Ancient Peruvian Cooking ~ NYT

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ANDOVER, Vt. — The scent of mint and smoke erupted from the pit in the earth.

The cooks worked hastily but methodically, placing layers of potatoes, carrots, squash, fava beans, pork butt, chicken quarters, lamb shoulder, herbs and humitas — sweetened, spiced corn wrapped in husks — and separating the ingredients with hot stones that let out a gratifying sizzle whenever food kissed their surfaces. COOKING: Feast on recipes, food writing and culinary inspiration from Sam Sifton and NYT Cooking.Sign Up

The elaborate choreography ended with the head cook, Victor Guadalupe, scooping dirt over the top, planting a cross (made of sticks and the twist tie from a bundle of cilantro) in the ground and pouring whiskey on top — a gesture for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, he said. The guests crowded around the pit with their own shots of whiskey, cheering as if they were at the finals of the FIFA World Cup.

This pachamanca, which means “earth pot” in Quechua, is a Peruvian tradition of cooking food underground — one that is rare to find in an American restaurant, much less one in rural Vermont.

Esmeralda, which opened last week, operates out of a property its owners purchased in Andover, Vt., in 2019.
Esmeralda, which opened last week, operates out of a property its owners purchased in Andover, Vt., in 2019.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

But that’s where you’ll find Esmeralda, which JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau opened last weekend. For the couple, who also own the boisterous Peruvian restaurant Celeste, in Somerville, Mass., this pachamanca format feels fitting to their free-flowing, dinner party-esque approach.

For Mr. Calderón, 54, who grew up in Lima, Peru, it also feels personal.

He remembers taking trips with relatives as a child to the nearby city of Chaclacayo, where he could smell the smoke from nearby pachamancas, which are usually prepared for special occasions like birthdays or weddings.

From left, JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau, the owners of Esmeralda, with Victor Guadalupe, the head cook. 
From left, JuanMa Calderón and Maria Rondeau, the owners of Esmeralda, with Victor Guadalupe, the head cook. Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

Pachamanca originated in the central Andes region of Peru at least 800 years ago, and spread further throughout the area during the Incan Empire. The technique is like pressure cooking and searing at once, Ms. Rondeau explained. The combination of residual heat and compact space supercharges the natural flavor of each ingredient.

“It is like an act of faith,” Mr. Calderón said. “It is part of the memory of Peruvian people.”

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They weren’t sure what type of place it would be, until Mr. Calderón glimpsed the mountains visible from the kitchen and immediately thought of the Andes. He and Ms. Rondeau decided that their restaurant would center on a monthly pachamanca in their home’s backyard. They’d sell 24 tickets at $185 each for a day of feasting and drinking.

Neither knew how to make a pachamanca. It’s a complicated process: The stones must be the right shape and size to make a dome that holds together with no adhesivesand strong enough not to crack under heat. The wind needs to be able to move through the structure and feed the flames.

Guidance eventually arrived in the form of Mr. Guadalupe, 50, a line cook at the sports bar Winners and the Peruvian restaurant Pollos El Chalan. He grew up in Huancayo, in the highlands of Peru, one of the birthplaces of pachamanca cooking.

Mr. Guadalupe has been making pachamancas since age 15, and said he had done more than 80 in his lifetime.
Mr. Guadalupe has been making pachamancas since age 15, and said he had done more than 80 in his lifetime.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

Mr. Guadalupe learned how to make a pachamanca at age 15, and created them regularly in his village of Yantac. Before joining the Esmeralda team, he hadn’t made one since he moved to Boston in 2006.

When Mr. Guadalupe visited the property for the first time last April, he scoped out the backyard, finding a space that was dry and clear of trees and going to a nearby river to find rocks.

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