Onsite Review: Eating Our Way Through Peru

Stones provide the heat when steam-cooking a  pachamanca.
Stones provide the heat when steam-cooking a pachamanca.

Jim Kane is a foodie—a sustainable tourism foodie to be exact—and he believes that food-focused travel is pushing into exciting new frontiers. As the founder and president of Culture Xplorers (CX), Kane “uses food as a catalyst to infuse us with a deep-rooted sense of place, to engage in active adventures in nature, to genuinely connect us with many local friends and neighbors, and to make a positive impact on the communities with which we come in contact.”

Why would I bet that Culture Xplorers pulls off this mission in its well-crafted itineraries offered from Argentina and Chile to Northern Spain and Portugal? Because Kane showed our invited press group how this travel company creatively—and indeed, passionately—presents the delicious and sustainable food scene in Peru. This country is a delicious destination, tailor-made for foodies who have long known that Peru dishes up the finest dining in South America. More recently, that culinary scene has expanded into a rich and more varied cuisine, a fusion of its melting pot of Creole, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Amazon and Andean culinary traditions.

Just take a quick peek at our menu of experiences. Day one found us chopping garlic and onions, and slicing avocados and peppers with young chefs-in-training at an NGO-run cooking school for disadvantaged but talented youths. On day two, we were 14,000 ft. up in the Andes inspecting organic green gardens in isolated villages where the diet is normally potatoes exclusively. Day four was dedicated to learning the layered preparation of the traditional pachamanca feast (a celebratory feast cooked underground with superheated stones); and by day five, not only had we dined at the “reserve-weeks-ahead” Central restaurant in Lima, but we were sobering up from a lesson in the art of making pisco sour cocktails.

These signature elements are integrated into the travel company’s schedule for small group tours, as well as customized FIT trip planning.

the appetizer
Our itinerary first took us north of Lima, where set in the coastal desert is the Culinary Institute of Pachacutec, a mold-breaking cooking school offering a life-changing education and opening doors for some of Lima’s poorest youth. It started with the help of Peruvian super-chef Gaston Acurio, and the students who welcomed us to their top-of-the-line kitchen facility were really good at teaching how to prepare a handful of classic Peruvian dishes. In the company of lively, dedicated student-chefs we did a lot of chopping and questioning before sitting down together for a royal feast of vegetarian lasagna (spinach, carrots, wild black mushrooms, basil, cheese, tomato and bechamel sauces); causa (chilies, onions, avocado, and cooked tuna rolled up in a blanket of mashed yellow potatoes); and for dessert, a rich vanilla custard topped with port meringue called suspiro de limeña (it was my favorite part of the meal).

Another day, we took to the hills—very high up through breathtaking Andean scenery—to the Chaupimayo community at 14,000 ft. Here, under the guidance of the Fundacion Por Eso! and Dutch-born Simone Heemskerk, nine communities are moving towards producing nutritious and healthy food. Poor Andean villages traditionally eat only what grows naturally at this altitude: potatoes; malnutrition is rampant. Nowadays, the communities are learning to make the most ingenious greenhouses to enrich the soil and grow pumpkins, spinach, Swiss chard, broccoli, celery, and onions for starters. When this is achieved, the family is rewarded with a “dream kitchen” in an area separate from the living quarters where the kitchen is plastered, shelves for crockery and cutlery and water purifier are added, and cleaner conditions include ridding the place of parasites.

Below this outpost we had visited, and in the town of Calca, Heemskerk opened the Panza Verde (“Green Belly”) restaurant, the place to stop for breakfast or lunch; the kitchen, of course, uses fresh vegetables purchased from the greenhouses up in the Andes. From rich soups to chocolate-banana cupcakes, it’s tasty fare.

the main course
Our fine dining high point is dinner at Central, a Lima restaurant included on the “2014 World’s 50 Best Restaurants” (sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna). Chef Virgilio Martinez, whose London-based Lima restaurant won a Michelin star in 2013, was formerly an executive chef at Astrid y Gaston; he is known for traveling the country’s high Andes and swampy Amazon in search of little-known ingredients. Following a traditional pisco sour, untraditionally infused with ginger and topped with a coca leaf, we sailed into the tasting menu, conceptually based on ingredients found at the different elevations of Peru.

My favorite—scallops served with crunchy quinoa (I think), passion fruit, avocado and a ceviche-like sauce—came early on from the ocean level. Then during our 2-hour culinary fiesta, we moved up the Andean slopes, tasting imaginative presentations of suckling piglet, baby goat, and at least a half-dozen other specialties too complicated for my palate (or notebook). Watching the 18 chefs cooking for 80 guests is part of this top-of-the-line experience in Peru’s ongoing creative culinary scene.

time for dessert
During one of our days in Cusco, we moved out from the former capital of the Inca Empire to the countryside for a bit of paddling and kayaking on Laguna Piuray, set high above the Sacred Valley. On dry land, we were learning about the preparation of the centuries-old ritual of a pachamanca. Chef Pio Vasquez, owner of El Huacatay restaurant in Urubamba, was the man to watch as he and his helpers filled a deep pit, first with hot rocks, then with five kinds of potatoes, beans, shallots, trout marinated in cilantro sauce, chickens in tomato sauce, pineapples and bundles of herbs. Hot stones went on top, followed by wet towels, dirt and piles of grass, finished off with a bouquet of flowers and a blessing by a Quechua shamam. The recipe calls for steam cooking for several hours, before opening “the oven” and spreading a perfectly heavenly stew out for succulent buffet dining.

Of course, the trip isn’t all about food. Accommodations were top of the line, staying in Lima at the new boutique Hotel B (hotelb.pe) in Barranco, with time to go behind the scenes during a private tour of the Larco Museum, and at the luxury Belmond Palacio Nazarenas (belmond.com/palacio-nazarenas-cusco) in Cusco, with plenty of time to meander up and down its ancient cobbled streets.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue archive):
Checking-In to Latin America (December 2014) 

contact information
Culture Xplorers: (215) 870-3585; culturexplorers.com