PACHACAMAC — The lanky older man in his broad-brimmed straw hat is flanked by lush greenery as he tells how he and his wife created an organic and self-sustaining paradise in this remote area of coastal Peru, all powered by guinea pig excrement. Or as Ulises Moreno pronounces it, “shat.”
The young staffers of Taranta restaurant in Boston’s North End chuckle a little nervously, as they listen to Moreno, an agronomist with a doctorate from Cornell University, explain how he developed varieties of potatoes, corn, beans, and fruits, and enriched the land without fungicides, pesticides, or other chemicals.
“We are millionaires not in money but in the high capacity of work,” he says of this 35-year effort.
The nine staff members, who range from Ricardo Juarez, a 38-year-old Salvadoran cook, to Molly Hubert, a 22-year-old waitress, are on an intensive workshop to learn about Peruvian food and culture, led by Taranta’s chef-owner Jose Duarte, a native of Peru. Duarte’s cooking at Taranta combines ingredients from his homeland with techniques of Southern Italy; it’s a fusion enriched by his interests in sustainability. A lot at the restaurant depends on the staff members’ knowledge and ability to explain to customers the unusual cuisine and Duarte’s commitment to recycling cooking oil and other things and saving water.
Peru is often thought of as Machu Picchu with a side of Lima fine dining, but there’s much more. Over five days, the waitstaff, cooks, and an assistant manager will learn about the fruits and vegetables of Peru in a visit to a colorful Lima market; tour pre-Incan ruins south of the city; taste the potent brandy, pisco, straight from vats at the Porton distillery near Ica; explore ceviches along the coast; gaze at catacombs in a Lima monastery; and eat at a new restaurant where the ceiling is made of recycled bottles. My husband, Steve, and I tag along for the chance to see a Peru often overlooked by tourists.
But first the staff will eat cuy or guinea pig, baked over hot stones in an earthen oven. Even the most tentative try the cuy, and we agree it’s tasty, though not as good as the vegetables or smoky chicken. Then it’s off to see the hard-working guinea pigs squeaking and scurrying in their pens. “How are the guinea pigs dispatched?” assistant manager Taylor Choquet asks a young assistant. The woman gives a quick swipe across her throat.
The guinea pigs’ effluent is siphoned off and transformed into methane gas, which powers the farm’s electricity and water pumps, Moreno explains. Fertilizer made from excrement is sold, as is guinea pig meat, vegetables, and fruits such as blackberries, lucuma, and strawberries. Moreno’s wife passes out little cups of ices. We love the ice made of lucuma, or egg fruit, with its luscious, almost caramel flavor.
Traveling through the coastal region of Peru reveals a fascinating tableau of desert edging into surfer beaches, with vistas that end in soaring mountains topped by snow. The traveler can revel in the sophistication of Lima, ride dune buggies careening at terrifying angles over sand dunes at the Huacachina Oasis, and taste more varieties of peppers and potatoes than most Americans would have thought possible. But over and over again, Duarte and fellow Peruvians speak of environmental pressures, of the diminishing glaciers that provide water for the highlands all the way to the coast, and of foods and traditions in danger of dying out.
An afternoon lunch at the beach is devoted to ceviche, the ubiquitous dish of Peru. Spread out are platters of octopus with a creamy sauce; fish ceviche with aji de amarillo sauce (a spicy yellow pepper), and rocoto sauce (a red, even spicier pepper). There is a platter with fried squid topped with tiny Peruvian scallops in their shells with the bright pink roe attached, and another of tiradito, finely sliced fish resembling Japanese sushi. A chaufa dish of fried rice reflects the Peruvian obsession with Chinese cuisine, and a platter of causa, crabmeat encased in a layer of pureed potatoes, is a Peruvian favorite.
Chef Duarte explains ingredients and how the seafood and the condiments are so unique to this climate. He shows a large red rocoto pepper that is transformed into a vibrant sauce; explains tigre de leche, or tiger’s milk, the milky mixture of fish essences and lime juices that cure the fish, and is often sipped as a separate course; and how special sweet onions are used to enhance the fresh seafood. Soon the lecture is replaced by contented sighs as everyone digs in.
By now the staff members have settled into the routine: a tour, a talk, a few pisco sours, and a lot of eating. At Mercato Surquillo in Lima, the staffers wander through city market stalls inspecting vegetables, cookware, chickens, offal, medicinal herbs, and much more, as Duarte gathers exotic fruits and vegetables. Duarte shows them lucuma, available only in pulp form in Boston, so even the Taranta cooks haven’t seen the large, bulbous fruit.
At a nearby restaurant, La Red, the staff members sip mango piscos as Duarte offers tastings of aromatic limon, milder in flavor than lemon or lime; tumbo from the passionfruit family, used for curing; fragrant mangoes from the north of Peru, sancho tomate, an acidic tomato-like fruit; and chirimoya, or dragonfruit, with a scaly skin, an intensely fragrant aroma, and a coconut-like flavor. After more ceviche and meat courses, the staff members stagger out of the bus to tour Lima center, the Monasterio de San Francisco with its catacombs filled with bones, and the square filled with Peruvians selling drawings, weavings, and trinkets.
Later there’s a visit for more pisco sours to dimly-lighted El Cordano, one of the oldest bars in Lima, and butifarros, roast ham stuffed in French loaves, traditional bar food in Peru, and finally a visit to Cosme, a newly opened restaurant that combines elegant dishes with a recycled décor and housemade herbal sodas.
Everyone is in a food daze, but the lessons Duarte wanted to drive home show in the conversation. To waiter Nadir Farhir, who says of a rocoto pepper, “I never knew they were so big,” the experiences will make his interactions with Taranta customers more meaningful. To assistant manager Choquet, the passionate determination of Ulises Moreno to grow organic illuminates the Peruvian commitment to the environment. To Duarte, this will enrich his restaurant life. “I’ve exposed my staff to things we serve in a real, tangible way. “ For all of us, it’s culinary and cultural tourism at its best.
Alison Arnett can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: An earlier version of a photo caption in this story had the incorrect location for a restaurant in a photo caption. Taranta is a North End restaurant.