Thursday, 21 August 2014

The unforgettable millenium bean feast

The Paracas peninsula in the region of Ica is one of my favourite places on earth. 

Situated on the coastal plain just a few hours south of Lima,  it´s a haunting place of rare beauty, where the light plays off desert cliffs reaching down to beaches whose only inhabitants are seals and sea birds. 

The peninsula sands are also littered with archaeological sites, witness to the ancient peoples who depended on the area´s rich marine resources.

Tello began explorations there in 1925 and was eventually to unearth hundreds of tombs containing 
funeral bundles fardos yielding up a wealth of artefacts and the exquisite, finely woven textiles for which the area is now famous. 

Ica is also the birth place of  Peru´s beloved national beverage, the infamous Pisco; a drink that my friends have christened the happy drink and which indeed has brought me many a happy moment. 

Hernan's story from Ica  tells of a time when the team were treated to a very memorable meal. 

The unforgettable millennium bean feast
In which a lazy cook unexpectedly tickles our boys’ taste buds – and in doing so proves an interesting theory

During one of our excavations in Ica, the work schedule and the budget was so tight that there was no allowance for a cook, all the cooking was left up to us, the expedition members. We took it in turns to prepare the food, but our meals were truly horrible. Conscious that his team was wasting precious time in the kitchen and eager to improve our awful diet, Tello halted work one day and asked around amongst the peons we had hired if there was anyone who knew how to cook. 

The only lazy shirker in the whole bunch, a big black labourer, put up his hand.  Tello couldn’t stand anyone who didn’t pull his weight, and he had kept this man on until now purely and simply because he was short of workers.
On the other hand it was easy to see by the size of him that the man enjoyed his food. Maybe he would be of more use to us in the camp kitchen than lazing around on the site. It certainly would solve the problem of the wasted hours that we spent amongst the saucepans when we really needed all hands on deck for the excavation work.

The cook had a good view of everything we brought out from the tombs, because close to our improvised camp kitchen under a copse of thorny carob trees, was the spot where we were accumulating a collection of various mummies, textile remnants, pottery and other archaeological specimens. All carefully catalogued of course. 

Remember we were way out in the wilds and so it was a startling revelation to find that our makeshift cook turned out to be a gourmet.  One day he decided to cook rice and beans. He was duly sent off to the nearest wayside stall to purchase the ingredients. Maybe the peon really knew how to cook.  Maybe it was just because, as Cervantes says, “nothing spices a dish quite like hunger; that’s why a poor man’s meal is always delicious.”  The fact is that the dish of beans and rice that he put before us was superb.

Succulent fresh strips of meat in a rich onion and chilli sauce; all cooked in pure unadulterated olive oil. In those days good olive oil was cheap and abundant. It would have been a crime to ‘anoint’ this particular dish with any of these sanitised oils that grace our tables nowadays.

A few weeks after our feast, came the day when we were to pack up all our finds ready to be sent to Lima.  I don’t remember if it was Víctor Martinez, Mejía Xesspe or Oscar Santisteban, but one of them was left gaping in confusion at the ancient mummified llama that we had brought out from one of the tombs.  Something was not quite right. Someone had cut a large piece off of it.

A thought slowly dawned on us… but … surely not.  Surely it couldn’t have been confused with the charqui that we bought for the kitchen. No…. the llama mummy stank… and besides it was a completely different colour to the fresh jerky. We thought it prudent to inform our leader and he, putting nothing past his favourite peon chef, asked him if he had, by any chance, cooked a piece of our centuries old sacred llama.

The cook shifted on his large feet and pretended to be surprised. He looked mutely at the piece of ‘charqui’, and turned it over and over for a minute in his hands. 
Then, in his slow doltish drawl, he replied:
“Oh yessir, yes doctor, this is the charqui that I cut up for the food.
But it’s the same as the other one isn´t it doctor, uuuh… did I make a mistake?”

“So this is what you gave us to eat?” Tello´s face was a veritable picture of disgust.
The cook said nothing, just looked at him and smiled.
“And when exactly was this?”
“In the beans doctor…. It was right there close by, so I cut some off to put in the beans.”

Needless to say Tello dismissed the cook on the spot, and sent him off to play his bad jokes elsewhere. But there was no sense in worrying. There was nothing we could do now. Many days had passed and we had already long ago digested the stuff.

There was no question in my mind that it was intentional. No one could have made an honest mistake like that.  The recipe for beans and rice doesn’t even include charqui! 

One thing is for sure and there was no denying it, our palates and our stomachs had loved it. What’s more, no harm had come to any of us.  I suppose you could say that it was rather apt. The archaeological charqui had graced our hungry archaeologists’ stomachs. And we had proved to be fine examples of the efficiency of the ancient Peruvian custom of drying meat.

It seems it can last quite well - even for centuries - even when it stinks of death and decomposition.

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