Travelogue #2: South American Sips
*This is the uncut version of an article that was originally published in thetaste.ie*
Well, hello you, it’s a pleasure to welcome you back here. I hope you enjoyed our adventures in the Mendoza as much as we did back then. This time, we’ll step back a little and consider South America as one destination. The main point of our travels was to discover how people would eat and drink in the rest of the World. However, when we left, we didn’t even realise how “European” we were in doing so. It really hit me in the face in Peru, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here if you have a wee moment ahead of you?
Wine with Food: A Cultural Match
Food and wine are so intimately connected in our part of the world that it is sometimes hard to dissociate them. For argument’s sake, the cherry-driven mouth-watering Italian reds – like Chianti or Montepulciano d’Abruzzo - are just incredible with the Italian way of chopping some perfectly ripe veggies, hit them with a drizzle of pungent & grassy extra-virgin olive oil, plate them raw and let you dive in. On the other hand, their delicate, crisp & floral whites – say Pinot Grigio, Soave or Gavi - would often bring the necessary freshness and help quench your thirst.
For us French, it’s all about messing with the ingredients instead. We slow-cook, stir, mix in, add a dash of this and that… nothing can complement our rich terroir dishes better than the big tannins of our reds - rustic in the Rhone, elegant in Burgundy, spicy in the Languedoc or silky in Bordeaux. If you like white, don’t worry, we’ll pack them with minerality and a grassy, zippy freshness in the Loire for your oysters and seafood or butterscotch creaminess in Burgundy for stews. And the truth is, we think we have it all because we only know our own cuisine. However, if it is true that neither the French nor the Italians should be ashamed of what comes out of their stoves, well, neither should the Peruvians!
Understanding Peruvian Gastronomy
When we got to Peru, secretly hoping we’d find hidden wine gems there, I have to confess that we were a little disappointed. There are a handful of houses making decent enough wines there (Intipalka & Tacama worth mentioning) but the jaw-dropping dishes served for a euro or two in modest local restaurants would often steal the show and bully the vino. What was that about?
I was wondering, halfway through an incredible Ceviche, when the penny dropped! Italian wines are great thanks to Italian food, French wines are great thanks to French food, maybe there was no room for wine in Peruvian gastronomy… I wondered what the true difference was with ours. The balance of acidity, sweetness and spiciness, which for us would often come from your glass of wine, was to be found in the plate here. My mouth was watering from the lime they’d squeeze in, it was also burning a little from all the chillies so what I needed was something refreshing and slightly sweet, something wine couldn’t provide. I had a quick look at the other tables and understood what a fool I had been. Our two stemmed wine glasses were outnumbered by small beers, bright yellow and white Pisco sours and tall foamy dark purple drinks I was yet to discover.
Feasting Like Locals
In the gorgeous UNESCO-World Heritage city of Arequipa, we asked a local foodie to teach us what, where and how we should eat. Lucia told us about the country’s best secret, the origins of modern Peruvian top chefs: the very humble and local Picanterias.
If you go to Peru, there’s a good chance you’ll find one around the corner on most streets. Owned by the Peruvian version of your beloved granny, they often serve rustic and colourful dishes, packed with flavours and local people, from the ambitious CEO’s in their suits to pretty much all of their employees. No matter who they are or what part of the city they come from, customers would share tables along hard wooden benches because, let’s put it this way: no one goes there for the tasty decoration or the quirky furniture, people come here for the pleasure of their taste buds!
Lucia had chosen one of the biggest institutions in town: La Nueva Palomino. There, we found an answer to what the dark drink was: Chicha Morada. A sweet juice made of boiled black corn and pineapple, with a touch of cinnamon and spices. This pre-colonial drink was even older than the Incas, it seemed it had been there forever! We tried one as we ordered, only to find out that an adult version also existed: Chicha de Jora. Before we knew it, Lucia had a jar of it ordered. That one was yellowish and turbid, with the pungent smell of farm apple cider. Made from fermented maize, it is a kind of corn beer. The stuff was about 3% ABV and it really only made sense when the food arrived. No need for grapes when you have corn! We feasted for a good part of the afternoon, with more jars coming as we were laughing and cheering together. From that day onwards, broadening the boundaries of food-compatible drinks, we took a different look at the South American gastronomy.
Smiles, Colours, Dance & Cachaça
In Brazil, in the picturesque village of Paraty, South of Rio, we met Yara Castro Roberts and her sweet husband Richard. She is Brazilian and he’s American, she was a famous chef on television and he was a businessman. Together, they settled down in the old colonial town full of artist workshops and opened the “Academy of Cooking & Other Pleasures”.
If the name can draw a smile on your face, it’s not what you think, these “other pleasures” are the drinks you can have with traditional Brazilian food. Drinks that, quite obviously, aren’t wine. The now famous one is Cachaça. Pretty similar to Rum (although completely different according to Brazilians) it finds its roots in Paraty, right where we were. In the nearby jungle, the old “Gold trail” is bordered by various distilleries. As an integral part of the local culture, it’s been granted IG status in 2007, the Brazilian equivalent to our Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). And guess what the basic ingredient is: sugarcane wine! Undrinkable as such, it delivers an explosion of aromas once put through the still and especially after an ageing in one of the many types of wood barrels used.
The night the sweet nectar that is Caipirinha touched my mouth for the first time, we were just after being assaulted by guys with guns on a small beach road. It could have been stress, or relief, or just Cachaça, but it tasted like something had fallen from the Gods and landed in that glass. Richard handed us one each, with beautiful lime floating in ice-cold Cachaça, Yara gave us an incredible grilled Coalho cheese on a skewer, with a shrimp salad, and that was how we forgot all our troubles from that night. No matter the bad luck we had with the earlier assault, Brazil is full of lovely people, great food and beautiful Cachaça!
Pisco: The South American Brandy
In Chile & Peru, we tried the local grape brandy Pisco in various cocktails – classic sour or refreshing Chilcano.
Produced in the Northern part of Chile and in the coastal areas of Peru, Pisco is made of distilled local wine, a bit like the World-famous Cognac in France. The major difference being that while Cognac brandy undergoes a long ageing in oak casks, giving it a warm spiciness & dark amber hue, Pisco cannot be aged in oak. The burning sensation of alcohol, sometimes overwhelming, is to be balanced in cocktails but the aromas from the grapes are surprisingly intense and complex. The natural refreshing acidity of these drinks worked a treat with the great fish and seafood we found in both countries.
Microbreweries: the World Phenomenon
Along the way we were amazed by all the small microbreweries popping up everywhere. It’s like, no matter where you go, every village seems to be making a batch of some sort these days. If you’re in Argentina, try one of their Honey beers, they’re to die for! Just like pretty much anywhere else, you’ll find plenty of IPAs, either refreshing & fruity or throat-ripping angry hop bombs. There are good stouts and ambers for a good steak and great white beers, IPAs or lagers for seafood.
One thing South America taught us, is to push the boundaries of food and drink pairings. You can think outside of the wine box and always remember: no matter where you go: drink like the locals!