Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The eleven widows of Bischongo

To all of you who may have been overindulging a bit over the holidays. Here’s some more ….. food.

 fig 1 

Lima could just well be shaping up to become the gourmet capital of the world. Peruvian cuisine is nothing short of spectacular. Once you’ve eaten ceviche or papa a la huancaina or carapulcra in any one of the city’s growing raft of elegant, homespun or funky (take your pick) restaurants, I guarantee you will have been spoiled for pretty much any other place on earth.

The last decade has seen something of a food revolution in Peru.  There are even rumours that one of the country’s most renowned celebrity chefs (Gaston Acurio) may run for president in the next general election.

But this story takes place long before fanciful creations such as deconstructed causa or octopus in purple coal made their way onto the menu. A time when foam and sand were usually to be found on the beach, rather than on your plate.

For the longest time I wasn’t able to locate Bischongo on the map, but then when I dug a bit deeper researching for this post, I realized that it was because Hernan spells it differently. I also discovered a theory that says the name Vischongo comes from the Quechua words Wischuq Soncco meaning generous or giver. I don’t know if that’s true but I hope so. It fits this story perfectly. There are definitely none of your avant garde, molecular morsels here. Hernan describes a late night extravaganza, complete with all the elements I've come to associate with a typical Peruvian family food celebration: hospitality, creativity and the need for a digestive tract that can go the distance. 

The eleven widows of Bischongo
In which the ladies of a small Andean town manifest their fervent belief that the way to an explorer’s heart is through his stomach.

Vischongo - Ayacucho
All our archeological expeditions were undertaken on an amazingly tiny budget, and naturally that required a treasurer who could perform miracles. 

If only they were all like that, what a wonderful place Peru would be. But the stringent budget and the harsh discipline it required were not easy for some to bear.  Most new expedition members wore very long faces by the end of the first day, and by the end of the first week many of them had started to grumble and find excuses for leaving. 

We never did it for the money. Like Don Quijote we all did it in the true spirit of adventure. We had a genuine desire to discover the marvels of our country and a passion for archeology.  We had to be hardy, often sleeping rough under the stars wherever we happened to be when night fell. We obviously had to keep our strength up for the hard work that went with each campaign, but I think it’s safe to say without any exaggeration that with regards to our diet we were living examples of frugality; except for the few instances where we were required to consume all of our provisions before they went off.

In 1942 there were seven of us on the expedition to the Upper Urubamba. We had already endured several days of hard travel and privation before it was time to leave the main Ayacucho to Andahuaylas road and set off towards the summit of Quilcapite.

It was early morning of the seventeenth of July. The sun had only just risen, but the Governor of Bischongo was already waiting for us, horses saddled, to lead us to his jurisdiction. In spite of the sun’s strengthening rays and the thickness of our ponchos, there was a numbing cold up there on the altiplano that cut right through us. When we began to descend, following the course of a small rivulet, and the sun showed that it was approaching noon, we took a welcome break to rest a while and eat.
Mejía Xesspe, our sainted treasurer and quartermaster, began to unpack some of the provisions. We stood by licking our lips in anticipation of the victuals he would furnish to assuage our growing hunger. Unfortunately the size of the diminutive white bundle he brought out caused us to sigh in disappointment.
There was cancha, one piece of charqui, a piece of ham and a small cheese; all that to feed eight hungry men. A sardonic smile passed momentarily across the face of the governor when he saw Mejía Xesspe dividing out the rations in the little cloth. I don’t know what he was smiling about; I certainly didn’t find anything amusing.

After devouring our frugal lunch we spent all the blessed afternoon on horseback. We weren’t used to so much riding and had to dismount from time to time just to stretch our legs and ease our aching bones.  The last golden brilliance of the sun was falling over the horizon’s peaks by the time we reached our destination - the famous Bischongo.
The little place looked cheerful enough, but it was deserted, as quiet as the grave. The governor led us toward the verger’s house. Tired as dogs, we all waited there in the hallway whilst he busied himself, going in one door and coming out another, running around all over the place in search of the verger who was to open up some of the parish rooms for us to stay in for the night. By now we were starving. The very least we could hope for was a modest country ‘patachi’ which was the local preparation of flour, peas and bacon boiled up with a few herbs and spices. Or maybe some potatoes with hot chili peppers.

Pachamanca potatoes - photograph by Renzo Tasso
Tello sat quietly on the porch’s stone bench, wearing such an expression of fatigue and hunger that he was barely recognizable.
Some of us decided to save time by leaving our things where they were and going to look for something to eat right away. It was by now getting quite dark and the town already seemed half asleep, but we hoped we might be able to buy something. After a brief search through the deserted streets it was obvious we weren’t even going to be able to find a piece of bread. On our return we were heartened somewhat by the reappearance of the governor.

Peruvian yellow ajíes
photograph by Enrique Castro-Mendívil
The bad news, however, was that unfortunately the verger was nowhere to be found. We would have to sleep in the hallway, each squashed up face to face and wrapped in our horse blankets.  

Frankly at this stage it didn’t matter much to us. Days before at the Huaca Urara hacienda at the Huari site near Ayacucho we had slept like the village pigs, some of us leaning up against a rock, the others in a type of stone corral encircling a makeshift bed of straw. 
At that precise moment, the only thing we wanted to hear from the governor was what there was to eat, because by this time our stomachs were so empty we were almost seeing stars. 

Finally... unspeakable joy... he informed us dinner was about to be served. We were like men possessed. The simlpest kind of soup or stew, even if it had been olluco, would have made us swoon with delight, and in a trice we had seated ourselves around the huge table, covered with an equally enormous plastic tablecloth.

“Señor Doctor,” the governor addressed Tello, at the same time glancing around at his hungry troop of men. “The food is ready. I do hope you will forgive us our modest supper.”
“Please, don’t worry,” Tello replied courteously.  “We have come prepared to pay all our costs; we really have no intention of putting you to any inconvenience.   Señor Mejía there will settle up with you for our food as well as the rental of the animals. As far as our supper is concerned, please don’t put yourself to any trouble. We are all working men here; a little cancha or some potatoes with chili is absolutely fine for us.”
“Oh no doctor,” the governor countered rapidly “Certainly not. I have orders from the Prefect of Ayacucho himself to attend to you in the very best manner we can. You archeologists are not just anyone. You and your studies are providing our children with their history. Only by knowing their roots can they learn and appreciate their true value.”
“Very well,” the anthropologist acknowledged. “Then at least Señor Govenor, I hope you will let us pay for the animals and a small something for the person who has prepared our food,”

fig 2
“The animals yes, because their owners are poor, but the food no, doctor. We couldn’t possibly …” 

And so saying, the governor exited hurriedly, calling out instructions in Quechua, "Micuyta apamuy! Micuyta apamuy!" (bring the food). 

We had no idea of the surprise that was in store for us. We waited, expxecting to see some kind of flavourless mess, served on earthenware plates. But then, out from the kitchen, which we had presumed to be empty, appeared a 'waiter' with a large ceramic bowl, filled to the brim with a delicious looking vermicelli and green pea soup. As soon as he placed it in front of Tello, our spirits lifted.  And when ours arrived we scoffed it down like wolves. 

There was a short delay and the governor appeared again, to go into the kichen and order the second dish: it was a huge tortilla, enough to fill the bottom of the pan an inch thick and served on a small mountain of perfectly cooked fluffy rice. If we didn't throw ourselves upon the plate, it was only because of Tello's sternly restraining glance.

We ate without speaking, whilst the governor appeared from time to time, obviously pleased to see the way in which we were enjoying our meal, and we suddenly understood the reason for his earlier amusement when he had seen Mejía Xesspe rationing out our lunch
After such a huge tortilla and so much rice, we assumed the only thing left to serve was our tea. We didn’t expect more, but soon there arrived another dish. This was a wonderful succulent lamb stew to which we happily did the honours, although we had to loosen our belts a little. Pedro Rojas Ponce and Huapaya Manco both asked for some water and the  governor, still smiling, went to get water for everyone. Tello took advantage of his absence to turn to us all. “Look boys, I can’t eat another thing, whoever wants more, help yourselves from my plate. Here it is, just leave me a little so that the governor doesn’t think I’ve licked it clean.”

“Pass it to me”, called out the skinniest of our team, extending a bony arm. He always did have an impressive appetite that one. You would’ve thought he had hollow legs.

photo Alfonso Zavala ©PromPeru

But yet another surprise awaited us. When the governor reappeared he was followed promptly by a boy loaded down with bottles of cola. But my God what bottles of cola. They were the big black bottles like those you usually find beer in! They left them on the table and disappeared again.

“Now that’s enough,” ordered the scientist, when he saw the skinny chap preparing to open them all.  “Just open one. We’ll all serve ourselves from that and leave the rest. These are poor people and God knows how many sacrifices they’ve had to make to buy all this. Do you realize that to buy this cola they’ve probably had to make a two and a half day trip to Ayacucho, and then the same back again?
“No Doctor,” we all protested. “This lot has got plenty. And besides, didn’t you hear him say the Prefect has told them to give it to us?”
“I have already said we will open one bottle. Haven’t you got enough water? Prefects … what do they know?  How can they possibly understand the circumstances of these people?”
We continued eating in silence. We chewed slowly because in fact we were all feeling rather full, the only thing we needed now was some nice hot tea to wash it all down with.
It wasn’t long before the governor showed up again.
“Señor Governor,” said the anthropologist. “Would it be possible to have something hot to drink? Maybe you have some chamomile tea or such.”
“But of course doctor, that comes after the final course.”
“The final course? You mean there’s more?”
“Oh yes, doctor, there are a few more dishes to serve.”
Tello demurred as tactfully as possible.
“But governor; you really have already provided us with a veritable feast. It has been wonderful but I beg you I can’t eat another thing. Our sincere thanks and compliments to the cook.  I don’t think I’ve ever eaten anything quite so delicious, but I fear if they serve any more we shall all burst.”
“Well, let me see what I can do. I am going to see if they can stop.”
He left the room and we began to laugh. This ‘I’m going to see if they can stop’ struck us as very funny.  Nevertheless he was gone so long that we began to wonder what on earth was going on in the kitchen. We could hear hushed voices and apparent protests but, since everything was in Quechua we couldn’t understand a word.
Finally the ‘waiter’ appeared again, but it wasn’t tea he was carrying but a large dish of ‘pocte’ a local delicacy of peas and rice served in a rich cheese sauce. This was now the fourth course, and the only influence the governor appeared to have been able to exert over the cook was that at least it wasn’t overflowing the sides of the platter. It was of a more normal size such as any restaurant might serve.
The only one who escaped was Tello, who sat back and confined himself to muttering encouragement as we half heartedly attacked the fourth course. We battled on bravely, not wishing to insult the governor or his cook, until the whole thing was finished.
But there was no respite. Next came the fifth course  -  yet another enormous tortilla!
This was ridiculous.  We began to laugh. Tello, on the other hand, was deadly serious.
 “Look Mejía,” he said suddenly, “it seems that the governor is not having much success stopping them sending more dishes. What if there’s even more to come? You’d better go yourself to the kitchen and speak to the cook. Tell them that as much as we’d love to continue eating because it’s all so delicious, we simply can’t because if we do we’re going to burst. Much rather they serve us some nice hot tea or a herbal tisane if they have any. Spin them a good speech Mejía, at least you can make yourself understood in Quechua.”
And hard as it may be to believe, we somehow struggled through the tortilla, sincerely hoping that that would be an end to it and we would finally get our tea.

Quinoa fields in Vischongo - photograph by Flor Ruiz©PromPeru
The kitchen was only thirty metres away, on the opposite side of the patio, but Mejía Xesspe was taking a terribly long time in there, and we had begun to think something strange had befallen him, when eventually he reappeared. His air of defeat didn’t bode well.
“Doctor,” he began slowly. “Uuf … there are still five more dishes out there to come before the tea! Here’s the situation. There are eleven widows all sitting in a circle in the kitchen. Each one of them has prepared a special dish and no one wants to be snubbed. They say that it would be an insult if we refused any one of them. The governor is frankly not much of a match for the widows. He told me that this is a local custom; that’s why he gathered them all together here in the first place.”
“But Mejía you can’t be serious! Couldn’t you explain to them that we simply physically cannot eat any more? Good God man… we’re going to explode. Surely they can understand that.” 
“They just won’t listen doctor. I’ve tried but I can’t make them see reason. It’s offensive to them for us not to eat what they’ve prepared for us. Look at least, I managed to settle them down a bit by talking to them about how we have to be fit for our work. That was the only way I could persuaded them to limit it to two more widow’s gifts. So there’s just one more dish …. And then the tea!”
“But that’s still six dishes. Do you really think you can take any more?” The archeologist was finally beginning to see the funny side.
We groaned in anticipation of yet another course.
“Come now boys,” continued Tello, “there’s only one way forward here: if you can’t demolish this last dish, you run the risk of having to walk from here to Vilcashuaman tomorrow. If we insult the good will of these people, we may not be able to count on their further help, and then the fun will really start. We may be left without animals; perhaps without breakfast or lunch.” 

It was a fair supposition. So when the sixth dish arrived, a plate full of dressed cabbage, we continued on heroically, our minds fixed firmly on the prospect of a ten to twelve kilometer hike, complete with full equipment on our the backs.

At last it was all gone and we waited patiently for the tea or chamomile water or whatever, but for the love of God some kind of hot drink to aid our tortured digestion.
Along came the waiter; this time carrying a tray piled high with … biscuits!
 Peruvian caramel filled alfajores
photograph by Miguel Etchepare
taken from The Art of Peruvian Cuisine

“These, surely we can keep for morning,” one of us muttered hopefully. “We will do no such thing” insisted Tello “We will not insult these good people.”

The biscuits gone, (and I don’t know how we did it) finally there was one last surprise. A series of one litre jugs all elaborately decorated with flowers was brought in from the kitchen. Ah at last – the tea.
Tea? It was a thick dense hot chocolate made with the very best full cream milk!
And we drank it!
The fact that we did not explode I think proves that the true explorer is blessed with a bombproof stomach. And would you believe it, even though we could barely walk after rising from the table, even though we felt as if we were full of lead, after such a long day we fell into bed and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep all of us.
Our valiant efforts left only four widows with their stews intact and I challenge any of them, particularly the seven that we obliged, to accuse us of ungrateful stomachs. Even now, whenever I’m hungry, I can’t help but remember the eleven widows of Bischongo.

 a selection of fresh and dried chiles
photograph - Miguel Etchepare
The Art of Peruvian Cuisine 

fig 1  : Gaston Acurio conducts an orchestra of Peruvian suppliers and chefs at the annual Mistura food fair, picture taken from an article in the Portuguese Sunday supplement magazine Público 7 Oct. 2012 

fig 2  : Carapulcra -  Peruvian dried potato stew, photograph by Miguel Etchepare from The Art of Peruvian Cuisine 

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