It is difficult to live close to the mountain gods and Shane Mitchell doesn’t have a clue, despite finishing his chapter on Peru in his much lauded cookbook and travel book—Far Afield: Rare Food Encounters from Around the World—with this idea.
Ostensibly, Mitchell goes up into the high mountains above the sacred valley to look for one farmer who is one of Peru’s “most celebrated potato farmers.” By doing so he sees to go to the root of Peruvian cuisine, not what its world-renowned chefs make but the ingredient that is is at its base and has since traveled and changed the world.
But this is a culinary travel writer’s slight of hand. Undoubtedly he went up high and spoke to a well known farmer. The widely praised photographs of his book witness to this. Dressed in romanticism and verve, as well as snideness, Mitchell’s prose wears ostensible facts like silver buttons of verisimilitude.
Unfortunately, he makes up quotes and often gets his facts wrong. Just one example, he overstates by more than 1000 feet the altitude of the pass called the Abra Laguna Azul. The same is true of so many statements in his brief story of his ascent to the farmer’s home, what he rudely calls a hut, that hardly a paragraph would be uncorrected were we to go line by line.
More importantly, Mitchell goes to the high mountains where thousands of varieties of potatoes are cultivated, talks of eating them, and then gives us recipes for coastal, Creole foods including lomo saltado which can be found in every Peruvian restaurant in the world.
He slights and ignores the cuisine of the highlands with its richness of meaning and of flavors, although he does give a recipe for the chicken soup, the caldo de gallina widely offered in Cusco. Mitchell perpetuates a colonialism of the coast over the highlands, and of foreigners over natives.
The potato farmers, such as Julio Hancco, whom he visits, have been fighting to have their produce valued in a country where Burger King or KFC has more urban importance up until recently, with the hard work of Gaston Acurio and other well known Peruvian chefs, than does the local produce and cuisine. The fight for recognizing native potatoes appears in the article as an out-of-date calendar on the wall, even if it is one of the most important responses to social change in the mountains above Cusco’s sacred Valley.
Despite, Mitchell’s nod to the hundred’s of varieties of potatoes raised in the area, their history, recipes,and culinary culture remain absent. The people of Cusco, in the capital city, provincial towns, and rural communities struggle to have their ancient and modern products and cuisine recognized and valued and Mitchell misses that.
At Cusco Eats we have written much, over the last years, on this culture and this cuisine and recommend to you just a small selection of articles to begin to fill the gap left by Mitchell and other much ballyhooed food writers.