18 July 2011

Peruvian lamb goes off with a bang

A few years ago I had the pleasure of walking the long way round to Machu Pichu and the Inca Trail following the Salcantay Trek. This piece describes one of the highlights of the walk.

Mt. Salcantay seen from the south
The Andean sun set lit up the snow on the mountains behind us in a glow that spread through the lush glaciated valley mid way between the peak of Mt. Salcantay and the spectacle of Machu Pichu, still 3 days walk away. As the heat faded from the day and the aches from our exertions crept through our muscles, sweet hot chocolate and fresh popcorn, proffered by our guide Michael, brought the warmth back into our cheeks, while we awaited a special dinner.

Two days previously we had stepped out from the rambling village of Mollepata, with Michael, his 7 year old son Pedro, 4 horses, a cook, his assistant, two porters and two wranglers. The numbers sound excessive to support just the four of us novice trekkers, however tourist income plays a valuable part in the economy of the local villages and their teamwork, cheerful chatter and dedication was very welcome when arriving in camp just as the clouds burst, seeing tents already erected and hot drinks waiting.

The previous night we had slept in the lee of Salcantay, listening to the creaks and groans of the great glaciers adjusting themselves. Dinner had been very simple, pasta with a tomato sauce, some fruit and chocolate. Tonight in this beautiful valley would be different.

Following a day which included a crossing of the great mountain's saddle at 4,640 meters, a height where steps are necessarily slow, with altitude sickness a real danger, followed by a menacing dance down a moraine filled escarpment, we arrived to find the campsite erected and the cook and the two porter's busy digging a shallow hole.

As we removed our steaming boots, hot rocks were taken out of the fire and placed in the trench. Jose the cook emerged from his small kitchen tent moments later with half a lamb, coated in oil, garlic, chilli and fresh herbs. He placed the lamb gently on top of the rocks, before covering that in bundles of long grass scythed from the surrounding hillside. On top of these he placed large dark local potatoes before covering the whole mass with divots of turf.

It was Christmas Eve high in the Andean cordillera, a special night for the people of the region; the night when a feast is made and visitors welcomed. Having donned extra fleeces and thick socks to ward of the chill we all gathered around the fire pit, only 30 minutes after the lamb had been buried to see what would emerge. Before long shovels were produced, the divots removed and the first steaming black potato's uncovered.

Potatoes of course owe their origins to this part of the world and the varieties to be seen in the markets of Cusco and at the shacks along the roadside are fascinating. Huge purple tubas the size of a melon next to tiny black or dark blue varieties show what an eclectic vegetable the potato is. Their flavours and textures vary too, from the earthy to the sweet, though colour doesn't seem to have a bearing on texture or taste. I wonder how we managed to make our every day potatoes so bland when there is such a rich variety to be found at their source.

Shortly after the potatoes the lamb was pulled from the ground and deposited on a nearby rock that served as a table. Hot and steaming, Jose demonstrated just how well cooked it was by pulling it apart before serving on our battered camp plates. As we gathered around the camp fire there was one ritual still to be performed, a toast to Christmas and the Gods with Pisco Sour as the liquor of choice. Pisco, a colourless, strong grape brandy with a squeeze of lemon juice to make it slightly more palatable. Down in one, and when the nose had stopped burning and the eyes watering it was time for the tenderest lamb.

Huge chunks of soft flesh exuding tantalising aromas sat on our plates. With the sky fully dark but a dazzling display of stars above, we pulled our hats over our ears and resorted to our fingers rather than cutlery to extract the best from the meat. It transpired that the Jose had been marinating the carcass twice a day since before the start of the expedition with his own blend of ingredients, so it was incredibly tender having absorbed the flavours of the herbs, garlic and chilli during its journey up and down the mountain.

The meat carried an unexpected depth of flavour, packing a small punch with some intense chilli. The crumbling purple flesh of the potato added earthy notes to the meal while the occasion and setting intensified our enjoyment. As we all wiped the grease from our faces Jose had one last trick up his sleeve. Jesus (pronounced in the Spanish way Hey-zuus), Jose's assistant emerged from his tent carrying a bundle of homemade fireworks. It seems Health and Safety has not arrived in the Cordillera Vilacabamba, as one by one Jesus held the rockets by their sticks as Jose lit the touch paper, only to hurl them in the air where after briefly fizzing about they exploded with booms that reverberated around the valley.

With only one horse bolting during the pyrotechnics, the meal and entertainment were considered a huge success by our considerably refreshed crew. So it was with much giggling, following more Pisco Sour's and with the smell of the best lamb in Peru on our fingers that we slipped unsteadily to our tents happy that the Inca Trail was waiting for us in the morning.

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