Culinary Enchantment in Peru

Culinary Enchantment in Peru

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 – 10/8/2009

I have fallen in love with Peru. My love affair began last year during my first journey to this land of contrasts. From its desert coastal regions, stunning mountains, and wild jungles, the range of cultures, foods, and climates crammed into one relatively small country is mind-blowing. I have recently returned from my second journey, equally smitten, and laden with unique foods I hope to share with my fellow Americans.

After a three-day food show in the capital city of Lima, I escaped the mega-metropolis, and headed for the “white city” of Arequipa, dwarfed by giant volcanoes that looked more like enormous conical piles of ash. An inspiring community-based agriculture project brought me to this Southern region. I met with the head of the non-profit that has helped to organize over 500 independent indigenous farmers in hard to reach areas. These producers grow native grains (kañiwa, kiwicha, quinoa), maize, and beans and have formed associations to increase their market power.

Out of necessity, these associations have begun to focus on only one variety of, for example, native kiwicha (amaranth), to have enough volume to compete in the market. Yet, each producer has at least a handful of other varieties in multiple gorgeous colors and with varying characteristics. As they dedicate more land to the single varietals, precious heritage varieties may get lost. Both my host and I were excited to come up with the plan for me to review the varieties available and establish contracts with the farmers for future harvests to, in effect, create a secure demand for these heritage grains.

My next stop, the region of Lago Titicaca, the highest fresh water lake in the World, is home to an organic trout producer that had me sold after the first bite. Truchas Arapa is an association of trout farmers on the neighboring lake of Arapa.

Over 200 families working together to produce certified organic trout in a country where organic = huh? These un-conventionally educated folks have taken the implausible steps to protect their environment against invading oil companies, pesticides, and chemical pigments.

As usual I was treated with the red carpet – personal row-boat ride out to the floating trout farms, first pour of local wine into a plastic cup, and the best fresh food this side of the equator. When it was time to say good-bye, I had to wrestle some of the shier fisherman to the ground for the customary kiss on the cheek. I NEVER voluntarily miss my share of kisses.

Next I hit Cusco, one of my favorite cities, and a good location from which to discover the wonders of the Andes. I first headed to the salt producing community of Maras – the most unique salt producers I have ever seen or heard of – using sea salt harvesting techniques in the mountains. This is not mined salt; No mountains are disturbed to bring this beautiful rose salt to market. Instead, warm salt water continuously bubbles up from a deep mountain spring and feeds the ancient Incan pozos or salt ponds that are owned by over 400 families.

The ponds are handed down through the generations, since Incan times, and are not allowed to be sold. My tour guide and the president of the Association looked like a blast from Incan past! These salt farmers do not receive a fair price for this beautiful product, but instead sell to others who have the wherewithal to export. I am hoping we can change this.

On Monday, I visited the women of Paccarectambo, a two-hour butt-numbing dirt road ride up into the Andes towards the Sacred Valley. An 8-year project with a local NGO has helped create a women-owned business that supports over 400 women and their families in six neighboring communities.

I am in love with these women! With little to no education they have turned their lives around from having no economic power, to making the money necessary to send their children to school and improve their basic needs AND to actually employing their husbands!

They produce medicinal teas based on ancient recipes and native herbs – everything organic. Unfortunately folks in Peru could care less about organic, and these women desperately need a market to sustain their business, and continue to motivate more women in these resource-strapped communities.

Everywhere I go in these high mountains, I am continually blown away by the ancient knowledge of the medicinal properties of the local flora. Herbs, roots, flowers – everything has a use. And most of these areas have never been touched by pesticides or GMO crops.

It is a wonderland for food lovers. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, we will soon be able to offer many of these products to foodies in the US, and in the process contribute to the creation of self-sustaining communities in Peru.

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