CustomsFood & DrinksTraditional Food

Growing Food and Culture in Cuzco

Flor de papa

In Cuzco food still goes right from field to pot, although increasingly people rely on middlemen and markets in the city.  Nevertheless, even in the city, many people have what are called “chacras”, plots of land for food crops, as gardens around their homes just like in the countryside.  In them they can grow potatoes, quinoa, fava beans, barley, tarwi (lupine seeds), and other crops.  Around them is a whole culture.

For example, people can not just till them, they must make an offering to the earth to thank her and get her good will for the products they sow.  For the offering they bring coca leaves, wheat, barley. and other natural foods which are burned for the earth.

What is planted and when it is harvested vary according to time and place.  In the cultivation of potatoes we find four basic processes of production.

  1. Tarpui, the sowing which is carried out in October.
  2. Chacmiar, opening the irrigation of the field.
  3. Jallpiar, the turning of the earth.
  4. The harvest.

    Crops in Bloom
    Crops in Bloom

In rural areas where people grow food for their own consumption as well as to take to market, the owners of the fields get together to share the tasks of farming.   They work practically from dawn to dusk.  As a result, they take with them a “refreshment” for the workers.  Generally they are all neighbors or family members who help each other out.  This is called ayni where people just help each other without thinking of money.

The normal refreshment is boiled chuño (freeze-dried potatoes), mote (boiled dried kernels of corn), cheese, meat, coca leaves, and the energizing chicha (both from barley or corn).

The common meal is laid out on cloths on the ground while everyone sits around it.  Then they dig in with their hands while chatting and laughing.

Barley Field above Cuzco
Barley Field above Cuzco

In the potato harvest, or digging up of potatoes, which is carried out in May, the owner of the fields performs the traditional huatia (potatoes and other root crops baked in a earthen oven made on the spot) accompanied with meat or cheese.  After the oven is collapsed, and the baked tubers pulled from the earth and ashes, everyone gathers round to share companionship and give thanks to the harvest for its bounty.

The owner of the field also selects some three to twelve of the biggest potatoes and ties them with yarn from sheep’s wool.  They are kept in storage with coca leaves (k’intu) and accompanied by chicha.  They are kept with the produce as a symbol of a good harvest.

Corn Harvest Drying in the Sacred Valley
Corn Harvest Drying in the Sacred Valley

When the harvest is finished the owner of the field gives everyone a portion of it to take home since it was through their labor that the potatoes were brought out of the earth.  This is a continuation of ayni, which is a very important value and reality.

While people do garden in the city of Cuzco and in the Huatanay valley in which it sits, the majority of fields are found in Cuzco’s Sacred Valley where the best produce grows.  There they produce the best corn as well as a great set of varieties of corn, more than two hundred.

Corn Fields and River by Pisac
Corn Fields and River by Pisac

When the corn is ready for the harvest, or even when they have harvested it and the ears are all gathered together, people select twelve of the best ears to make k’intus of each ear wrapped with coca leaves and tied with yarn from sheep’s wool around the middle of the twelve ears making them into the form of a cross on the ground.  The the corn and k’intus are laid on the floor of the grainery, in each corner and on the floor.  The rest of the harvest is piled on top of them.

Once done, everyone takes a drink of sugar cane alcohol called trago to celebrate their happiness at a good harvest.

Blooming Fava Beans
Blooming Fava Beans

The harvest is kept in a grainery together with the k’íntus of corn and coca that represent the twelve months of the year in which the food will be eaten.  It will also be used to feed people who come to work the fields in the coming year.   Once the twelve months have gone and the produce consumed, the year is finished with the eating of the k’intus so that people realize their importance as they begin the next harvest.

In the case of barley there are only two processes.

  1. The sowing in December
  2. The harvest in May.

Just as with potatoes and other products people practice ayni, giving thanks to the earth, and fraternizing with one another.

Fields in the Sacred Valley
Fields in the Sacred Valley

All of these products make their way to the popular markets of our city.  Women from the countryside bring them to the city early in the morning in woven bags called costales that are filled with recently harvested produce.  Most of this food is raised to satisfy the needs of the farmers and the residents of Cuzco, but increasingly people do business by exporting their harvest to other lands.

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