|Pisco and Picarones|
Peru is one country I have not visited. Like several South American countries I was a little hazy on exactly where it was too. So much so that the other day when I received an invitation to attend a Peruvian brunch organised by Maeve O’Meara as one of her Gourmet Safari’s, the next thing I did after accepting (instantly) was go online to see exactly where it is.
Of course I wasn’t going to Peru. The venue was just across the city in Gordon, at the home of Peruvian food-lovers and cooks Luis and Carmen Almenara.
Fortunately it was a perfect late summer day and we arrived to find the other 40 or so guests seated outside by the pool. Nearby, hand-painted tiles on a wall announced ‘El fogón De Luis ’ (Luis’ kitchen) and it was here the various dishes were being assembled by a busy team of workers.
Carmen Almenara’s chocolate-making kitchen, where she makes her heart-stoppingly rich and beautiful caramel-filled tejas, is located here too, and we each got the chance to see for ourselves how delicious they were at the end of the meal.
But that was a long way from the mid-morning beginning. Peruvians take their food seriously. ‘They are the gourmets of South American cuisine,’ says Luis. ‘It is one of the top five cuisines in the world.’ He cites the many influences – Spanish, Moorish, African, and Chinese – that have contributed to the complexity of many dishes and adds, ‘Peruvian food has the most variety – more even than the USA.’
By now we had enjoyed a pisco sour cocktail (Luis imports Pisco – a grape-based distilled liquor) and choros a la chalaca, mussels cooked and dressed with limes, coriander, onions, tomatoes and corn, a piquant and perfect beginning to the meal.
Corn is big in Peru, and rightly so. This is the home of corn and so. Appropriately, the next dish was humitas, the simple homespun bread of the Incas. Basically a cornmeal dough moulded around cheese then wrapped in corn husks and steamed, it was delicious and I could have had a second one, but I knew I had to pace myself.
Why? The menu showed still to come were crisp little beef empanadas de carne, the semicircular Peruvian meat pasty – baked, not fried as they are in Mexico, and betraying their Moorish heritage by being dredged with icing sugar. Then, a ‘Peruvian hamburger’ of slow cooked pork slices stuffed into crusty French bread rolls and served alongside deep-fried cassava (yuca frita).
Let’s just pause here. Carbo-phobes should stop reading this immediately and go outside and take a deep breath.
Hearing our collective groans, Luis and the other Peruvians around us at the table quickly defended their cuisine saying ‘it’s not really that rich!’ Peruvians aren’t fat, they’re healthy, they assured us, straight-faced – but with such delicious temptations you’d have to wonder why not!
But back to the yuca . I will just simply say that I could have sat there snacking on those crisp, starchy cubes of comfort food for a long time. Almost too good to be true – I could see how they would be hugely addictive. Little wonder they are sold in Peru as the natural accompaniment to those pork rolls.
By now, most of us were feeling the pressure, slowing down, so Maeve decided to treat us to some activity. Two traditional Peruvian games were brought out - dudo a multi-dice game, the rules of which Luis attempted (lengthily) to explain. The other involved tossing a counter onto a board on which a brass frog presided. I didn’t get those rules either. Some of us still had energy to try these, but most were content to simply look on or waddle a few steps away to watch the picarone chefs
Yes that’s right – one more course was being prepared!
Picarones are Peru’s answer to doughnuts . Prepared from a very old recipe they are circles of batter deep-fried then drenched in rich syrup. And yes, they were as good as they sound. And no, of course they are not fattening!
Well, that’s what the Peruvians said, anyway.
For more information about these foods or Gourmet Safaris: www.gourmetsafaris.com.au
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