Peru: The Incan awakening
As our plane descends towards Lima, the windows fill with a familiar sight.
The city is somewhere under a brown-grey haze called panza de burro - donkey's belly - that can stubbornly hover all day.
Hola, Peru. It has been 20 years but some things never change.
The atmospheric fuzz might be the same but one thing that has changed since I was last here is Peru's culinary reputation. Suddenly, it is one of the planet's gastronomic hot spots.
Joining Intrepid Travel's test run of an 11-day food adventure launching in June, I wonder how long I will keep my bad culinary memories to myself.
As soon as my group gathers at our hotel in upscale Miraflores, I blurt it out: not only were my Peruvian food experiences less than glowing, the dish I never want to eat again is lomo saltado, a beef stir-fry served up at every turn while trekking to Machu Picchu.
Our guide, Lucho, gasps. I have just insulted a culinary institution. Things have changed, he says. And the best way to learn how is to go out and eat.
Ask Peruvians what has happened to transform the country's gastronomic reputation and the answer is twofold. Firstly, politics loom large. In 1980, the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla group, declared war on the state. Tens of thousands died before the civil conflict ended two decades later. People had better things to think about than new ways with quinoa.
Secondly, chef Gaston Acurio is credited with elevating Peru's cuisine to haute status, instilling pride in a national bounty that includes more than 2500 types of potato and 55 types of corn.
The Cordon Bleu-trained chef opened his Miraflores fine diner Astrid y Gaston in 1994 and, little by little, foie gras and tartare gave way to ceviche and saltado. Today, Acurio heads a global restaurant empire. His original Miraflores restaurant has just reopened inside a 17th-century San Isidro hacienda as Astrid y Gaston Casa Moreyra.
For just a few soles, it is possible to experience the Acurio touch. We breakfast at Tanta, his casual eatery in Miraflores. Tropical juice blends and spinach quiche are tasty, although a plump empanada would be a more iconic choice.
Tagging along is Alejandro Saravia - a Lima-raised chef who will open a Peruvian restaurant in Melbourne mid-year. He is here to finesse the tour's gastronomic details, such as lunching at the Chorrillos fish market south of Miraflores.
While Saravia oversees on-the-spot fish filleting for a ceviche, we admire the pelicans waiting for scraps and a man running ice to a boat without ever flagging. Elsewhere, fishermen mend nets and slick bright paint on to their wooden boats.
Simple cevicherias huddle near the market: we settle into Florcita's to learn how to make the marinated fish dish. Our seafood lunch is washed down with beer and bottles of Inca Kola - a neon-yellow soft drink similar to creaming soda.
Intrepid's food tour mixes casual dining with street-food strolls, cooking demonstrations and market grazing. Several dinners are included; on other nights, travellers can head to places such as Restaurant Huaca Pucllana - a formal 400-seater in Miraflores parked next to a dramatically lit adobe pyramid thought to date from AD500.
As for the perfect dessert, I fall for a street snack called mazamorra morada - a fruit-filled jelly made from purple corn. A fellow traveller falls harder for arroz zambito. Loosely translated as tanned rice pudding, its caramel colour comes from chancaca, an unrefined sugar.
Before leaving Lima, we breakfast lightly, for we must leave room for chicharrones. Swinging off the highway at the surfing mecca of El Silencio, we pull up at Sarita - the kind of restaurant you would barely notice if it were not for other buses announcing a reason to stop.
That reason is the chicharron - and to describe it as a mere pork sandwich is an understatement. A French bread roll is stuffed with sweet potato, slow-fried pork and Spanish onion soaked in saltwater and lightly dressed. I should not have two, but I do.
Further south, we buy pan serranito - bread studded with juicy olives - and lunch includes "dry soup": pasta cooked by the evaporation method.
Our next appointment is with Peru's pisco master, Johnny Schuler, at his Ica distillery. Hacienda La Caravedo is quite the spread: Peruvian paso horses prance past right on cue before we tour the state-of-the-art distillery. We trail Schuler, tasting different piscos straight from the vats. He is a larger-than-life TV personality who slaps pisco on his cheeks as though it is aftershave. "Call me gringo loco," he laughs.
Each night, we retire to the elegant Hotel Vinas Queirolo, where there is a swimming pool, vineyards instead of lawn and ancient Incan works on the walls.
I am astonished at Cusco's transformation. Of course, Starbucks and McDonald's have arrived, yet this Incan city, perched 3400 metres above sea level, is as charming as ever. The mini-bus that collects us from the airport somehow negotiates the tiny streets of the San Blas neighbourhood to deposit us at our hotel above the main plaza.
We explore the Sacred Valley, stopping to feed llamas and alpacas at the Awana Kancha community project, where weavers are at work.
At Pisac, we sample the flat empanadas, so different from their coastal cousins. Cheese, tomato and onion is the traditional filling, but the bakers also offer the universal Hawaiian combo: ham, pineapple and cheese.
At Chichubamba, we grind beans into chocolate and slurp chicha, a corn-based brew, at gregarious Celia's place. After playing a coin-tossing game (Celia wins), it is time to lunch on cuy - guinea pig.
It is unsettling to watch them running around a pen out the back, then being presented with a roasted one with a chilli clamped between its teeth. I make the mistake of choosing the flank: the skin is tough as leather. "You want the leg - that's the juiciest part," Lucho advises. My verdict? Like chicken. And once was enough.
In Ollantaytambo, we work up an appetite climbing Incan ruins before tucking into a pachamanca: a meal cooked in an underground oven. Marinated meats, potatoes, corn, plantains and huacatay - Peruvian black mint - are layered between sheets of oiled paper over hot rocks. Once covered with sacks and soil, the steam cannot escape. Darkness falls as we wait, but the results are delectable.
Returning to Cusco, we think the pachamanca cannot be topped. But a cooking class in the hills above Cusco is something else. The amiable owners of Rupa Wasi Tree House restaurant in Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu run cooking classes at their restaurant and here. Slurping pisco sours we have shaken ourselves, we chop, blend and grind sauces spiced with rocoto, yellow and mirasol chillis.
The sauces crown a selection of causa - intricate sushi-like creations using a potato base instead of rice. We stir a creamy quinoa risotto; bacon-wrapped alpaca loins sizzle on a barbecue. Over lunch, we hear how the price of quinoa has soared in Peru as the world demands more and more of the Andean super-grain.
The official trip includes Machu Picchu, but this group of food-tour guinea pigs is due home. With my mind thoroughly changed about Peruvian cuisine - I even begrudgingly try lomo saltado again and like it - I cock an ear at the airport when a New Zealander complains about her meals in Peru.
"I thought the food was supposed to be amazing," she says. "It was nice along the coast with all that seafood, but in Cusco it was just tough old alpaca."
Saravia and I exchange knowing smiles. If only she had known where to go and what to order, she would have enjoyed the best meals of her life.
The writer travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel and LAN Airlines.
FIVE UNMISSABLE DISHES
CEVICHE With Peru's bountiful seafood and its citizens' love of chilli and citrus, many consider this the dish that defines Peru. Saravia's favourite fish for ceviche are lenguado (we call it sole), conchas negras (black clams) and pejerrey (a white fish similar to King George whiting).
EMPANADA Saravia's favourite is the plump coastal empanada (the highlands version is more a folded flatbread) stuffed with the traditional filling of beef, olives, currants and egg. Modern fusion fillings include mushrooms and artichoke hearts.
CHICHARRON Layer a French bread roll with grilled sweet potato and juicy pork (slow-fried in oil for an hour), then top with lightly cured and dressed sliced Spanish onions.
AJI DE GALLINA Chicken slathered with a spicy, bright-yellow, creamy sauce made with the country's popular aji amarillo chillis.
PICARONES These pumpkin doughnuts, a colonial adaptation of Spanish bunuelos, come slathered in molasses syrup; look out for them at street stalls.
TOURING THERE Intrepid's 11-day Real Food Adventure Peru costs from A$2965 (NZ$3182) a person twin-share from Lima. See intrepidtravel.com.
MORE INFORMATION peru.travel.
Sydney Morning Herald