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Colombia: Bogota bakes

Colombia: Bogota bakes
Image: Julie Reuter
Surely the foodie’s greatest joy on arriving in any new place is discovering the local gastronomy. The guidebooks are right, landmark museums and galleries can be a great source of culture. My tip is to make a beeline for them and, making the appropriate noises, nip round.
Then, and this is the important bit, hit the invariably excellent restaurants for a taste of what the country is really all about.
The major attractions are mainly around the Séptima (Bogota's answer to Oxford Street). Sundays are best for exploring when the road is closed to traffic and open for pottering by bicycle and mincing by roller blade.

For a less-energetic jaunt, the road also offers dozens of delicious bargain treats, mostly catering to Colombians’ love of baked pastry and maize.
Where the thoroughfare skirts the Parque Nacional I set a cheesy precedent for the day with my first and favourite snack - the arepa de chocolo. Melted cheese oozed out between two delicious hot, smoky unleavened patties. It’s a moveable feast, as the baker built the wood-fire clay oven attached to the silver tricycle herself.
To Colombians, the addition of cheese is as unquestionable as a bonus to a banker; separation is beyond comprehension, no matter how utterly inappropriate it may seem to anyone else.
The combination of saltiness and sweet is beloved by Rolos, as more simply Bogotaians call themselves. They devour cheese with everything: fruit salad, hot chocolate, ice cream, arequipe (caramel-like sauce)… I’ve learnt not to be surprised.
This eccentricity is partly explained by Colombia’s favourite cheeses. No Stinking Bishops, they’re dairy Coldplays: there’s really nothing to dislike—grated, they are more salty texture
Colombia: Bogota bakes
Image: Julie Reuter
than flavour.

Along from my flat in the La Macarena district is a fabulous burger restaurant, La Hamburgueseria. The first time I ordered a cheeseburger, I was offered campesino (peasant) or doble crema (double cream) cheese. I asked which has more flavour. “Neither”, came the disappointing but honest reply.
After arepa de chocolo, our next snack stop was for a pan de bonos: delicious, soft dough bubbles with either cheese or guava jam blended into their centre. They’re widely available but my favourites are from a tiny café/fruit shop—they only bake pan de bonos and mini pan de bonos, so they’re invariably fresh and exquisite.
Past the vast cinema posters and fishing rod salesman, who make an unlikely trade on the pavement, is 18th street. A left towards the looming forested mountains flanking the city is a flourishing baker, the Yogurteria. I’m sure their yoghurts are delicious but I’ll never know, as they also sell pastries.
While all the usual suspects are available, my favourite is dangerously hot arequipe in flaky pastry. Unspeakably delicious, it’s only for the sweetest of teeth and most diet averse. I love them. Even Greggs would blanche at selling this to the public: a moment on the lips, a lifetime clogging the pulmonary artery. They probably wouldn’t be legal.
Colombia’s most famous street food is the empanada, which I expected to adore. However, experimentation exposed a sort of fried Cornish pastry, the colour of a radioactive fish finger. Disappointed, I returned to the Séptima.
Despite the setback, I vowed to continue to keep an open mind and greet each offer welcomingly. So when a pretty but bored teenage girl offered me a flier, I looked in her eyes, flashed a winning smile and said: “Perfect, just what I needed!”
A discrete distance later and approaching a bin, I looked down at the flier: “XXX cinema”. In retrospect, she had looked a little bemused.
There is a danger that the lure of the new leads to recklessness. In London, back in the day I would never have bought a hotdog from one of those now obsolete, dirty-finger-nailed sellers’ malodorous stalls; no matter how “relaxed” I was. Go abroad, however, and I’m much more open-minded.
But even I have my limits. Some things are instinctively A Bad Idea. I once met a girl in an internet café crying from pain having eaten a cow’s heart fried over a kerosene stove after a night’s carousing. Fresh from the clean streets of Stockholm, she’d caught her system somewhat unprepared.
I have a more conservative approach to gastronaughting. There’s enough of delicious street food here to curb the need to venture into the meaty vats bubbling on the pavement by the Parque Nacional.
While the providence of the beef is unknown, there are cows living in the more bucolic top end of Parque Nacional. Chewing the cud, they ruminate thoughtfully over the vast cityscape below them.
Despite their setting, a few hundred metres from the “centro internacional” of one of Latin America’s financial hot spots, the cows’ presence is less incongruous than some of the foods combined with their cheese.
Further along the Séptima—past the displaced families, fruit hawkers, (grated cheese an optional extra) and crazies—on the corner of Plaza de Bolívar is a charming oblea seller’s stand. Oblea is a circular wafer sandwich, smeared with arequipe, jam, thick sweetened cream and, of course, grated cheese. Post-lunch office workers get through them like Pac Man devouring pac-dots, while I found a whole one rather testing.
Besides, it was time for the national institution of onces (elevenses), when Rolos dip blocks of cheese into hot chocolate. I like to think someone once had a cheese fondue followed by a chocolate fondue, languorously dragged themselves upright and cried: “Eureka!” To me, the combination is as strange as taking elevenses at 4pm but that’s when it’s taken here.
This peculiar practice is most famously enjoyed at the Puerto Falso. The tiny old café is off the Plaza de Bolívar in the colonial Candelaria tourist and government area. Generations of elevenses-takers have spent their afternoons here peeling strands of chocolate-flavoured cheese from their chins.
Surprisingly given its popularity, I found the blend of cheese and hot chocolate exactly as bad as it sounded. The campesino gave an oily sheen to the hot chocolate and I can only assume the flavour must be acquired in childhood.


















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26 February 2010
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