In Peru’s Sacred Valley and en route to Machu Picchu is Mil, an acclaimed restaurant by Virgilio Martínez that has become a stop for both gourmands and cultural tourists.
Snakes. Spiders. Creepy-crawlies the size of saucers. For two years running, Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez has hosted Momento, one of the world’s most exclusive and bug-filled food conferences, centred around biodiversity.
Last November a group of 50 hand-selected researchers, scientists, artists and journalists ventured to Madre de Dios in the Amazon jungle on the border of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil to commune and hash out this subject, using the protected environment around them as their primary teaching aid.
Momento cements the values that Martínez has nurtured with his multi-lauded Central Restaurante in Lima, which he has run for the past decade with his wife Pía León. It and León’s Kjolle (pronounced koh-yay) eatery have essentially been the public-facing elements of the Mater Iniciativa research laboratory headed up by his sister, Malena.
Mater Iniciativa is dedicated to acquiring and preserving indigenous knowledge from Peru’s remote populations. Along with empowering these communities, the overarching goal is to document the country’s known and unknown flora and fauna, and to conserve Peru’s biodiversity – and in so doing, inadvertently elevate the role of a chef from culinary expert to social and cultural anthropologist, too.
“I feel a great responsibility towards our country,” Martínez tells me one evening at the research kitchen located at his and León’s impressive Casa Túpac in Lima’s Barranco district. It is also where Central, Kjolle and their more relaxed tapas bar are housed. They all coexist in a symbiotic relationship, mutually benefiting from the findings and ingredients harvested as a result of the Mater Iniciativa laboratory’s meticulous research.
Central’s premise is to take the diner on a journey across Peru in 17-odd courses by way of altitudes, from 20m below sea level to 4 100m above it. León says that Kjolle has a more playful approach than Central: “For me, flavour is really important. The reality is, not all your favourite ingredients taste amazing, so I play and combine them with other products – but no more than three on a dish – to get interesting results: acidic, sweet, bitter, savoury.”
The Road To Mil
Away from the depths of the insect-dense Amazon basin, and a 1 155km drive from Lima, is perhaps the most powerful example of the couple’s ethos. At 3 500m above sea level, in Moray on the way to Machu Picchu, is Martínez’s 20-seat restaurant called Mil.
With milky-pink salt pans of Maras perched precariously between cliffs – the salt hand-harvested by 600 families, in the same time-honoured manner as the Incas – this region has been a source of inspiration for Martínez since he first dreamt of opening Mil.
The restaurant is housed in a rustic former vicuña breeding centre (a South American mammal related to the camel), and encircled by the snow-capped Andes, called <apus> in the local Quechua dialect. It overlooks the steep, concentric terraced Incan ruins of Moray, said to be an experimental lab used by the Incas to gauge agricultural viability at different temperatures and “altitudes”.
Everything on the menu at Mil – served according to eight different “moments” – is hyper-local, from the potatoes grown by the local communities to the corn, corn beer, Andean lamb and alpaca, and drinks house-brewed from traditional flowers, herbs and leaves. Dedicated to high-altitude dining, Mil has become known as a pioneer in the preservation of both Andean ingredients and cookery techniques.
Due to the seating capacity, bookings are difficult to nab, and the somewhat obscure location means that no walk-ins can be accommodated. Diners also need to make time to acclimatise properly, usually by spending a day or two in Cusco, the base used by most visitors to the Scared Valley.
The surroundings and setting may, quite literally, take your breath away – and for this reason, an oxygen tank is on hand for those who succumb to altitude sickness. (We were fine – ask your GP to prescribe anti-diuretic pills. They’re also easily available over the counter at pharmacies in Peru.)
Mil means “thousand”, culinary researcher Luis Casas tells me: “Virgilio says there are a thousand ways to understand what happened here. We are still trying to piece a coherent answer to the investigations we’ve done and all that has been learnt before.”
Past and Present
On a three-hour walk to learn about the plants and trees in the area, local farmer Santiago Amau Salome and in-house mixologist Luis Valderrama explain that Mil is a collaborative project and could not function without the cooperation of the two local indigenous communities of Kacllaraccay and Mullakas-Misminay. Resident anthropologist Francesco D’Angelo Piaggio spent more than a year living with both communities as Mater Iniciativa conducted negotiations to work in collaboration with them.
The Mil team is currently using the latest technology to document the folklore and the scientific medicinal and nutritional properties of flora and fauna used by these communities, as well as the ways in which they are prepared. Farmers are employed to produce and harvest crops according to their agricultural calendar, while Mil’s staff members are training other locals as cooks and waiters.
Salome explains that every day starts with worship to the <apus> by offering gifts in the form of food, and later to the <Pachamama> or earth mother who blesses their harvest. They bury corn or candies in the ground, and sprinkle <chicha de jora> (a fermented corn “beer”) on the earth. The community still adheres to the concept of <ayni> – meaning “today for me, tomorrow for you” – and if someone is without work, they are invited to work with you and to take 50% of the harvest.
As we walk (slowly, as tiny increases in gradient leave me winded and breathless), Salome points out herbs and leaves for stomach pains, eye infections, toothache, fever, bug bites and fertility, and flowers and stems used to dye yarn and fabrics. Casas makes notes and Valderrama stoops low to taste the edible flowers and leaves. “I try to focus on the medical benefits of the botanicals in my cocktails,” he says.
“One of the things I’m fascinated by is the local farmers’ already in-depth knowledge of biodiversity,” Casas says as we head back to Mil for lunch. “For example, they will tell you about the ‘lazy’ and ‘hard-working’ potatoes. The lazy ones take six to seven months to be harvested; the hard-working variety will take three or four months. These are the reasons why they have to promote diversity. So they mix the breeds and in the next five-and-half months they are ready for harvest.”
One of the “moments” on Mil’s menu is called “Central Andes”, an ode to Peru’s 4 000+ tubers (potatoes), such as the purple <leona> baked in a huatia adobe brick oven. Another is freeze-dried potatoes (crucial to survive the bitterly-cold winters in Moray) served with braised and seared alpaca. During the meal, looking across the steep fields and staring at the distant paths that lead to Kacllaraccay and Mullakas-Misminay, the concept of community and humanity’s ancient relationship with the land quickly comes alive.
LIMA’S BEST BITES
Peru’s capital city is known for its perpetual grey drizzle, ace surfing and rich cultural calendar (don’t miss the MATE Mario Testino Museum) – but it’s also worth a stopover for the food alone. These are the highlights:
Peru’s ultimate dining experience. Book months in advance.
Pía León’s first solo restaurant uses similar produce to Central.
The Nikkei (Chinese-Peruvian) cuisine in Lima.
“Extreme” altitude dining, combining ocean and mountain in dizzying combinations.
A modern tavern-style bar with delicious sharing plates.
Technical finesse in a casual setting.
Thai and Indian flavours superimposed over local Peruvian produce.
The freshest and most exquisite ceviche and seafood in town.
FLY SAA flies daily to São Paolo from Johannesburg. From there, catch a connecting flight to Lima with SAA code-share partner and Star Alliance member Avianca. South Africans do not need a visa to travel to Peru.
Words by Ishay Govender-Ypma