Sunday, 31 August 2014

Let them eat cake

Panetón (panettone) is a family favourite in Peru. In fact Peru is the second largest consumer of panetón in the world, beaten only by Italy.

The domed shaped yeast bread, traditionally flavoured with candied fruit peel and raisins, is said to hail from fifteenth century Milan. Nowadays all sorts of delicious chocolate versions are available, but in Lima the old school panetón reigns supreme.

Indeed there is a kind of hierarchy of brands and in our family, when wishing to impress, it´s not unknown for lesser (no less delicious) brands to find their way into the boxes of their more upmarket relatives.

Panetón crowds the supermarket aisles in late December, and is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve accompanied by industrial strength sweet steaming hot chocolate. But you don´t have to wait for Christmas to enjoy it.

In this story Hernan tells how, on the long arduous Marañon expedition, Tello´s deputy and head bean counter Toribio Mejía Xesspe is sent one from his wife. 

Let them eat cake 
In which the odyssey of a panetón is rather rudely cut short

On the eve of his birthday, whilst we were in Casma, Mejía Xesspe received a panetón that his wife had sent to him. The gracious lady, mindful no doubt of her husband’s companions, had sent a large cake that was plenty big enough for all of us. But we only got one tiny slice each, the excuse being that we would do well to save enough to share out again once we got to the other side of the Marañón basin

Señora Mejía Xesspe had probably not imagined when she sent the gift, that her cake would be so zealously preserved, but it’s worth mentioning here that Mejía Xesspe’s meticulous thrift always delighted Tello, because he was able to miraculously balance the books with his stringent economies and strict rationing.

Months passed and we soon forgot all about the precious panetón. Nevertheless, it unexpectedly came to light again one day in Pacasmayo. 
Tello had ordered us to reduce our luggage as much as possible in view of the fact that the journey to Cajamarca was going to be a long and difficult one.

 the jetty at Pacasmayo - 1940s, source:

We started with all the paperwork; reviewed it file by file and sheet by sheet. All but the most essential reports were thrown out or sent to Lima. Next he made us get out all our personal effects. As we showed him each article he would say:
“That goes to Lima,” or “that can be thrown out.”

When Mejía Xesspe’s turn came, there was the blessed panetón, at least still half of it left (albeit by this time a little dry).
Pacasmayo railway station

Tello’s face turned stern.  “What’s this?”
“It’s my panetón, doctor.”
“And how come you’ve still got it?”
“Well I thought it might be useful later on, doctor.”
“Right – that goes in the river!” - We had been staying at the Railway Hotel and it had a large balcony which overlooked the river below.
The owner of the panetón was not going to let it go without a fight.
“But doctor, we really should keep it. On the other side of the Marañón, we won’t find much.”
“No señor, that panetón goes into the river now”. Tello passed it to our driver Carlos, “throw it away.”
Carlos took possession of the cake, but didn’t move yet.  Until the order was ratified there was always hope for a stay of execution.
Mejía Xesspe made one final desperate plea for clemency: “But doctor, it doesn’t go off, and we’ll miss it later on when we maybe can’t find anything to eat.”
“To the river I said,” Tello growled back at him.

Carlos didn’t wait to hear more. He hurried off and when he returned he was empty handed. At eight in the morning the following day we set out for Chilete.

the river Jequepeteque flows through Pacasmayo to the sea - picture
 © eva lewitus

Mejía Xesspe smarted for days over the loss of his beloved panetón, which he had guarded so religiously. It wasn't until weeks later that he finally got some measure of revenge and satisfaction.
 No one had given a minute’s thought to the subject until we found ourselves in Cochabamba – Chachapoyas,  and eating our usual frugal breakfast of mint grass tea with no sugar and a few measly potatoes because there was no bread.
Mejía Xesspe chose this moment to shake his head sagely and remind us how good a few slices of that panetón would taste to us right then.
Tello gave a knowing smile.  And in answer to his favourite follower, looked towards the driver. 
“Carlos, did you throw Mejía’s panetón into the river?”
 “No, doctor; I ate the whole thing myself that same night.”

“Ah, so there’s no harm done then. At least we know it didn’t go to waste.”

Hernan (right) and Mejía Xesspe

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