Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Recipe: Lucy's Pachamanca a la Olla

Pachamanca is a Peruvian dish eaten since the Incas made by burying food in the earth and cooking it with hot stones. It's delicious, but not exactly the sort of thing you're going to make after getting back from a long day at work.

Traditionally it's made with a smorgasbord of meat - including guinea pig (cuy), pork, chicken and lamb.

This is an alternative pescatarian recipe from Lucy that's really easy to make at home, without digging up your back garden. The great thing about pachamanca is you don't need to follow a recipe too closely.

I really love the flavour of the huacatay herb - it's a gentle minty flavour. In Ecuador it's known as yuyo de zorro and grows wild as a weed. You might also see it called Andean black mint, southern cone marigold, or stinking roger. 
Huacatay herb
I'd never heard of it before moving to South America but apparently in Latin grocery stores it is sold as a paste to homesick expats.

Ingredients (for four people):
½ cup of huacatay herb (called Andean black pepper and in Ecuador called yuyo de zorro)½ cup of oil1 cup of white wine vinegar4 garlic clovesAj√≠ amarilloBlack pepperCuminCogollo or choclo leaves
Fish - dorado
Habas beans (broad beans)
Choclo (white corn on the cob)
Papa cholas/papa amarilla (any variety of crumbly, yellow potato will do)
Sweet potato


Method: (total preparation and cooking time approx three hours)

Marinade the fish with half of the mixture

Blend the huacatay herb with all the other spices to form a thin paste. It should be a pea green colour and the consistency of a smoothie.

I made mine with that classic Peruvian chili, the aji amarillo - it doesn't add too much heat and really reminds me of Peruvian cuisine. Also, don't spare the garlic - you'll want to use at least four cloves

Peel the vegetables, but leave the habas beans in their shell

Place all the vegetables in a large pan - the bigger the better. The ones that take the longest to cook should be at the bottom (like the yuca and the papa chola), followed by the habas beans at the very top. 

Add the rest of the huacatay mixture and cover the pan with the choclo leaves, a kitchen towel and a heavy lid. 

Cook at a very low temperature for two hours. If you're using gas, the flame should be at its lowest (but make sure it doesn't blow out). It can be really easy to burn the bottom of the pan if you're impatient, so check it regularly

When the vegetables are cooked, add the fish on the top with the rest of the sauce and cook for another 30 minutes.

Peruvians don't tend to peel any of the vegetables, but I prefer to peel the yuca, potatoes and sweet potatoes and just leave the habas beans in their shell.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The haunting tale of Cuenca's Convent of the Immaculate Conception

On a low step on the far wall of this dark room the dead were once laid. Walls a metre thick deaden the  maelstrom of the city outside. The horns, the engines, the bustle are muffled; all I hear is the sound of my own breath from a chest wheezing against the cold. The lofty windows fail to illuminate the room, even though a moment ago the midday sun had scorched my exposed skin and slammed my eyes to a squint.

In the gloom I see a frightened girl, maybe just 11-years-old, her hair is crudely shorn and she is stripped to her petticoat. She is huddled in the corner, her arms wrapped tightly about her knees, pulling them tight against her chest in a futile effort to stop the spasmodic shivers which are rattling her frozen bones. In her right hand she grips a doll, dressed in all the fashions and fineries she had seen her older sister wearing, fresh from her honeymoon in Madrid. This girl will never see Madrid, the walls of the convent are the boundaries of her much reduced world. Like her sister, she too will marry. She saw the face of her husband hours earlier. He stared down at her with eyes filled with pain, anguish and compassion. His face one great, purple bruise, his temples pouring with blood, his muscles taut through the agony of death and a gaping wound exposing his cracked white ribs.

Convento de la Concepcion, Cuenca
Welcome to Heaven, girls
Welcome to the Convento de las Conceptas, one of Ecuador's most important religious institutions.

The order of the Immaculate Conception built its convent in Cuenca in 1599 and cloistered nuns still live there to this day. Of course, you'll never see them but they still sell a herbal water drink (agua de pitimas) from behind a rotating wooden window.

With the slow decline of the convent in our Godless age, it has now been turned into a museum... and a rather good one at that.

You can wander - unimpeded by the smartphone wielding masses - through 30 rooms, crammed with the best examples of religious art in the country. There was an impressive collection of retablos; these were portable nativity sets which could be carried by donkey to the Indian communities as a tool for conversion. The religious figures have often been supplemented with characters from indigenous everyday life to better help the Indians understand the message. The three wise men arrive on llamas and Spanish colonial soldiers take the place of Herod's men.
The most impressive retablo in the convent
In its halcyon years the convent enjoyed the patronage of Ecuador's richest families. The eldest daughter of the dynasty would be married off to a rich suitor, the other daughters would scrabble around for the scraps, and the unfortunate youngest daughter was packed off to the convent.

It's hard to believe in these secular times, but it was a great honour to have a virginal daughter married to Jesus. It might even save the souls of a few family members - who probably deserved a decent dose of damnation for their treatment of the Indians on their haciendas.

The young girl, before the age of puberty, was sent to the convent where she was expected to make a pact with God for life.

On arrival her long locks were sheared off. They would later be used to make wigs for the icons and Virgins used during religious parades. You can still see the wigs crowning the saints and virgins. This creepy archangel was particularly haunting - as the rest of the convent crumbles like the faith which had once supported it, the hair remains as light and curly as the day it was sheared.
An archangel with the hair shorn from one of the girls
Tragically there is a room of toys the young girls brought to the convent with them; dolls, music boxes, and figurines. In my mind, there was an insurmountable gulf between the folk innocence of these simple toys and the brutal, gory (and often terrifying) religious figures inside the convent.

Gory Christ
Married to Christ
However, the young girls were about to face an ordeal more traumatising than anything a pair of scissors could inflict. They had to spend their first night in the convent - probably their first night away from their family - alone... in the room where the dead are laid out before burial. Even today, stripped of its function, the room reverberates with a malignant energy. It is bare, just white plaster and a low step on which the bodies were laid. At night it would have been a pitch-black, living nightmare.

After this gentle icebreaker the girls had the rest of their lives to devote to Christ. They were permitted only one visit from their family, the timing of which they could choose. They were sealed off from the outside world and would never, in theory, see the face of a man again. Their silent days were filled with prayer and the many duties of convent life - it seems cookery was a particularly popular pastime and the nuns have perfected a sort of cheesy biscuit called the quesadilla (which you can still buy from them today).

I can't help thinking the monks over in Belgium must have had a better time of things. The nuns in Cuenca get herbal water and cheese biscuits while their brothers-in-Christ were scoffing plates of ripe cheese from Flanders' fertile flocks, washed down by gallons of foaming beer.

Cuenca is Ecuador's most beautiful city... in fact, it might be Ecuador's only beautiful city. It's colonial centre has been both carefully preserved and sympathetically restored. Also, the religious beliefs that once supported the convent of the Immaculate Conception have also been better preserved here. Cuenca is Ecuador's most Catholic city and a devotion exists here that I have not seen elsewhere in Ecuador. The city's Cathedral was crammed with worshipers on a wet Wednesday morning. People of all ages and backgrounds were knelt on the cold stone offering prayers to God.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Crazy Taxi

What do you do if you return to your taxi and find the driver honking on a crack pipe?

Well I suppose the answer is you send him on his way with a firm cuff around the ear.

But what do you do if you're 3,500 metres above sea level, freezing cold, hungry, in the middle of nowhere and desperate to get warm?

That's right, you knock on the driver's window, pretend you haven't seen the drugs and smile awkwardly at the three Argentinian hippy chicks who are nervously exiting the taxi.

Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Painterly beauty in Cajas national park
We were in the Cajas national park, near Cuenca. It is easily some of the most stunning scenery in a country already packed to the point of bursting with stunning scenery. Unlike most of Ecuador, Cajas is a glacial landscape - which makes a refreshing change from the volcanic scenery. Cajas is full of lakes and crags, black peaty bogs and wildflowers in the most amazing colours. I found these red and yellow flowers that looked like lollipops and the floor is thickly carpeted by this alien-looking turquoise plant.

Wild flowers in Cajas national park, Ecuador
The lollipop flowers
Carpet plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
The alien carpet plant
There was also a bizarre plant called Oreja de Burro (Donkey's Ear). It grew like a ghostly weed near the abundant sources of water. It glowed white and yellow with such an eerie phosphorescence, despite the overcast day. I took a few photos but it really didn't do it any justice. The leaves were so white it looked a bit like infra-red photography.

Strange oreja de burro plants in Cajas National Park, Ecuador
Donkey's ears? You need a bit of an imagination
Our taxi driver was a real Jekyll and Hyde character. On the way up to the national park he had been the perfect gentlemen. When he noticed Lucy wasn't wearing a coat he stopped at his house and borrowed a padded jacket from his wife. He also pulled over at a house in the national park he knew where they serve steaming hot cups of aguita de tipo (a sort of hot toddy, made with sugar cane liquor and a local herb called tipo). It was bloody potent and instantly warmed the cockles. I suppose alarm bells should have rung when our driver knocked one back with a curious relish.

The next warning bell came when he was explaining the supreme quality of Colombian weed. But we were in good spirits and looking forward to our hike around the lake (laguna de toreadora). The driver had kindly offered to wait in the car while we completed the tour - he said it would take two hours.

The lake is very beautiful and reminded me a lot of the Lake District... which I suppose was formed in very similar geographical conditions. However, unlike the Lake District there were very few tourists, even though it was high-season. We passed a local group of excited school children that were being herded like cats by a very brave/foolhardy teacher. To her credit she managed to lead the expedition back to the safety of the refuge with only three walking wounded and two missing in action.

I'm a fast walker and Lucy isn't too far behind, so we made good progress. Also, I'd forgotten to bring a coat and it was absolutely freezing so I needed to stride out to keep warm (even with a belly still burning with aguita de tipo). We completed the two hour walk in just under an hour and surprised our taxi driver - who clearly thought he could blast some reggae, blaze and chill with the Argentinian hippy chicks for another hour... now that I think about it, why were there three Argentinian hippies at the foot of a glacial lake in the middle of nowhere?

On the return journey our driver was transformed. Suddenly he wanted to speak in English, which he couldn't do. He also wanted to tell me how beautiful Latin women were and that my wife was "rica". This means delicious in a juicy way and is highly inappropriate... even in the company of hard-drinking rugger-buggers it would sound a bit sexist and gratuitous.

To make matters worse he wanted to tell me a filthy joke about the gringo at the Spanish language school who told his teacher he had eaten trucha (trout) at the weekend. Lucy refused to let him finish his joke but I'd already guessed the punchline... suffice to say trucha has a double-meaning in Spanish.

To make matters worse we'd booked lunch at a nearby restaurant and had already agreed to pay for our taxi driver's lunch. Guess what we were eating? That's right, trucha.

The driver continued his tedious monologue about how Latin people are warm and brilliant and Europeans are cold and dull. Lucy was squirming beside me in her discomfort. The driver insisted on making me sit next to Lucy in front of the fire - he was under the mistaken impression the situation could possibly be romantic. The wood on the fire was wet so the driver had to sit in front of us blowing at the smoldering, wet wood every 10 seconds or so. Eventually the fire roared into life, but it was still far from romantic.

Lucy by the fire in Cajas, Ecuador
Forcing a nervous smile as our driver stokes the flames
He also drank another aguita de tipo... so he slightly pissed, as well as high. On the way back his spacial awareness completely failed him and he constantly veered into the other lane before lurching back to correct himself. Lucy gripped my arm tightly. I was keeping a close eye on the road and was ready at any moment to order him to stop. I engaged him in some conversation, hoping to snap him from his drowsiness and it worked. We arrived back in Cuenca safely. He even had a fit of righteous indignation and scolded a young boy for throwing his chewed sugar cane onto the street.

A lot of people who read this will think we were crazy for getting in the taxi and I agree, looking back it seems needlessly reckless. But in our defence, it was a sticky situation. We were in a remote national park and there were very few cars passing on the quiet road, let alone taxis. We perhaps could have persuaded a driver to come up from Cuenca (45 mins away) to rescue us, but it wouldn't have been easy. There was no mobile signal and we had no taxi numbers. Also, when incidents like this are unfolding it's hard to believe they are really happening. You look through the window of your taxi and see the driver lighting a pipe and wonder if it's real or just a nightmare. I stood transfixed and only snapped from the trance when Lucy started shouting: "Act, act, act!" at me.

Also, I have no idea what he was smoking. I was expecting the cabin to stink of weed when I entered, but it didn't. It was a very different smell. I don't have the keen nose of a spaniel sniffing suitcases at Heathrow airport but I was concerned... if it wasn't weed, what the bloody hell was it? Crack?! What's it like to drive after a cheeky honk on your crack pipe? I really wasn't equipped to answer these questions.

Maybe I should add that our driver was 52 and married with children. I should probably also mention that we had an amazing time in the Cajas national park and it really is some of the most beautiful landscapes in all of Ecuador.

Panama hats in Cuenca

$2,000 dollar Panama hat
A $2,000 Panama hat
You're sat in the pub, warm lager in hand, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps disemboweled across the table.

"Tie break," the landlord says... you could cut the tension with a knife. "Universally Challenged 14. Norfolk in Chance 14."

Everybody takes a deep breath. Both teams need to nominate a champion, an intellectual gladiator to do battle, winner takes all (which in this case is £25 and a round of beers). The two champions take a nervous step towards the centre of the ring. The landlord taps his microphone for attention. First correct answer wins.

"Where are Panama hats made?"

"Bloody Panama, isn't it?"

Made in Ecuador, the Panama hat
Made in Ecuador
I'm in Cuenca (that's in Ecuador) and I'm visiting the Hormero Ortega Panama hat factory. I've always had a soft spot for the Panama hat. For me it is quintessentially English. A symbol of better days, when half the globe was painted pink, we had a cocktail tray before dinner and people still wore hats. I've also got a soft spot for quality handmade clothing, in the face of the Chinese production lines and Bangladeshi sweat shops.

Cuenca is the home of the Panama hat industry. In the villages and communities surrounding the city Indian women still weave the intricate hats from their own homes. It's a real cottage industry.

The reeds needed for the production come from lower down, in the sub-Tropical areas of Ecuador and are taken to the highlands where generations of women have handed down the skill, mother to daughter. To say it's a fiddle is an understatement. Even the very cheapest hats have a weave more intricate than a bird's nest. The most expensive hats, which can sell for well over $2,000 and take up to eight months to complete, are so tightly meshed they form a solid wall of reed capable of blocking out the sunlight.

Homero Ortega is one of the largest factories in town and offers a tour of its facilities. It's all free and the propaganda is thankfully delivered by the teaspoon rather than the shovel load.

When the hats arrive to the factory they have no shape at all and look more like the classic Mexican sombrero. They have all been branded with the Homero Ortega stamp. Buyers from the factory visit the community and choose the raw hats. Every craftswoman produces her own quality of hat, and the finer the mesh the more value it has.

Panama hats at the Homero Ortega factory in Cuenca
How the hats arrive to the factory

The next stage is to wash and dye the hats. The classic hat is white, but these days you can get your bespoke hat in every colour of the rainbow. The girl who was taking us on the tour had a neon pink hat... it's simply not cricket.

The hats are steam pressed by a gang of men using antique machines, some from the 1920s... I guess there was no need to update the machines - it's just steam and a heavy weight.

Steam press for Panama hats in Cuenca
Watch your fingers! There's no emergency stop button on this brute

The finishing touches are added by women in the sewing room. One of the jobs is to attach the famous black band around the base of the Panama hat. I had never realised but the size of the hat can be varied considerably by loosening or tightening the band, which is held in place with a pin.

Of course, you exit through the gift shop and in this case it's not rubbers, pens and little fluffy toys - it's wall to wall Panama hats. The temptation proved a bit too great for me. It certainly wasn't a necessary purchase, I already own a Panama hat (a present from Sam on my 30th birthday). It was always a little tight and it says produced in England on the inside, so I could argue there's some room for improvement.

Detail of the fine weave of a $2,000 Panama hat
It's amazing to think the human hand can create a weave this intricate... it takes eight months and will cost you $2,000 
I found a lovely hat for $80. But naturally there's a sliding scale of quality. I tried on another hat for $130. The difference in the weave was considerable. It was much softer and virtually no sunlight could penetrate. Predictably I chose the $130 hat... however, after taking a look at the $2,000 hat I did wonder about upgrading.

In Brussels they were very sensitive about their great culinary invention (the thrice-fried chip) being known to the international market as "the French fry". It's a similar story in Cuenca with the Panama hat. During the tour of the Homero Ortega factory they insisted on calling the Panama hat, the Cuenca hat. They're idiots, of course. The Panama hat is one of the most recognisable brands in the hotly contested hat industry. So what if it's not named after the city where it's made? If I called this blog entry the Cuenca hat then nobody would know what the hell I was talking about. And for the record, Stilton cheese isn't made in Stilton either - but do you hear the folks of Melton Mowbray banging on about it?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Only Train in Ecuador

El Tren is Ecuador's only train - hence the name, The Train. It's a far cry from the East Coast mainline that spits high-speed express trains packed with 30 million grumpy commuters each year from London to North from the gaping mouth of Kings Cross station. A couple of trains a day shunt out of the sleepy platform of Alausi, and this is only during high-season for tourists.

There are a few other differences I noticed between El Tren and the East Coast Mainline. Instead of rolling past hundreds of miles of flat, fertile farmland interspersed only by depressing commuter belt towns (Stevenage, I'm looking at you) I was snaking down a precarious mountainside watching the flora change before my eyes from high Andean to exotic broad-leafed sub Tropical Triffids. On the downside, my carriage was filled with silver-haired American tourists who were as obnoxious as they were fat.

El Tren Ecuador
Riding down the Devil's Nose from Alausi
We were riding a section of track called the Devil's Nose (La Nariz del Diablo). It's named after the striking nose-shaped mountain that the line descends and was considered one of the most difficult engineering challenges in the world when it was first built. The 2,000 poor Jamaicans who died during the construction of this short section would almost certainly agree with this statement. These were former slaves from the British colony who were shipped to Ecuador to work laying the track. They were chosen because they were thought to be more tolerant to tropical diseases - unfortunately the best immune system in the world can't save you from a direct blast of clumsily placed dynamite or falling 3,000 feet from a sheer mountainside.

Considering the sacrifice made by these men, it's rather a shame there's no monument to them or more than a passing mention of their deaths. We were all happily rolling down a breathtaking track enjoying the fruits of their fatal labour at a rate of 20 dead Jamaicans per minute. It's little wonder this section of the line is reportedly haunted.

The only train in Ecuador
Leaving Alausi station
El Nariz del Diablo, Ecuador
If you use your imagination, this is the Devil's nose

The Devil's Nose section has to bridge a 1000 metre difference in altitude in just over 10 kilometres. The ratio is too steep to lay a standard track, it would make Alton Towers' latest roller coaster look tame. The solution is to build a series of switchbacks to soften the gradient, a back and forth ride, much like the swing of a pendulum.

It's amazing the changes in the landscape as you descend. The thermometer also rises steadily. We passed scrappy fields of maize outside Alausi, corn grows well in even the poorest soil of the high Andes, to more exotic sub-tropical plants and fruit.

The Devil's nose is just a small section in a much vaster 600 mile network that runs from Quito (in the highlands) to Guayquil (Ecuador's major port). Before the train was running it used to take over three weeks for a mule caravan to make the back-breaking trudge from the coast to the capital, and that was only when the weather was good. By train the journey took just two days. Understandably, the oxygen-starved citizens of Quito celebrated its arrival with a frenzy of new-found commercialism.

The train first ran in the 1890s and continued in slow decline for over 100 years. Lucy can remember taking the train as a child when it was still packed with animals heading to market and you had to sit on the roof, like in India. Apparently a couple of Japanese tourists fell off and have spoiled it for the rest of us.

A particularly bad El Nino in the late 90s finished off large sections of the ageing track and it was abandoned without so much as a fare you well. Fortunately, Ecuador's most important President of the last 50 years recognised its potential as a tourist attraction. Rafael Correa ordered the most spectacular sections of the line to be renovated (like the Devil's Nose, or the Route of Ice which reaches altitudes of over 3,600 metres). The plan worked and El Tren is packed, albeit more tightly than ever before, with our remarkably rotund cousins from North America.

They've done a great job restoring not only the track but also the trains and the infrastructure. Each carriage gets a guide, who points out the most interesting landmarks and narrates the history of the track. When you arrive at the station there is an Indian folk dance group waiting to greet you and a couple of patient llamas for a photo op. You even get a free drink and snack from the cafe. It costs about $25 for a ticket but it's a good few hours entertainment and there isn't very much like it anywhere else in the world.

In terms of engineering undertakings I'd still give the top prize to the Trans Siberian Railway, which crosses 6,600 miles of bitter Russian steppe. But even the vastness of the TSR can't match what El Tren has to offer in terms of diversity. It puffs up from the Pacific coast where blue whales visit to breed, through cloud forest, and rain forest, to the rich sub-Tropical wetlands, and then with a monumental grind, up into the high Andes and passing snow-capped volcanoes, all the way to the lofty capital of Quito.
El Nariz del Diablo, Ecuador
A section of the switchback track

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The World Cup in Ecuador

The Belgian national anthem finished and the first rumbling bars of the Stars and Stripes struck up. As one, the pub stood with their hands over their hearts and belted out every word. I was the only person not standing because I am officially a Belgian citizen (even though I misplaced my ID card over a year ago).
I was in Finn McCools Irish pub in the centre of Quito and I had just discovered the American expat community in Ecuador outnumbers the Belgian community (if I can count myself as the Belgian community) by about 100 to one.
It's been fun watching the World Cup in South America and a very different atmosphere to back in England.
For a start, the level of hostility and violence in the bars is almost non-existent.
I watched Colombia beat Uruguay and the large Colombian community in Ecuador went absolute crazy, buying bottles of rum and taking over all of the bars in the centre of Marsical, cranking up the salsa and the Carlos Vives on the stereo.
What was incredible is everybody was somewhere on the road to blind drunkenness and not one fight broke out - if this was any city centre in England (but especially one north of London) it would have been a bloody riot.
Unfortunately for Quito's nascent gay community it was the same day as their big Pride celebration. They had arranged bands, dancers, music and parades. I felt bad for them, the gays didn't stand a chance against the army of drunk Colombians. Pretty soon the drag queens were pushed to the periphery of their own party and Lady Gaga's 'Born this Way' was drowned out by 'La Gota Fria'.
In Latin America there is a lot more unity than in Europe. Ecuadorians will support a South American country over any other team and Ecuadorians will support Colombia over any other team because they're neighbours.
In England the closer (geographically) a country is to our little island, the less likely we are to support them. I'm a rare Federalist in an island of Isolationists and will always support the European teams, but with England out of the cup after two matches I plumped for Ecuador.
Ecuador's campaign lasted just one match longer than England's, and a draw against France saw them eliminated.
The standard of Ecuadorian football is pretty poor, with the exception of two players (both called Valencia). The national league is somewhere between Division One and Division Two - it's hardly surprising the players aren't too enthusiastic about performing since most haven't been paid for the last six months.
Ecuador were largely outplayed by France but they showed a spirit and determination that I haven't seen in an England team for so many years. My Valencia (Antonio) was sent off and it was t'other Valencia's turn to take centre stage. He's almost as fast as his namesake and much less likely to see a red-card. I reckon he'll be in the Prem before long.
When Ecuador were sent home by Switzerland most people just shrugged their shoulders, said: "good game" and moved on with their lives. There was none of the soul-searching, inquiries, demands for resignations, or burning Beckham effigies that happens in England. I suppose the Ecuadorians, quite rightly, recognise the World Cup is just a bit of a laugh and there's no reason to bite somebody's ear off over it.