Saturday, March 28, 2015

Growing Salt: The Salineras

Crossing the Urubamba
Last year, when I was visiting near the Sacred Valley with my daughter Rebecca, we were able to visit the Salineras near Maras. I was fascinated with this ancient site where salt has been harvested for over 500 years and maybe even for a millennia. So, on Thursday I decided to again hike up to the salt farms—a beautiful and tough climb from the Sacred Valley. I took a collectivo (combi or van) from Calca and asked to be let off at Tarabamba, a little village east of Urubamba. Following a road which led me over the abundantly-flowing Urubamba river, I soon found myself walking UP the trail. 

An Excuse to Rest
It is a steep, rocky trail and my trekking poles came in very handy. After about 45 minutes of climbing, occasionally using the excuse to look back down the valley in order to catch my breath, I came upon the site of the Salineras—a grand operation! In another 20 minutes, I was walking along the pathways among the ponds.

This salt spring is the origin for
all the water used in the Salineras.
This high plateau lies on a bed of salt and soluble minerals. As a result, one of the major springs flowing from the mountainside is has a high saline content—the water tastes like the ocean!  As long as 900 years ago—maybe longer—no one is sure, the people here figured out that they could direct the spring water into shallow terraced ponds during the dry winter months. The water is allowed to evaporate, leaving behind the salt and minerals, which can then be harvested. Today, the area is farmed cooperatively. Any family who wishes to is encouraged to lease one or more ponds and after receiving instructions they can begin “farming.” 
The salt, in various forms, is sold wholesale to companies who bring their trucks up to collect large bags from the on-site warehouses.

We are now in early autumn, and it still rains frequently enough that the farms are not in full operation, but some people were here digging out their ponds, flattening the bottoms, and preparing them for the beginning of salt season (roughly May through November—the dry season).  

The ponds and sides of the water channels are encrusted with salt, giving an other-worldly feeling to the entire site. 

The evaporation process takes about a month, then the salt is harvested and the pond is refilled with saltwater. When harvested, the salt is graded into three categories, white (sal extra) which comes from the top of the evaporated layers; pink (rosa or sal primera) which comes from the middle; and mineral or medicinal (sal tercera) which is harvested from the bottom layer. The first two are culinary grades and the last is only used for medicinal purposes like baths. 

Salt crystals floating in one of the ponds.
After leaving the Salineras, I walked up another series of switchbacks and on for almost two more hours uphill to the little village of Maras. The view of the Andes mountains is very dramatic from there, especially with the dark rain clouds hanging over them.

I encountered very few people and when I did, I was asked the same questions: Was I walking to/from the Salineras? Was I alone? No friends? And one woman asked “¿Tienes miedo?” (Are you afraid?) and I answered “No,” but I should have said “Solamente de perros malos.” (Only of bad dogs.) I don’t like dogs and when they come growling I become very afraid. However, walking in the beautiful countryside here and encountering the local people in their fields makes it worth the risk. I have learned that they are usually easy to chase away. (The dogs, not the people!) Also, I have learned that there has not been a reported case of rabies in the area for almost 20 years—so I guess I’ll take my chances.

I walked exhausted into Maras and stopped at the first street vendor in the plaza to buy some Powerade (yes Powerade!) which helped replace some of my electrolytes. The young man even had some cold bottles and, even though I usually hate the stuff (too sweet!), I guzzled it with relish and felt much better. 

The plaza in Maras--a welcome sight!
I hopped on the first collectivo out of town and within half an hour, I was in Urubamba and soon to be back in Calca where a warm shower awaited me. 

Here is a map of the hike:

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Shopping…Cooking…Eating: Chapter 1

A few years ago, I had a romantic notion of going to Mexico for a few weeks, renting an apartment near a market and learning how to shop there daily, bringing home lots of new (to me) ingredients, and cooking up something incredible. I never managed to do that and the dream kind of got put on the back shelf. However, without really planning it, I have accomplished that here in Calca, Peru. It just so happened that I found a place to live here, Casa Willkamayo,  that has a kitchen just for the use of the guests. Since I am mostly the only guest at present, it is my kitchen to command. It is very well outfitted for a guest-house kitchen (with even an adobe fireplace), and since my host, Mabel, loves to cook, she is happy to lend me any tools from her kitchen that I need. She is also very knowledgeable about the ingredients that I am not familiar with and can give me lots of advice.

So, on Friday I decided to make empanadas. I love any kind of hold-in-your-hand, dough-filled street food. With some advice from Mabel in mind and suggestions as to where to find fresh chicken, I walked the 10 blocks to the mercado and started shoppingfirst at my favorite stall.  Sonya has so many different kinds of ingredients, it is hard to describe her market stall. She has spices, nuts, beans, grains, many kinds of flours (including two kinds of tamale masa!), sauces, ginger, aji amarillo (a key ingredient in many Peruvian dishes), garlic, olives, dried fruit… From her I got flour, garlic, olives, salt, cumin, brazil nuts, and some algarrobina(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.It tastes a lot like molasses. I have been using it to sweeten my oatmeal and my fried apples.)

Then I moved on to Yolanda’s dairy stall, where I usually buy cheese. Today, however, I only got some fresh butter and honey.

Then, to pick out the chicken. I have always been leery of purchasing fresh meat in an open market, but Mabel had assured me that the chicken here was fresh, so I walked up to Alex’s stall and got a kilo of thighs and breast for 12 soles (about $4). It certainly looked and smelled fresh. 

Then, around the corner to Carmela, who sold me a huge cucumber, tomatoes, lemons, and a beautiful red onion all for 1.5 soles (50 cents). Then, on to the fruit stalls to get a kilo of apples. (Fruits and vegetables are sold by different people; and potatoes have a whole section by themselves.)

Now I was set…on the way home, I stopped by the little tienda a block from my guesthouse to get some eggs for the dough.

Chicken filling with olives
As soon as I unpacked everything, I got to work. Before long, I had made the two fillings, one sweet, one savory and the two types of dough were chilling in the refrigerator. I found a great website where you can learn everything you want to know about empanadas, including some great recipes for dough here.  Chilling the dough for ½ hour resulted in a very pliable dough which I could roll out very thinly without it tearing. I flavored the doughs—one with cumin and pepper, and the other with honey and cinnamon and an extra egg to add richness. The chicken filling consisted of browned onions, aji amarillo, garlic, chicken, olives, cumin, salt, and pepper. This is similar to the filling I often use for tamales

Fried apple filling with toasted 
Brazil nuts
I also made a sweet apple filling with fried apples, raisins, cinnamon, sweetened with algarrobina. Because the dough was so pliable, everything assembled easily and before long, the empanadas were ready for the oven. Fenn, the 4-year-old son of my hosts, kept coming in to check on my progress and make sure he was not left out of the eating part.

When all was ready, I assembled a quick ensalada of cucumbers, avocado, and tomatoes, sprinkled with lime juice, and invited everyone down to the outdoor table for a snack.
I cannot wait to make more empanadas—what fillings should I use next? Squash? Cheese? Potatoes? Scrambled eggs and veggies? Bananas? Pumpkin? What do you think?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fiber: Chapter 6: Revisiting Arequipa’s Fiber Mills

Last year, when I was in Arequipa, I wrote about my disappointment in trying to find natural alpaca fiber and yarn in the city that has several large fiber mills.  This year, I made another attempt to explore Arequipa’s fiber and was a bit more rewarded for my efforts. However to find women (and men) working with yarn in a more traditional way, you must leave the big city and find your way up into the Andes mountains. More about that in another post—first, I want to report on my visits to two of the alpaca mills in Arequipa.

If you are visiting Arequipa and want to visit Michell’s outlet store, walk
 out of Mundo Alpaca and turn right. Walk down the street until you see 
the sign over the door, “Michell y Cia. SA.”  The store is inside the gate. 
If no one is at the security desk, ring the bell and ask if the store is open. 
They will smile in unlock the gate.
The first one is Michell’s Mill, the place where more tourists go because of their very interesting alpaca museum, Mundo Alpaca and high-end apparel shop located on the mill grounds. You can read more about this in my previous blog: Fiber: Chapter 2—Experiences with Alpaca and AcrylicAnd there is a nice video about Mundo Alpaca hereDrops Designs is one on-line yarn store which contracts with Michell’s to create yarn for them.

In Michell’s high-end store, Sol Alpaca, you can only find a little bit of sport weight baby alpaca yarn and it costs just as much (maybe even more) than what I can find on-line or in stores. However, thanks to my friend and host, Adela Laguna, I found Michell’s outlet store right down the street. This is a warehouse kind of place, filled with a huge variety of yarns—many on one-kilo cones. They also have bins of seconds and clearance items, which are really inexpensive. 

Above right, F/S Alpaca; lower right, Brushed alpaca and silk
This year I spent quite a while exploring the shelves and, after much deliberation, decided on some lace yarn.  There was lots of baby alpaca, but I decided on a one-kilo cone of 3-ply laceweight FS (Fino super) Alpaca. In the sales bin, I found some packages of 77% brushed baby alpaca and 23% silk balls—ten 25-gram balls in each package. This is very soft yarn and the brushed alpaca lends a beautiful and full halo to the end product. I took 2 packages of natural color to the desk to ask the price. (There are no prices on any of the yarn—you have to ask.) Imagine my surprise when I was told that each package was 20 soles—about 65 cents for each ball! Now we’re talkin’! The FS alpaca cone that I picked out cost about $34.  I will probably be able to get 2-3 shawls from that cone! I could not wait to get home and knit up some samples!

There is another outlet shop in Arequipa for the mill, Inka Tops, but my experience there was quite different. I ended up purchasing some yarn and I am not sure why. I learned about Inka Tops after doing some internet research and found their very interesting website. The part that intrigued me the most was the recent construction of their new “green” scouring and combing plant. Their solar pre-heated washing water is re-used and the solids are filtered out and put on the plant vegetable garden from which they harvest food for their employees! They also placed their fiber sorting  station on the top floor with lots of natural light to make it easier for the classifiers to grade the fiber. You can read more about this innovative mill here)  Cascade Yarns which is based in Seattle contracts with Inka Tops to make some of their yarn.

I had to make an appointment to visit the Inka Tops store and was put in contact with Elizabeth Herrera, a very nice and gracious company representative. Even though she knew that I was not a “big-client” possibility, she met with me and my friend Annie in their offices to show me the kind of yarn we would find in their store. I had to choose the yarn I wanted and then we walked down a few blocks to make our purchase.  They also had some beautiful fiber and it took me a while to decide on some very, very fine 65% baby alpaca/35% linen. I had never heard of an alpaca/linen blend and was intrigued. 

Baby Alpaca and Linen--ONE KILO!
When we got to the Inka Tops store, we had to wait while the clerk waited on another person who was buying about 12 cones of yarn. The outlet store here, apparently, mostly sells yarn to people and cooperatives who are making garments to sell. Many women here in Peru have knitting machines in their homes. This is a large cottage industry that caters to the high-end stores like Sol Alpaca and to exporters of fine alpaca garments. Once the clerk was available, I told her which yarn I was interested in and she then gave me the price and brought out the cone from the back room. I am not sure yet what I will do with this yarn. When I knit with it, I can feel and see the linen.
And about those knitting cooperatives: I would like to share my experience with Intiwawa. Intiwawa provides tutoring and after-school services for children in San Isidro (a very poor part of Arequipa). One of their projects is Kalpaca, in which they work with the mothers, who make wool and alpaca apparel in their homes to sell to European markets. Intiwawa helps the artisans purchase yarn at a good price and then get the best price possible for their work.
Some of the products created by the women of the Kalpaca project.
Several times last year, while I was in Peru, some of the knitting women here eyed my small knitting needles with much interest and asked where I got them. So, this year, I asked my knitting friends on Vashon Island to donate any small-sized needles they no longer used, for me to give to the women here. I brought 32 sets of needles and I decided to leave about half of them with Intiwawa for the Kalpaca project.  After several back-and-forth emails with Julia, one of the program coordinators, we were finally able to meet for me to give her the needles. Unfortunately, the program was currently on hiatus while school was out, so I was unable to meet the women themselves. I had a nice visit with Julia, who was very happy to get the needles and really appreciated the generosity of the Vashon knitting community. Thank you ladies!