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OLLANTAYTAMBO, Peru – The marinated meat instantly sizzles as it is laid directly on the stones previously heated for more than an hour in an open fire.
More scorching-hot rocks are quickly laid on top of the cuts. A handful of broad beans and a bunch of fresh Andean herbs, leaves intact and still on the branch, are placed on top.
The whole shebang is then covered with a cotton cloth and, finally, buried under a dozen shovelfuls of soil.
It’s barbecue weather, with the mountain sun blazing down on us, and this small farm run by El Albergue — the oldest hotel in Peru’s Sacred Valley of the Incas — is as scenic a place as any to try “pachamanca”, an ancient pre-Colombian culinary tradition that remains a firm favorite today.
Further down the valley, 20,000 ft snowcapped peaks tower into the bright, blue sky. Beyond them lies the cloud forest and Machu Picchu, the legendary Inca citadel.
If your 2018 plans include a visit to the stunning country of Peru, you will want to include this in your must-do list.
For some eight millennia, archeologists say, people in the Andes have been cooking food this way, by burying it with searingly-hot stones.
The name means “earth pot” in the indigenous Quechua language. A predecessor, called “huatia”, uses only tubers and herbs. These days, though, the more hearty and carnivorous derivative that is pachamanca is most popular, particularly as a Sunday dish for all the family.
Now with Peru’s gastronomical boom attracting global acclaim, pachamanca, which usually involves a combination of beef, mutton, pork and alpaca, is in the spotlight and increasingly on the menu for the millions of foreign visitors who flock to the South American nation every year.
Ceviche, the marinated seafood salad, may be the national dish in Peru but it is also, of course, quintessentially coastal. The flagship recipe of Andean cuisine — the kind of food once enjoyed by the mountain-dwelling Incas— is pachamanca.
“More than most food, pachamanca is a highly social experience, something for people to gather around and enjoy together,” says Gabriel Velázquez, the pachamanca chef at El Albergue, which first opened its doors in 1925, just a decade or so after Hiram Bingham hacked his way through spectacular, precipitous jungles to Machu Picchu.
Velázquez also notes how various Pacific cultures, from New Zealand’s Maoris to natives of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, also cook food by burying it with hot stones, albeit in different ways — all techniques possibly dating back to before the development of ovens. But it is not clear whether they have a shared ancestor or were each developed independently.
The Peruvian version, however, is highly distinct, involving a range of local herbs, particularly “huacatay”, known in English as black mint, and its cousin, the punchy “chincho”.
Alpaca is also not the only archetypical Peruvian animal protein used; some pachamancas include that other pre-Colombian staple that is still highly popular here, the guinea pig, although this is usually not served to tourists unless they specifically request it. Some versions also involve
wrapping the meat in leaves, which seals in the flavor but makes the pachamanca more of a roast than a barbecue.
For tourists ordering it in a restaurant, there will usually be a minimum number of diners required, and the pachamanca often has to be requested the day before.
Before even being placed in the pachamanca, the meat is marinated in a blend of coarse local mountain salt, Peruvian chilies, cumin, peppers and more chincho.
Another crucial Peruvian element is the collection of potatoes and other exotic Andean tubers that are placed one layer of stones below the meat, to absorb the dripping fat.
But pachamanca also has a ritual, even spiritual element, and is popular in all kinds of festivities across the Peruvian Andes.
In fact it was so associated with traditional religious beliefs that the Spanish even banned it in the 16th Century for being akin to idolatry.
“It was part of the process of conquest, involving cultural conquest, in the same way that the Spaniards knocked down Inca holy places and then built churches on the foundations,” says Velázquez.
All of that history makes eating pachamanca a rich experience. But so does the food itself.
It cooks surprisingly quickly, in around 15 minutes, but all the different meats are both thoroughly done while remaining perfectly juicy. On the outside, each cut has been seared by the hot stones, giving it a delicious, light charred tang or, to put it another way, a kind of ancient Peruvian barbecue flavor.
The food is served al fresco, a few feet from the fire pit, with a dry red wine. Whether on the eve of a long day trip down the valley to visit Machu Picchu or on a rest day afterwards, pachamanca feels like the perfect way to complement a once-in-lifetime trip to this fabled corner of South America.