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The llama farmer, Bolivia

The llama farmer, Bolivia
Celia and Julio
Jon Stibbs goes off the traditional epicurious track in search of the “Prince of the Andes”
 
For a large country, Bolivia has very few roads. Mine led out of the noisy chaos of market-day El Alto—La Paz’s adobe-and-breeze-block satellite city—and on to the Altiplano.

The Altiplano or high plane is a dry, flat expanse flanked by the snow-topped Andean Cordillera mountain ranges. Ultimately, the road passes Tiahuanaco’s Inca ruins and the lake of Titicaca before hitting Desaguadero. This border town is a smugglers’ favourite, where gas canisters are shuttled across the Peruvian border by tricycle.

In search of llamas, I had no need to leave the Bolivian side of this high-altitude desert. Not much appreciates this desiccated environment, 4,000 metres above sea level. But the stately llama is no ordinary animal—the “Prince of the Andes” thrives in this insalubrious environment.

My destination was the town of Laja. The occasional tourists do stop here—the seat of the original La Paz and home to a colonial church—but generally their coaches chug on.

Towns on the Altiplano are not known for their architectural riches and Laja is no exception. While not about to trouble UNESCO, it is relatively pretty. Brightly painted adobe buildings surround a plaza where potentially rabid dogs bask by the giant cacti. Laja has a claim to fame for foodies: its flat bread—made without fat or yeast—is celebrated. As I bought some, schoolchildren coyly giggled as they passed. Self-consciously, I wondered if my M&S chinos were really that amusing.

A walk through the outskirts of the dusty village took me to the arid farm of Celia Aruquipa. Here, her family, llamas, chickens, ducks, pigs and sheep, eke out an existence. The wind swept off the Andean peaks,
The llama farmer, Bolivia
Jonathan and Julio
threatening to take my cricket hat with it. It was cold, and this was in the midday sun.
Protecting the skin and eyes is essential here. It’s a chilli consumé of a sun—thin, watery rays leave only a painful burn but none of the life-enhancing warmth of lower altitudes.

It had snowed earlier in the week. Celia said she had been freezing as she fed the llamas: Julio, Blanco, Maria and her daughter Susi. The mutual affection between them and their Aymara owner was evident. While Julio nuzzled her, he was rather skittish with me. But then I was probably the first gringo he had ever seen.

Despite their friendship, these are not pets; they are an essential source of protein and income. Killing them is not easy for the family and Celia’s two young children are kept away from the process.

Saturday, 1st August, is the most auspicious day to perform a challa—the Aymara sacrifice to Pachamama, the earth goddess. A shaman will lead a ceremony, involving Ceibo (a brand of “drinking” alcohol), coca leaves and petals. Blanco will have his throat cut, blood drained and heart removed. If it is still beating when it hits the floor, the Aruquipas will have 12 months of good luck. 

The meat will be dried in the sun and salted. Then it will be consumed in rice or chuño soup. Chuño is potato that has been blackened and preserved in a days’ long process involving freezing outside at night and trampling out the moisture under foot during the day.
In this way, it remains edible throughout the freezing winter months. It could euphemistically be described as an “acquired taste”. Some chuño—known as tunta—is left in pools of water before being dried again and is rather more challenging.

Having bade farewell to Julio and Celia, I returned to La Paz. I paid my 2.5BS (20 pence) to the conductor—splendidly robed in a knitted purple tank top and orange shirt—and we were away. Twenty-one of us (no livestock), shared the 1.5 malodorous hours back in a suffering mobilidad (minibus). My thoughts were disrupted by the cholita—indigenous lady—sitting in front. As she sleepily fidgeted, her bowler hat kept falling off and landing in my lap.

As I handed it back yet again, I considered life up here on the Altiplano. Usually, it is bone dry under a dangerously strong sun with a cruel, biting wind. Occasionally, it is grey, freezing and wet with a cruel, biting wind. Either way, the weather is unremitting.

Back in the bowl that insulates La Paz, life is a little easier; even, occasionally, salubrious. Tonight, I was to dine at Luna Llena. This is no ordinary restaurant: owner, Juan Pablo Villalobos is an artist who trained as a chef in Spain. He returned to Bolivia to make Mediterranean-inspired food with local produce.
Sat next to a Bolivian Mona Lisa painted by Juan, his brother Jaime explained the family’s ethos to combine an art foundation, bar and restaurant in their ancestral home.

Having ordered the llama, we—my fiancée Susi and I—were given warm rolls and llajwa (pronounced yack-wah). It’s the spicy, tomatoey, ruby in the dust of Bolivia’s often-bland food. We were then delivered an amuse bouche of fried quinoa mini patties with a warm mango dip.

My griddled llama medallions arrived in a thick but delicate pineapple sauce, with a red quinoa risotto. The Andean supergrain makes a lighter risotto than conventional Arborio yet retains the rich creaminess.

So how was the llama? The meat is heavier in texture but lighter in colour than beef. It’s also incredibly lean and, I’m told, low in cholesterol.
Chef on the day, Tomas Alcon Nachos explained: “Llama is more exquisite than steak. To release its flavour, it must be hot and medium or well done; never a la inglesa.”

By some historical quirk, which I like to think sends French steak eaters here apoplectic, “a la inglesa” means rare.

Initially, the combination of pineapple and llama struck me as unlikely and rather unBolivian. However, the rich, red meat balanced the fruit well. Then I remembered how this week I had gone to see the snow on the lip of La Paz’s bowl and the surrounding mountains. On the way home, I had picked up a fresh tropical lowlands’ pineapple. So really, it was the perfect Bolivian combination.
The llama farmer, Bolivia
1 Comments | Add a comment

COMMENTS

Drew Sullivan
1
Good read. It´s not often I get brought along to the end of a 1000 word online travel piece. I´ll be back!

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