Peruvian farmer makes native potatoes visible to the world’s great chefs
“It doesn’t sell, Edilberto, I don’t know what we’re going to do; nobody wants to buy your potatoes. There are 2 things, or we return them or closeout selling them to pig farmers”, a trader from the wholesale market in Lima told Edilberto, the first time he tried to sell his potatoes.
By Fabiola Gálvez
Edilberto Soto Tenorio is a farmer, president of the Andean Potato Consortium of Peru (CORPAPA), and founder of the Ruta de la Papa —Route of Potato—. Feeling disappointed, continued producing conventional potatoes like everyone else, while the special ones remained exclusively for his own consumption. After all, it had always been the same.
In 2009, a new path opens up. The Mistura fair was emerging in Lima, and with that, the gastronomic revolution that was lived in Peru. Many restaurants and many producers like Edilberto began to be visible, it was a window to show all the products and Peruvian cuisine.
“When the chefs saw the exhibition area of a small batch of native potatoes they were amazed, I immediately understood that, I talked with my colleagues and we started to make special potatoes again because there was already a community of chefs who began to give value to the potatoes”, said Edilberto.
So that’s how the following year (2010), the native potato was the star of Mistura.
The whole group of tour guides and I listened attentively, how much effort it had cost this farmer to make the world know about the native potatoes.
We leave very early from the Plaza Mayor of Huamanga towards Condorccocha, about an hour away by bus.
I had managed to join this group almost randomly. Coincidentally, they celebrated the National Tourism Guide Day and they came to know what this gastronomic alternative was about to incorporate it into the trips of the tourists who visit Ayacucho.
“This is Josep Roca, from El Celler de Can Roca, several times considered as the best restaurant in the world. When he came, he left his trucks at the entrance of the road, and when he entered, we had prepared those baskets full of potato varieties. The first thing he did, he bowed to the potatoes, that was his gesture”.
As warfare trophies, Edilberto proudly shows us the poster-sized photographic portraits that hang in the tool store of the farm.
Those are images of all the chefs he met at his stand in Mistura, and many of them have travelled to Ayacucho to learn about the ancestral work system that the farmers do with the native potatoes. “Curiosity made everyone visit us”. Chefs “had no idea under what circumstances were harvested the best potatoes in the world”.
Virgilio Martínez, from Central, Mitsuharu Tsumura ‘Misha’, from Maido, and many more recognized personalities such as Carlos Petrini, Bernado Roca Rey, Jhonny Schuler, and students from international universities, have already left their mark on the Ruta de la Papa, and they are in those photographs that Edilberto keeps as a place of inspiration.
The Ruta de la Papa is a tribute to native potatoes that have been growing, almost unintentionally, by the many visitors he received at his farm.
“First, a cook began to come, he was Misha, then came the Diegos who were chefs in Astrid & Gastón. Then there were 10, and then 25, and the last time there were 85 chefs. It was a small location where we received them, and since we no longer fitted, then, along the way, we have been improving”.
The Ruta de la Papa project has a shelter, tents, sleeping bags, and future projects that are being developed for visitors. “This is our new kitchen that is fully equipped, we want to bring a chef and we have prepared a menu, for example, we have an organic pickled with roasted cuy. The chefs are our friends and they have donated their recipes to us”.
At about 3,700 meters above sea level, things are different, the freezing dawn freezes the altiplano grass, they are literally like ice cubes. To my surprise, the morning is sunny and not cold. It was a perfect time to wish Pachamama a happy day, under the precepts of the Andean worldview. Engr. Colfir Rivera Flores brought with him a traditional blanket, he opened it on the floor and we discovered coca leaves; each one has to choose three of the prettiest ones, and if we were lucky, we would find the kintu, a leaf that has 2 or 3 tips, which is as difficult as finding a 4 leaf clover. This time there was no luck, for the next time it will be.
Then a dressed table was waiting for us with a small exhibition of native potatoes, ollucos, ocas and mashuas. Finally, I could see a sample of the whole variety of ancestral Andean tubers, but by seeing them I felt like a city girl, more than ever. This is what Edilberto said, “a meeting between the big cities and the rural world” is what happens to you on the freezing dawn freezes the altiplano grass,the Ruta de la Papa.
“I was weaned off breast milk and started eating native potatoes, morning, noon and night,” said Colfir. “Each colour that you see, the potato has a different chemical composition when it is exchanging colours, the red ones must have carotenes, this one is yellow, it also has a lot of carotene.”
“Do you have a knife to cut it?” He asked ‘Pipo’, one of the guides, while he continued explaining. Cut an olluco in half. “There are 3 different pigments, each one is special.”
We were all astonished, fuchsia, blue, purple, green, colours vibrant, authentic gastronomic gems, genuine national heritage.
The ocas, the mashuas and the ollucos are root crops, cousins’ of the potatoes, and each one is a universe of its own characteristics, flavours and different uses in the cuisine. We tried a type of raw oca, it resembles an apple in texture and flavour, it was also juicy.
Some of the most famous chefs such as Gastón Acurio and Misha, among others, are working with 13 varieties of potatoes in their restaurant menus for 15 years.
And for 3 years, thanks to the fact that they have achieved the organic certification of their products, especially fresh mashuas, ocas and ollucos, travel to the gourmet restaurants of Dubai, France, Holland and Italy.
It was time to go to the farm and harvest, the farmers were already collecting and we joined them. Without any tools other than our own hands, we picked up ocas, we had to sort them by sizes. The work was facilitated because they had already removed the earth, we looked for them between lumps, squatting. The work is routine and exhausting, but with the native potatoes and the qaqchi (sauce) that we had for breakfast in the morning, it gave us strength for the task.
This is how the experience is lived. The guides were about to receive more tourists and students to do the Ruta de la Papa and you can schedule from a simple tour to the most sophisticated, with prior reservation. The visit can be a couple of hours up to 3 days or more, there is a hostel ready to receive them, as well as service to pick them up from the Ayacucho airport itself.
The Ruta de la Papa is Edilberto’s dream and his colleagues so that the native potatoes defend their identity. Unfortunately, the capital’s wholesale market does not value it because of its low productivity and its price, and I would also say that due to ignorance, but I keep in mind Engineer Colfir’s reflection, the best way to value it is not just by saying this is nice, but also to eat it. And who has eaten a red or purple potato before? An universe to discover.
More information: https://www.facebook.com/Rutadelapapa/
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