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Eating Altitude with Virgilio Martinez

Eating Altitude with Virgilio Martinez

A trip to The Sacred Valley, Peru, with chef Virgilio Martinez as he meets a cooperative of female farmers, hunts for new ingredients and dishes up altitude.

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It’s past 4am when the taxi finally rolls up to the entrance of my hotel. The driver’s light marks the end of my battle with Lima's sticky morning heat. In front the car sits Virgilio Martinez, the highest riser on this year’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants List. He finished service at the Central restaurant just two hours ago and now he’s here, ready and waiting, not a bead of sweat, not a crease - he actually seems energetic, instantly making me feel more tired. His sister, Malena, who works with him as a researcher/nutritionalist at the restaurant, and who we’re about to pick up, tells me he only needs about four hours sleep a night. A good thing, I think, as we’re about to embark on a pretty gruelling adventure. One that after just 10 minutes in the taxi with Martinez explaining details, I may regret signing up for.

For me, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity - Martinez, a regular day at the office. The plan? Travel through the dead morning streets of Lima, straight to the airport, quick shot of coffee and onto the plane. North, one hour, and up to the lush green hills of Cusco, trusted stop on route to Machu Picchu. No time for sleep, just chatter; new dishes, new ingredients, chefs, gastronomy in general, my thoughts on Lima, my views on the state of food journalism - I tell him he’s looking it directly in the eye before once again feeling a little sick. “Don’t worry,” he smiles from the window, “we’ll get you some coca tea when we land, that will fix you.”

Coastal Proximity for a Fish Out of Water - Dish: Harvest of Scallops - 0 m

The blanket of green unravels as we land in Cusco. Leaving the plane my heart is beating harder than usual, a small mouse politely knocking on a mini door inside my chest. I’d love to say it’s because of excitement, not my lazy red blood cells, but it’s the latter.

After fighting an endless line of coca tea sellers and taxi drivers plying for business - I’m told coca tea really is the only way to beat altitude sickness - we’re into a cab and flying, fairly quickly, past road side shacks and dusty buildings, up to the centre of Cusco (once the capital of the Inca Empire and still classed as the historical capital of Peru.) A place built on thousands of years of history with charming alleys, back streets and steep cobbled climbs watched over by the changing mountains in the background. Martinez has a restaurant here, inside the Monasterio Hotel, but we won’t be staying long. A quick bag drop before we head even higher, at 11am we have an important meeting, and, as Malena stresses, “we can’t be late, we might not get another chance to meet these people.”

The mouse in my chest has stopped the polite knock and has proceeded to bang on my rib cage. Back in our taxi, we pick up the guide, Naida, and drive for around 2 hours, always at an incline, through the winding hills of Cusco. Every corner reveals a scene more inspiring than the next and the higher you go, the better it looks. The women we’re meeting are only ever together a few times every year and Malena explains how lucky the we are, Virgilio chips in, “at the beginning, they’re like, who are you? What do you want? What are you doing here?” A problem the siblings have overcome with regular visits and strong relationships with people like Naida, who they call “connectors”.

Edible Clay and AMS Day - Dish: Chaco Clay and Citrus Flower - 3,500 m 

After a few hours of winding paths and Malena politely breaking the news we’re now much higher than expected, we finally pull up to our destination, Janac Cuquibamba in The Sacred Valley, nearly 4,000 metres above sea level. A place deep in the valleys, surrounded by wild herbs - purple, yellow, green in every form, light to dark, happy, even sad greens. Nadia tells us she’s worked with the female farmers for many years and is happy, if not a little surprised, that Martinez and his sister have come all this way to meet them. “They have all these varieties,” says Malena as we climb out the car, mobbed by a sea of colourful Lliclla (the traditional Peruvian clothing worn by all the women) “Some of these varieties are getting lost because no one finds a way to commercialise them, it’s important for us that these varieties keep getting produced, otherwise our biodiversity is just an illusion.”

Nadia introduces us to the co-operative who grow a range of products, many of them heirloom varieties in desperate need of protection, alongside quinoas in reds, blacks, browns, and the famous white variety, sold around the world for an ever increasing price. Malena has a personal favourite story about this. “There was this program, a program to produce a lot of white quinoa because the government started to see that it had so much potential. They came here with quinoa seeds, a lot of them, rented lots of land and put the seeds everywhere. But the land had previously been used for other products and the results were that no white quinoa grew...They were going crazy because they never got the result they wanted. The local producers knew all along and I thought it was kind of their way to say, ‘you can be a biologist or an agronomist but you’re not going to grow your quinoa here’.” The women in the co-operative grow everything; fruits, hundreds of varieties of potatoes, aromatic wild herbs and products as far a the eye can see. 

After meeting with the group, most of them busy fighting over who will leave with the biggest helping of organic pesticide, and hearing about some of the things they need, like covers to stop animals eating their young shoots, we’re taken by a small party to hike even higher and finally start tasting the territory. This excites Martinez, “we’re building special relationships with producers, the soil is so rich here and there are producers everywhere. When we get the product in Lima it takes a few weeks…we come here and get the product at source, the difference is just amazing. The main focus today is the variety of wild herbs.”

Falling in Fields of Wild Muña - Dish: Lamb, wild mustard and black quinoa - 3,900 m  

Before setting off even higher, Martinez is drawn to a pile of anonymous rocks and begins immediately sorting through the heavy pile, placing the smoothest finds straight into his bag. It’s a strange choice to make before a trek up a mountain but as if some other chef might have also trekked 4,000 m in search of tableware in a pile of indigenous rocks, he carries them, without complaint, for the next three hours. I follow a few metres behind, and thanks to the altitide, struggle to carry my own head.
We continue to climb, past streams, over rocks and higher up the steep path as Virgilio questions the group. He tastes everything, asks about seasons, how they’re changing, how the locals cook specific ingredients. He grabs huge pea pods and eats them fresh - his mind bubbling with thoughts. “In just a couple of hours I go back to the restaurant and every thing is fresh, not only the product but the idea. I feel very emotional when I go to the hills and see reality, but, at the end of the day, I have to work and do my service. I have these two worlds and I really want them to be one thing. This is part of the experience of what I do.”

He’s explaining the importance of understanding origin, the source of ingredients, to be curious and do research, to collate and create a database of information and that many ingredients he’s using don’t even have names yet, when suddenly I slip taking a huge smear of mud and bang to my left side. Nadia, a good 10 metres ahead comes charging down the mountain, afraid I’ve been finally been wiped out by the altitude. At this height a person can easily faint and she's been worried about the pale English boy since meeting him. It’s actually down to my poor choice of footwear and, even though I point this out, she insists on performing a ritual with a huge bag of coca leaf, just to make double sure I'm ok. I’m first made to kiss a dry leaf for prosperity, mud still oozing into the side of my only pair of pants, one for health, one for love, I eventually forget what I’m kissing them for altogether. I bite down, as instructed, on the crispy leaves and tuck the contents neatly to the side of my mouth, like a hamster storing for a long bleak winter. Nadia is certain this will prevent any more falls and, at least if I do, I’ll do it with the fearless buoyancy an inflatable doll. 

My fall actually signifies that we've reached marshy land, perfect for cushuru - a micro algae that at certain times sucks up water from the moist ground, a sort of natural sphericfication that fascinates Martinez. The ingredient plays a key part in one of his dishes, the highest altitude plate on his menu; perfectly formed balls of cushuru sat on top of frozen potato. A dish made possible thanks to treks like this, dialogue between the kitchen and the outside world that extends way past a commercial agreement.

The Spherification of Life - Dish: Frozen potato, cushuro, mullaca - 4,100 m

Martinez explains how a more methodical approach is now needed, “We have to register all the things we see and discover. We’ve been working with things that didn’t even have a name, we have to register them, know their story, create a database of information. People from abroad ask us a lot of questions, they want to know, it’s great for us but they expect us to know, to inform them and we have to do that with basis.” Eventually we shift our direction, pivot and head back down the mountain, but not before Martinez can add more weight to his heavy bag in the form of wild herbs, lots of muña and a few other rare finds.

We’d started the journey over 10 hours ago, at just 5 metres above sea level. Shot up to dizzying heights of around 4,000m and discussed all the products in between. We eventually settled at a more oxygenated level of around 3,200m, and for me, my muddy trousers, coca leaf cheeks and my slowly deflating lungs, it was all too much. For Martinez, just part of a monthly routine. All we’d really done for him is a living breathing version of what he asks guests at Central to do every night, to trust him and explore the taste of altitude.

I’d started my journey a wet faced fish out of water, similar to the scallops served near the begining of Martinez’s menu, a subtle start at 0 m. I’d shot up to the nauseating heights of chaco clay, 3,200 m, then drove even higher to past acres of wild herbs. I'd eventually climbed the last part on foot, to natural spherification, very close to the point at which potato begins to freeze at night, over 4,000m. I’d actually travelled cuisine, not with taste and texture, or a knife and fork, but with sights, sounds, touch and a lot of heavy breathing. Back in Lima, finally sitting down at Central to enjoy the offering, tree roots and leaf at 450 m, a coca forrest at 845 m, lamb with wild mustard and black quinoa, 3,900m, I realised I'd just lived my first menu.


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