Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Cheese Shop

I have now arrived in Huarocondo, a small village 37 km northwest of Cusco. It is really out of the way and few tourist come here. But last year when I was here, I discovered a wonderful little bed and breakfast that goes by the name of GringoWasi, owned by Lyle and Lily Walker. I decided to return here this year for a week or two before moving on over to the Sacred Valley.

Last week, Lyle and Lily invited me to accompany them to buy fresh cheese and yogurt. Peru has very little grazing land and therefore fresh milk is not very common. However, in a valley west of Cusco, the grass is lush and green and there are many, many smallholders of dairy cows—just like we used to have in the US. Gloria, the local dairy, drives a truck around daily to pick up cans of milk to transport to the dairy for processing into yogurt and canned milk. BUT, as you drive through the area, you see signs for roadside stands selling cheese and yogurt. One of those was our destination on Thursday.

The main indication that there was a roadside stand was this sign tied to a tree by the road. 

Once we parked, the little stand became visible.

Who recognizes this script?
The man inside offered us samples of his cheeses—one was a smoked variety. They also combine oregano in one of the cheeses, and Muña in another. Muña is a herb in the mint family and is used here by the Quechua people often in a herbal tea. It does have a very minty flavor. When I was visiting Isla Amantani in Lake Titicaca, it was the only tea available. You can learn more about the herb and its properties here.

The cheese was amazingly delicious—like no other cheese I had tasted. He only had a little bit of the muña cheese—just enough to offer samples, but he said that he would have more next Tuesday, so we asked if he would reserve some rounds for us.

He had two kinds of freshly-made yogurt: strawberry and plain. Plain yogurt is very hard to find in Peru. Almost all the tiendas have yogurt (what we would probably call kefir—since it is fairly liquid and drinkable), but never any plain/unsweetened (what they call “natural”). Even the supermarkets have 30 or 40 flavors of yogurt, but they may have only one or two bottles of “natural,” if you are lucky. Since I prefer plain yogurt, that is what I asked for. Imagine my surprise when he asked if I wanted it sweetened or unsweetened. What a great discovery!

I learned in my last trip to Peru that yogurt is a great remedy for ongoing digestive complaints. Last year, I had some kind of stomach-illness (from food or virus—who knows?) that only lasted about 12 hours, but for two weeks afterwards, my digestive system was not quite right. Once I discovered that drinking yogurt everyday put me to rights, I started using it as a preventative measure for keeping myself healthy.

Fresh plain yogurt and muña cheese
So I came home with one round of hard cheese and a liter of fresh home-made yogurt. 

Today (Tuesday)  I have eaten more than half the cheese almost all the yogurt; so I was glad that Lyle and Lily volunteered to go over and pick up the cheese and yogurt for me on their way to Cusco. 

For those of you who are interested in what it costs to eat fresh and healthy food here, the liter of yogurt was S/6 (about $2.00) and the cheese was S/10 (about $3.25).

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Smoothies? You ain’t Seen Nothin’

The Juice Ladies of San Camillo

One of the highlights of the San Camillo market in Arequipa, is the long line of women (about 50 stalls!) selling just about any kind of smoothie or juice you can imagine. Along with the Seccion Fruitas (Fruit Section), it is the most colorful part of the market. The women stand in elevated stalls and encourage you come over, sit down and order something. The problem is figuring out what you want. When I go there, it is almost impossible for me to decide.

I have picked out my favorite juice lady, however. When I am shopping here (or anywhere!) I gravitate towards people who are friendly and have a nice smile. Don’t we all? I sometimes cannot figure out what clerks and storekeepers (worldwide—not just in Peru) are thinking when they have sullen expressions and act like they could do their jobs better if they did not have so many customers. So, as I walked down the row of stalls, when Carmen (Stall # 17) waved me over with her wide smile, I could not resist.

The first time, I was really thirsty and hot, so I just got some fresh-squeeze orange juice. It was a bit tart but really hit the spot. The only problem was that there was so much of it! A tall glass—about a pint. I think she juiced 6 or 7 oranges. The juices are served in real glasses and you sit on the little stools and drink. As you near the bottom of the glass, Carmen holds up her blender to pour the REST of the juice in! I think I got my Vitamin C fix for the week! Eventually I will learn to take my bottle to bring half of the smoothie home with me. It is a lot to drink at once.

Each juice lady has her regular customers. Some of Carmen’s walked up while I was drinking and she did not even have to ask them what they wanted. Many people stop by with newspapers in hand and read the day’s news while sipping.

Recently, I had a recommendation to try the lucuma con leche combination. It is a very rich combination of about 1 cup’s worth of the lucuma fruit with evaporated milk topping the blender. A lucuma is about the size of a large tomato and green on the outside and orange (like pumpkin) on the inside. The inside has the consistency of the yolk of a hard-boiled egg and it has a pit like an avocado, but it has a maple-y flavor—kind of like a pumpkin pie, but not quite as sweet. Combined with milk, it made a drink that was so rich and yummy—more like a dessert. The only problem was that there was SO much of it and I drank the WHOLE thing. Guess who was not hungry for dinner?

“Why,” you ask, “is it so hard to decide?” Well, take a look at the menu signs. What would you choose?

It is not hard for me to eliminate the ones that include cerveza  like Ponche de Cerveza. (Beer, milk, egg, honey, maca, and  algarrobina.) It sounds like some kind of hangover remedy to me. Maca is a root vegetable in the radish family, sometimes called Peruvian ginseng, that is native to the high Andes. It  is eaten for its vitamins B, C, and E; and for health benefits such as increasing stamina, curing acne, and alleviating mood swings. Oh, it is also an aphrodisiac and relieves erotic dysfunction—of course! Algarrobina is sweet syrup made from the black carob tree and is high in vitamins and minerals. It  is often used in smoothies and cocktails. Again, it is also known for its ability to alleviate erotic dysfunction. Are we seeing a pattern here?

When I leave here next week, I will miss Carmen and the activity at the juice stalls. Hopefully I will find others in the Sacred Valley.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Tamales! En Peru!

One day a couple weeks ago I asked my host, Adela if she knew how to make tamales. “Claro!”—of course she did. Since I also like to make tamales and wanted to make some here from the foods I could get in the market, we planned a day for shopping and a day for making.

I have never made the masa (dough) from corn, but here  you can buy the prepared maiz pelado para tamales in the feria, another mercado down the road. Maiz pelado refers to the fact that the corn has been “nixtamalized.” This means that it has been soaked in a lime solution (the Aztecs used wood ash) overnight and the husks have been removed  or peeled (pelado).
Nixtamalization results in a more flavorful and softer masa, increases the availability of niacin and protein, reduces the harmful micotoxins,  and makes it possible to form a dough that can be made into tortillas and tamale masa. How the ancient Central American people figured this out is amazing to me.

On Thursday, we went shopping at a mercado that seemed like a maze, but Adela wound her way through it like a master. She went almost to the back of the market until she came to the little shop she was looking for. They sold all kinds of grains and had the maiz pelado we were looking for. We decided on a kilo. From the same shop, we bought some whole cumino seeds (indispensable!) and some raisins (for the sweet tamales I planned to make as well).

Adela was also buying some pork at the market, so while we were waiting for the pork to be weighed, Adela noticed that in the glass case, they had little bags of pork lard! Perfect, we needed that for the masa so I bought one of the larger bags—a little over a cup. That lard turned out to be much softer than the lard I am used to and it was hard to whip air into it to make a light masa.
Little bags of lard.

Our next stop was the chicken shop. This was outside the mercado and on the street. In Peru, there is a chain of stores called RicoPollo that specialize in chicken products. You can find one every few blocks in the larger cities and there is usually a line of customers out the door. I found out why when we got home with our chicken—it smelled as fresh as any of the chickens we used to slaughter. Fresh, fresh, fresh!

There was a bit of a line, so while we waited, I snapped a photo of Adela and the chickens we were waiting to buy. That was all we needed from that market. It was a good thing Adela was my guide. I would have gotten so distracted by all the stalls, that I would have never made it home. We jumped on a bus and came home. Later, Manuel and Adela went out and purchased some red bell peppers (aji colorado) and apples. They also got a bunch of choclo or “Peruvian corn” which is kind of like our hominy, but is purchased fresh on the cob. I never found a place that sold just the corn husks and Adela said that we would use the hojas (leaves) from the choclo. Those leaves turned out to be huge—I could fit two tamales on each leaf. Also, they were fresh, so we did not have to soak them to make them soft like you do to dried corn husks we buy in the store.

Okay, with these purchases and Adela’s larder, we had everything we needed. On Friday we would get to work!

My plan was to make a batch of chicken tamales and a batch of sweet tamales with the apples and raisins. I started out by stewing the chicken with onions, garlic, and celery. Then, after it cooled, I pulled away the breast and reserved it for the soup which would accompany the tamales. The rest of the chicken got chopped up and then sauteed with more onions, peppers, chopped olives, oregano, pepper, salt, and the roasted, ground cumin seeds. (Toast the whole seeds in a pan until the whole kitchen smells like a Mexican restaurant, then grind them in the blender.)

Now we were ready to make the masa! But FIRST came the tedious work. Adela had soaked the maiz pelado overnight and now we had to remove the tip caps from each kernel. I think we did this to make the masa softer. I have never made masa this way—I always use masa harina (dried flour masa).

Finally, we were ready for the molino (grinder). Now was Manuel’s turn to help. He set up the grinder on the counter and started to grind the soft kernels. It was hard work and he had to keep changing arms. I was glad that I only had to help feed the corn into the grinder. The result was a soft, damp meal that looked and smelled a lot like ground soybeans.

I then whipped the lard with baking powder and salt. I did not have a good way to measure, so I just scooped handfuls of the corn meal into the lard, and added a little bit of chicken stock at at time. Then the seasonings: lots of ground toasted cumin, pepper, garlic, oregano, and a paste of chilis that Adela had in her freezer. Whip, whip, whip! Finally, it looked, felt, and tasted like masa I was used to. Now to assemble everything onto the hojas, roll them up, and pop in the steamer for an hour and a half!

I also made some sweet tamales by cooking up apples and raisins with sugar and cinnamon and then using them for filling another batch of masa that used apple juice, sugar, and cinnamon instead of the savory flavorings.

Adela and I added some carrots to the chicken stock and then put the chopped chicken breast back into the pot along with some angle hair pasta. The result was a light brothy soup just right for accompanying the heavy tamales.

Annie, another guest, popped down to the local tienda for some cervesa and we were ready to eat!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Yendo a Comprar en los Tiendas y el Mercado

*Going Shopping in the Shops and Market

I went shopping one day this week and here is what I bought: 

1 liter yogurt           S/ 5.50
Olives (about 1/2 pound)       S/ 4
Cucumber          S/  .50   (1/2 Sol)
5 plums                     S/ 2
4 whole wheat rolls   S/ 1
5 hard boiled quail eggs     S/ 1
1 pkg. chocolate cookies    S/ .80
2 pair underwear       S/6
1 notebook      S/ 3.50
Total for the day:    S/ 24.30  
(About   $8.00 US)

I really enjoy walking through the busy streets picking out the places where I want to shop. Each street seems to have its own specialty and once you know which streets cater to which items, then you know where to go. Then it is a matter of picking the shop. Both in the San Camillo market and on the street, I look for the friendliest people with the smiling faces. 
(That is how I chose my shoe repairman, Charle, last year: see Nuevos Soles for New Soles.)
Some vendors ignore me, probably thinking I am another tourist who is not going to purchase anything. 
This leads me to a little aside: One day I was just sauntering through San Camillo looking and trying to decide what to purchase. No vendors paid me any mind at all. They are used to tourists just wandering through taking photos and nothing else. Then I purchased some fruit which was place in a bag and once I was carrying an obvious purchase, all of a sudden, most all the vendors tried to get my attention! 
I am slowing gravitating toward my favorite vendors: 

Regarding bargaining: In the first place, I am awful at bargaining. Since I mostly buy everyday items and not "touristy" stuff, I am usually offered the same prices as everyone else. And they are so low, how can I try to get a better deal? One day last year, however, a banana vendor on the street asked for 5 soles for two bananas. I looked at him and said in a surprised voice as I dropped the bananas, "CINCO SOLES???" He laughed and knew I had him. I bought them for a sol, then gave him a half sole for his sense of humor.

Back to the speciality streets. Here are a few within walking distance of my quarters:

There are also streets that mostly have shops that sell underwear; shoes; audio equipment, printer ink (!), computers, fabrics just for upholstery; blankets; zippers, bindings and other sewing notions; wedding paraphernalia; baby stuff; school supplies...you name it. There are also streets for the buyers of gold; shoe repairer shops; as well as for internet cafes and copy centers..

Oh, and those little quail eggs. I LOVE those. But the only place I find them is on these little carts in the street. The women who sell them move around so you are never sure when you are going to come upon them. It is easier to find them in the morning. When you ask for a bag, you get 5 little peeled eggs for a sol (about 33 cents). They are so good! I want to get some to bring home for a salad, but I always end up eating them while walking down the street.

I bought the underwear in a kind of dark indoor mercado where every shop had only underwear types of things: bras, camisoles, and thongs hanging everywhere!

For the kind of yogurt I want, I have to go to the supermercado, which is just like our supermarkets. In small shops and in the market, they only sell sweet flavored yogurts and I want it "natural," or what we call plain. It still has some sugar in it but does not taste quite as sweet. And it is more like what we call kifer—you drink it.

There is young lady who sits on the street every day selling vegetables. From her I buy my tomatoes and cucumbers as I walk home. I have yet to ask for a photo because she is pretty shy. And right on the corner near my home is the Quechua woman who has a snack trolley where I often buy little sweets to go with my afternoon tea. She asks how to say words in English and then tries to teach me some Quechua!

And that is how I shop—mostly for my lunch ingredients—here in Arequipa. I am fed breakfast and dinner at my B&B (which makes it technically a BB&D--or maybe a boarding house?).

More about shopping in my next post about making tamales in Peru!!!