing in various guises including creamy garlic mash, fried patties, chips and traditional tats, boiled in their skins.

Astoundingly, we were served three-course meals with cheese and bread or soup for starters, main courses of bean stews, vegetable fritters and pumpkin curry. The one thing these magical men couldn’t do was bake cakes, but many and varied fruits were stewed and served as dessert.

Peru is self-sufficient, its varied climates and terrain ensuring everything can be farmed and produced here. Even in the remotest mountains we found locals in brightly coloured dress growing grain and potatoes while llama and alpaca wandered around like overgrown sheep, providing food and wool.

The markets are busy and colourful and people walk miles to get there, carrying their goods on their backs. I talked to the tour doctor about food and he told me that in Peru they eat what we’d consider quite a lot with three-course meals every day considered the norm. But they don’t have obesity issues, their food is locally produced and what we would consider organic, meals are prepared from scratch and there’s nothing processed. Even in the poorest areas, highly nutritious foods like quinoa ensure the population is in sound health.

Back to the trek, and on the last day we set off walking up the old Inca steps that cling to the side of the mountain. As we climbed higher we were struck by the difference in the vegetation. Gone was the barren rock and bare mountains to be replaced by lush green foliage, trees, waterfalls and flowers.

 

The much-anticipated packed lunch didn’t disappoint; the veggie option including a pesto-packed sandwich, pasta salad, cake and chocolate. It was also the best view I’ve ever had on a picnic, sitting high up on Inca ruins, looking down into a green valley. Revived and refuelled, we pushed on and finally reached Machu Picchu.

Here, the buildings are surrounded by steep terraced slopes which look like large steps etched into the mountain side. The excitement of finally reaching our destination and the return of our appetites ensured we were looking forward to our meal that night at the nearest town, Agua Caliente.

Our guide explained that our restaurant, Indio Feliz, belonged to a family originally from France. And although Agua Caliente is the main tourist town it still looks, as many of the places do, like something from a Wild West movie.

We were in celebratory spirits and looking forward to our first drink of the week. The local beer, Cusquena, arrived in iced glasses and I have never tasted (or needed) a beer this good.
This was Inca gold.
Having not had to make any decisions for a few days, the choice on the menu was almost overwhelming.  A bit of prompting from our guide helped me decide on the Trujillo melon, which turned out to be a huge container for a generous helping of cherry brandy-style liqueur sprinkled with melon balls, followed by trout with a tomato and chilli sauce accompanied by grilled tomatoes topped with pesto, sweet potato and wafer-thin potatoes fried in garlic. This was all followed up by a dessert of fruit served with something alcoholic (again!) sprinkled liberally over the top.

The next day we headed back in high spirits for a final night in Cusco. Our restaurant served a buffet, heavy on the potatoes and salads for veggies while the foolhardy (or brave, depending on your outlook) ordered guinea pig (that’s the evidence, above left!).

It arrived looking like a skinned, burnt rat and nothing like the furry, squeaky bundles of bounce I once kept as pets. Traditionally served with a huge chilli stuffed in its mouth (to ‘shut it up’) and everything including claws still intact, it was carved and shared. Verdicts varied, but ‘like no other meat I’ve ever tasted and not to be repeated’ was the general consensus.

Before flying home there was one thing left to do – a visit the Choco Museo – not only the best-smelling museum ever but also home of what seemed to us the best chocolate in the world. The museum café provided mocha coffee with chocolates for the perfect hangover cure.

I left Peru with some sadness, feeling we had a lot more to see and sample but armed with enough chocolate, coca tea, and Pisco to keep me going for a while. And not a marmalade sandwich in sight!

Sharon McKee is a freelance writer and owner of PR and marketing consultancy SEM Communications www.semcommunications.co.uk


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