Born to potato farmers in Peru’s Cusco region, Manuel Choqque Bravo’s playground was the fertile Andean land where his family cultivated tubers at 3,740 metres above sea level. He’d while away days in the field, terrorising his younger siblings with strange-looking potatoes such as pumaqmaquin (Quechua for puma’s paw) or snacking on potato leaves and flowers. Supper was usually a rainbow of oven-baked native Andean varieties served with a fresh huacatay (black mint) sauce and Maras salt.
There was little doubt that Manuel would be the fourth generation of Choqques to work his family’s fields in Huatata, a small community near Cusco city; his father, after all, is a potato guru who has long sown rare native varieties in a bid to recover ancestral crops, and is sought out by top agronomists for his knowledge. Side-stepping into fermentations to create potato-based alcohol – and a delicious one at that – meant Manuel was destined to become a chip off the old block.
If you’ve dined at Central and Kjolle in Lima or Mil near Cusco, you might have heard Manuel’s name mentioned at the table. Besides farming tubers with his family at their high-altitude farm, he’s also a talented and experimental agronomist who hand pollinates at home to create brand-new nutrient-rich potato varieties (90 since 2014), some of which make the cut at the restaurants led by chefs Virgilio Martínez and Pía León in Peru, such as the vibrant violet leona that forms part of the Central Andes course at Mil.
Photo by Gustavo Vivanco
More than 4,500 varieties are grown in Peru, according to the INIA agro-innovation institute, and tubers form a vital part of the daily diet; Pisaq in the Cusco region is also home to the world’s only Potato Park. But there’s one spud in particular that has long captivated Manuel’s heart and mind – and possesses the right characteristics to create a quaffable alcoholic drink.
“An Andean crop, 'oca' belongs to the oxalis tuberosa species and was an important part of the pre-Quechua and Quechua diet in this region,” says Manuel. “We have more than 900 varieties of oca in Peru, although we don’t eat it much, maybe once or twice a year: it’s considered to be ancestral ceremonial food that’s cooked in the traditional huatia adobe brick oven and eaten for the Inti Raymi festival of the sun god every 24 June.
“Measuring about 10-15 cm in length, oca has lots of colour diversity, from yellow, black, pink, violet and even red, which means it contains a high level of antioxidants. Usually harvested in May and June, the Quechua left them out in the sun to dehydrate further and acquire more sugar.”
Photo by Mater Iniciativa
It’s the surprising sugar levels in oca that triggered Manuel’s innovative streak six years ago, when he realised that it had the potential to be turned into alcohol. “I started undertaking some tests with a refractometer with just-harvested oca whose Brix levels [the percentage of sugar by weight in a liquid] were between 6 and 8. After leaving them out in the sun for between 20 and 30 days, Brix levels changed to reach between 22 and 24.” This eureka moment meant oca had the potential to make an alcohol of between 11% and 12%, much like a wine (for perspective, a ‘regular’ just-harvested potato has between 2 and 4 Brix).
For his first trials, Manuel chose oca negra, with the idea of making a rosé alcoholic beverage. It took two years to get right and today, has a provençal hue. “There was a lot of trial and error,” he laughs. “The first one I made was more like a chicha de jora corn beer, but reading and researching meant I was able to improve fermentations. And, while I currently use commercial wine-making yeasts, my next step is to investigate whether there are enough wild yeasts in the fields to start a natural fermentation.”