Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 10 September 2010

Get that Guinea Pig a Coffee

[This blog was started in mid-August, but alas only just finished...] Since we left the culinary delights of Bolivia in late July (think: strict functionality taking precedence over pleasure or subtlety), Peru's fare raised our collective eyebrows in a number of ways. And they weren't all good. Or, by any means, bad.

For one thing, we were back in the Land of the Menu. In Bolivia, you eat what you are given, with all three courses arriving pretty much simultaneously and the only real choice coming between a single brand of beer versus a variety of improbably coloured liquids masquerading as 'fruit' drinks. In Peru, by contrast, menus are often long and mouthwatering. The problem comes when you actually order something: somewhat like the ubiquitous slot machines in Peruvian towns, it can take a number of efforts before any 'cherries' actually come up, and we frequently discovered that whole sections of menus were unavailable. Take the first night in seaside Camana, where we discovered first that there was no fish at all, and then - even more inconceivable - that there was no pisco!
Ah, pisco - what a revelation. The southern hemisphere's answer to grappa, its metamorphosis into the pisco sour is surely one of the world's great drinking experiences. For all our research, we never fixed upon the perfect measures, but a comfortable majority of the finished product should certainly be pisco itself, mixed with sugar, lime juice, egg white, and ice, and whizzed into a throat-quiveringly refreshing concoction. We are ever more convinced of its merits as medecine, rehydration agent, source of vitamin C and Gatorade substitute. We found perhaps the purest way of all to drink it on the pier in Lima, as Pacific waves washed by us in the darkness outside: the pisco martini. Like ice cream, something that good simply must be good for you.

At the other end of the scale, there's Peru's coffee. Like the Yeti and the Bermuda Triangle, this surely ranks amongst the Great Mysteries of Our Time. Here's the thing: Peru lies on the edge of the Top 10 for the World's Largest Producers of Coffee. The most recent figures I found suggested it produces 2,700,000 60kg bags of Arabica coffee per year. That's almost three times the quantity that Kenya produces. And yet can you find a decent cup of coffee in Peru? You stand about the same chance as you do of sharing a cup with Paddington's great uncle.

After a while, you grow tired of even hoping for a real coffee machine in any given town. Often, the inhabitants will look at you as though you'd asked for a cup of weapons-grade plutonium. With fantastic exceptions in the cafes of Lima and Arequipa, the dreaded Nestle's Nescafe brand is the order of the day - produced in little tubular sachets that produce enough coffee powder for about half a watery coffee. In some cases, even Nescafe is a struggle, and you are brought a jar of semi-coagulated scratchy brown granules to mine yourself. Often decaffeinated. So what's the point in bothering at all?!

And then there's the milk issue... Despite what appeared to be happy healthy herds of cows grazing in most of the valleys we cycled through, Peru is the unrivalled global capital of evaporated milk. 'Gloria' branded tanker trucks rumbled past us as frequently as petrol tankers, and permanent Gloria advertising hoardings positioned themselves in the furthest reaches of the desert where no other brand dared tread. When you asked for your cafe 'con leche', the norm - in response to such a mind-bendingly odd request - was to sell you a full can of evaporated milk. The combination of watery powdered coffee with gloopy evaporated milk (or, in its absence, powdered milk that forms into blobs that lurk menacingly at the bottom of the cup) was almost enough to put you off coffee for life.

So, what's the good news, then? Well, Ceviche. As described in a previous blog, surely as delicious a way to eat seafood as any? And the steak: whilst not uniformly reliable, the one we had in Moquegua on our first evening had the tenderness of raw liver and taste rivalling the best beef we had in Argentina, and shot straight to near the top of my well-researched pantheon of great steaks.

Talking of meat, we did justice to guinea pig. Everyone who goes to Peru 'does' guinea pig (rodent lovers, look away now). We chose to have it deep fried in a great local place outside Arequipa. As advertised, it arrived at our table looking not unlike it had come off second best in an argument with a Gloria truck. You get the whole package, complete with smiling face, and little claws on all four feet. Slightly creepy and, if we're honest, rather fiddly. Perhaps not worth the effort that it takes to complete the surgery on the frazzled beast in question, bearing in mind that the meat is really not better than dark chicken meat.

So, what to wash the lunchtime guinea pig down with? When it comes to improbable fizzy drinks, Peru is a world beater. Amongst my personal favourites was the ubiquitous (and now Coca-Cola owned) Inka Cola - the colour of a specimen bottle and the taste of peach jelly, but oddly addictive. There was Peru Cola, which is not unlike Coca-Cola would taste if half of it was replaced by soda water - thereagain, it's exactly half the price, so there is a certain logic to its watery taste. Perhaps most curious was Kola Escosesa - literally 'Scottish Coke'. Quite what the connection with Scotland might be never became clear to us - we could only assume that Scotland was a land so mystical and distant for most Peruvians that it held the same magical connotations as Darkest Peru might in Scotland. Whatever, it revelled in the bizarre slogan 'The Drink of Arequipa'.

On the fruit front, there really is only one of any consequence in the desert coastal parts of Peru that we cycled through: the orange. Like Starbucks in the US, you are never more than a block or so away from an orange juice squeezer/seller in a Peruvian city. In a 30 second blur at the helm of their street corner handcart, they will hand squeeze often a dozen or so magnificently sweet oranges into a tall, elegant glass that you guzzle there and then. All for about 20p a pop. There was no danger of our catching scurvy in Peru. Passing through the town of Palpa, it was literally all about oranges: the groves spread for miles along the valley, and one vendor after another along the roadside sat sheltered from the late afternoon sun behind piles of oranges a metre high.

Focus like this on a single product is a feature of Peruvian agriculture: further North in Yauca, we passed through a similar valley where this time olives ruled, and everyone we saw appeared to make their living through either olives or an enticing line up of olives oil bottles. And in the South, pretty much every dish you ordered - including many of the breakfast options - came solidly founded on monstrous avocados the size of rugby balls.

So, what was really fuelling us on our race up the coast to Lima? We finally implemented a boycott on the daily joys of sardine sandwiches for lunch, and branched out into picnic delicacies such as Philadelphia and tomato, and tuna and... well, bread. Finally, this meant we could begin to decontaminate the lunch panier from its stench of sardines, which we had started to suspect of having a half-life comparable to uranium. In the evenings, it was all about everything 'saltado'. This meant essentially a huge plate of potent carbohydrate stodge, usually consisting of a pasta base, mixed with chunks of chicken, fried onion, fried peppers, and bits and pieces of indeterminate greenery. Magnificent for the climbing legs. After a long day in the saddle, it was not unknown for me to slide seamlessly from the first plateful straight into a second identical one.

This is not to forget Peruvian rice, which also filled our tanks very effectively on many occasions - not least thanks to its ability to be both delicious and unsticky, and to have intriguingly good background taste that kept you from getting bored of it. It would often come with well grilled fillets of chicken, which somewhat lost their allure after the miles of collosal 'chicken Auschwitz' (E.Hurran, 2010) battery farms that we passed on our way up the coast - so located in order to minimise their risk of disease in their wretched little smelly, feathery lives.

But most of the above refers to life outside the main cities. In Arequipa, Moquegua and Lima, the food was truly outstanding, on a par with most of the foodie cities in the world. We will be investing in at least one Peruvian cookery tome on our return. And, now that we find ourselves in the global coffee capital of Seattle, the memories of those coffees are finally fading.

1 comment:

  1. Makes me feel SOOOO hungry! I am off for lunch on George Street - Guinea Pig here I come!