Tuesday, November 16, 2010

From Paracas to Arequipa

Paracas, three-and-a-half hours south of Lima, is the departure point for tours of the Ballestas Islands, home to hundreds of sea lions, seals, thousands of marine birds, and (inevitably) guano. My favourite seabird is the Pelican, although watching Pelicans scoop up huge bills full of guano for nest-building gives them some demerit points.

We spent a night in Paracas, which even the most charitable guidebook refers to as “sleepy”. The port area is a succession of dodgy, almost identical seafood eateries (restaurant is too generous) and we end up in one of these. The menu is in pictures only. Don't even try to impress the server with your Spanish.  Just point to what you want. So here’s a picture (left) of what I ordered, although in the picture on the menu, the fish looked much smaller...or the plate was much bigger.  Delicious grilled fresh white fish, but no idea what it was. No wine, just beer. In Peru, most beers were named for the large city -- Cusquena, Arequipena, Callao, Trujillo -- where they originated but now a single company, Backus & Johnston, makes all these beers. The most readily available is Cusqueña, and that’s what’s available with the fish.

The next night we’re in Nazca, staying at a former Augustine convent. Dinner is Peruvian Chicken Stew for me, and Breaded Filet Mignon (much better than the name suggests) for Michèle. We try another Tacama wine (and it’s becoming clear than Tacama is THE leading Peruvian wine producer). This one is Tacama Seleccion Especial 2009, Ica Valley, 13.5% ABV. An unusual blend of Tannat and Petit Verdot, two varieties known for yielding tannic wines. Aromas and flavours of black cherry, cassis, plum, raspberry, anise, and black pepper. Grippy tannins (to be expected) but certainly not harsh. The tannins outlast the fruit on the finish. Could be interesting to try this wine in a few years when the tannins might have softened. (The photo’s a bit off; I blame the multiple Pisco Sours.)

On to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. For lunch, I get to try an Alpaca steak. Another huge portion (two pieces of steak; you only see the second one in this photo)…tough and overcooked. A disappointment. But the restaurant is one of those tour factories geared to high production, not high quality.

And that means that, for dinner, we need a treat. Off we go to La Trattoria del Monasterio, a restaurant designed by Gaston Acurio. Located in the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, it specialises in homemade pasta. Italian with a Peruvian twist.  Michèle orders Tagliolini al ragu di Agnello (a sauce made from slowly stewed lamb, fresh tomatoes, wine, and herbs) and my choice is Lasagne Sierra, stuffed with shrimp and smoked trout (a regional specialty) with a creamy sauce of spicy tomatoes. Fresh pasta, perfectly cooked, great stuff.

At last, we find a Peruvian wine that’s not Tacama! Tabernero Gran Tinto Fina Reserva 2009, Ica Valley, 13.5% ABV. A blend of Malbec and Merlot. Plum and cherry, spices, and a bit of vanilla on the nose, with the slightly tart fruit coming through on the flavour. Medium tannins and acidity. Well-balanced and a good match with the food.

For dessert, we have the specialty of Arequipa: Queso helado (literally, frozen cheese), made with milk, condensed milk and cream…but no cheese. This version also contains coconuts and cinnamon over a crispy almond cookies, strawberry sorbet, and papaya-arequipeña compote. Smooth and refreshing, not as rich as you might expect.  Faith in Peruvian cuisine restored.

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