Sunday, October 15, 2017

Peruvian Pachamanca Feast in Ollantaytambo: Farm To Earth To Table

Imagine knobby Peruvian potatoes and slabs of bone-in meat tossed in Andean herbs, thrown directly between scalding granite stones to cook underground.  Pachamanca (rough translation: "Earth oven") is a traditional style of cooking mainly done as a backyard-barbecue-type format in Peru where the only "kitchen" tools involved are shovels and maybe an occasion pair of tongs.  It is not commonly seen outside of people's homes, and it isn't really something that can be fully experienced at a restaurant or anywhere too urban.  Whenever we mentioned the word pachamanca to any of our local guides, they would get this dreamy look on their faces and tell us that if there was a way we could eat this, we must.

Luckily, I found out about El Albergue ("the refuge"), where pachamanca feasts plus a tour of their farm occur a few times a day and can be booked in advance.  El Albergue was built back in 1925 as a small lodge and restaurant connected to the Ollantaytambo train station.  Ollantaytambo (what a mouthful of a name!) is a village in the Sacred Valley of south Peru, set on the Urubamba River, about two hours outside the city of Cusco.  We already had plans to stay in the Sacred Valley after our trek to Machu Picchu, so it worked out well with our travel plans.  Anyway, we were looking forward to learning about this unique way of preparing food and to partake in a legit farm-to-table meal, but we had no idea of what an intimate and soul-enriching experience it was going to be.

It was like one of those lion-witch-and-the-wardrobe experiences, walking onto this little grassy compound surrounded by mountains in back of the Ollantaytambo rail station.  It was just a couple of days prior that we were dropped off here late at night, at the end of our trek, haggard and half-asleep, just to quickly transfer from train to bus - the final stop before returning to Cusco.  I wonder now, if it occurs to any of the hundreds of passengers who exchange bus lines here every day, that there is a hidden gem of a place right through the back doors and up some stairs.  El Albergue's farm has more than just some livestock and plants.  It's got a sustainably-run rum distillery, a small primary school, an employment program, and even original Inca stone walls and pathways.  But most importantly, it's got Gabriel.

I remember waiting in the lobby of the hotel when Gabriel Velasquez appeared, in his striped black apron and glasses.  He was warm, not overly friendly, but happy to see us.  Immediately, he took us outside and up some stairs and we were suddenly above the busy hotel and bus station.  We walked along a narrow stone path framed by ancient Inca stone walls and then onto an open space of grass, where we could see wooden structures built for various purposes, traditional farming equipment, a small open-air kitchen space, and a large pile of smoking stones near a covered cooking area.  The view of the mountains against the blue sky that day was magnificent.  Gabriel told us that he was the head chef here; he designs the menu for the downstairs restaurant and tends to the farm up here.  He explained everything about his farm and kitchen, everything!  He's only been there for 7 months but his core beliefs match the mission of the farm- being socially responsible and self-sustaining, giving back to the community and making the most of what Mother Earth provides.  Also, his humility was immediately apparent, despite his wealth of knowledge and experience.  Before I get into that, I'll describe the pachamanca.

Through our many interactions with people living in this part of Peru, the concept of repaying the Earth and sharing with your neighbors appears to be not only a ritual, but simply common sense.  The Quechua people have never stopped believing in honoring Pachamama (Mother Earth), and their practical way of life is not too changed from that of their Inca predecessors.  The pachamanca style of cooking takes the ideal quite literally: by cooking food underground, the people are paying respect by returning food to earth's belly first before eating it.

So, here's the tedious pachamanca process.  The chefs had already done some of the legwork before we got there - they pre-heated a pile of granite rocks on local coals (eucalyptus) to about 850 degrees F.  The coals were removed from the rocks and then they had made a bed out of these granite rocks in a hole in the ground.

On this bed of rocks, they put in the potatoes (we must have had 10 kinds)- no seasoning at all.

Then, they placed amongst the rocks a covered clay pot with squash, tomato, cheese, pickled edible flower seeds.  Then, they layered more rocks on top.

Then, the meat (seasoned with huacatay, a Peruvian mint, other herbs, plus salt and pepper) was placed directly onto this second layer of blazing hot rocks, and then they covered all of that with additional rocks to ensure the creation of a crispy skin texture.  At this point, you could already hear the sear!  Our mouths watered when we saw the lamb ribs, chicken drumsticks, and pork belly.  The lamb and pork were actually both from this farm.

After this, some banana leaves were draped across the top and they placed a handful of fava beans in their pods on top to steam.

On went another layer of banana leaves and then two wet linens followed by dirt to insulate.  It was a lot of shoveling.  We were told that the feast would be ready in a mere twenty minutes.  Gabriel walked us around the farm some more.

The property resides on two original Incan terraces, the footpaths that we walked within the farm itself are also original. We could see temple ruins (and colorful little tourists dotting the walls) clearly from the farm. We totally were up in those ruins during a previous tour..who knew?!

Original Inca stone walls

The Ollantaytambo Fortress is in the hill there!

The community service that this place offers also struck us as very meaningful.  English is taught to their local employees and the farm purchases goods locally and they pay a fair price.  The two men who were making our food are actually farmhands who are learning their way around the kitchen downstairs.  Gabriel believes in cross-education and is likewise learning from them about farming. There's also a little two-room school at the farm, where thirty kids from all over the Sacred Valley come to learn.  We peeked inside and there were wooden chairs and tables, little shelves, paper and art supplies, maps of the continents and countries that the kids drew.  They teach in three languages here: English, Spanish, and the native Quechua.  Also, much of the school day is spent outdoors on the farm and in the school garden - there's even a little wooden platform that they use as a stage for various activities.  Amazingly, the program is subsidized.  I think we'd send our kids here if we could!

Then, we got to see the animals. Just like most families living in the Sacred Valley, they raise their own animals, slaughter and butcher them, right here in these wooden sheds (which are built out of the wood that they chop themselves, like all of the other structures here).  There were a bunch of guinea pigs, ducks, chickens, a pretty rooster, and rabbits (gardeners until they become food).  All organic waste generated by the hotel or restaurant is composted or fed to the animals: pigs, sheep, alpacas, dogs.

Gabriel was full of pride when he talked about these animals, especially when he hushed his voice and pointed out the newborn piglet and the three-day old lamb.  Their umbilical cords were still attached!

There were three playful dogs (well two were more playful than the third, older one) guarding the farm and all of its animals from foxes and birds.

Even the coals used for pachamanca are reused to filter the rum in their distillery.  The rum that is made here in small batches is actually world-renowned, and is purchased by Michelin-starred restaurants in Lima, Peru.  We later got to try some!

Knowing all of this about El Albergue made us only appreciate the experience of eating here more, and the way that the people here take their time and think of everything from beginning to end was truly inspirational to us.  To them, it's so natural and so easy, while in Los Angeles it just seems easier and more efficient to be more wasteful.  It was refreshing and heartening to see a place like this thriving in another part of the world.

We made our way back to the pit and watched the guys uncover all of the food, unveiling our feast layer by layer.  First came the fava beans, into a basket. Then the meat, into a clay pot, along with an extra rock into the clay pot to keep it warm.  Then they dug out the other clay pot with the squash casserole and the loose potatoes at the very bottom.

We were surprised that it seemed like it took no time for the food to be ready.  Our tour was only maybe 20-30 minutes long.  We followed everyone over to the little outdoor kitchen and watched one of the chefs carve the meat.  It smelled so good!

Then Gabriel walked us over to our farm table and we found an intimate setting for two with clay plates, a fresh green salad (of course with only greens from their garden and garnished with their own edible flowers whose seeds were used in the casserole), two sauces and vinaigrette, and a pitcher of fresh chicha morada - it was so crazy.  Could we have ever imagined a more idyllic setting, full of history and community love, to share a meal?  We felt really good about supporting them, and even better when we tasted the food.

We were the only two who reserved for this time, so we had the whole feast to ourselves.  (It was 3:00 PM on Monday, July 31st.)

Chicken, lamb ribs, and pork belly. So, so, so good.  The picture does not do justice.  It tasted like it had been both braised and charcoal-seared at the same time - this is the unique result of the pachamanca style of cooking.

Dipping sauces, made of many ingredients like aji amarillo (yellow pepper), onion, garlic, cheese, peanuts, and other spices unique to Peru. (everything was so good that we barely used them, though)

Salad, with greens and edible flowers from the garden.

 Squash casserole.  The little green seeds on the top are the seeds of the red flowers in the salad, pickled.  Nothing is wasted.

A generous assortment of Peruvian potatoes and fava beans

Fava bean

Camote, one of the 4,000 varieties of potato found in Peru. It was perfectly caramelized on the outside and velvety smooth on the inside!

Before we ate, Gabriel brought over two bottles of rum as an aperitif.  Both types of rum are made from sugarcane grown in different regions of Peru - the green one is from 1100 m above sea level (the jungle region), and the blue one is from 1900 m above sea level (the Andean region).  They were too strong for me, but I think Wes managed to get his down okay.

Gabriel is a chef who seems like he is really passionate about preserving this style of cooking in its authentic form.  We invited him to join us for the dinner and he politely declined, but finally agreed to sit with us and share his life story- his past, his goals, and his plans.  He actually lived in the United States, in Southern California!  After studying culinary arts in Hawaii and working in various kitchens around the world, he went back to his roots in Peru (not Lima, rather in the more laidback area of the Sacred Valley).  He is a humble person and deserves a lot of recognition but wants none of it.  Happiness, he said, has nothing to do with money.  His plan is to stay here.

Walls of original Incan stonemasonry

And that maxim is what we have heard over and over again throughout the Andes.  It is enough to be self-sustaining and to have friends and family to share with.  Riches are not necessary when you are being taken care of by Pachamama, and you feel even richer when you give back.  This message was even more poignant coming from Gabriel, who actually lived like us in the United States and has seen so much of the world himself.  I think that this is why we still randomly entertain the idea of moving to the Sacred Valley someday.

Wes was saying right then and there that this had to be the highlight of our trip and cannot possibly be topped by anything else, not even our much-anticipated meal at Central, the #5 "best restaurant" in the world. Gabriel never rushed us out, but it was finally time to leave when the sun went away and a chilly breeze began to blow. We bade him goodbye with a few more photos.  Neither the gastronomical nor this human experience could ever be recreated - we're glad that fate put us here on this specific day and that we got to meet Gabriel and spend so much one-on-one time with him to learn of his lifestyle, business model, and cooking method.  What we ate was sure as hell delicious, but if we make it back here in the future, it won't be solely for the food.

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