Farmers' Market Share Visits a Mercado in Peru


I spent the first half of January -- the crappy half, as you all know -- south of the equator, in Peru. About half of our stay was in the smallish city of Cusco, which sits about 3,000 meters above sea level. A significant portion of the city still uses streets first constructed by the Incas in the 1400s, and artisans travel from surrounding towns to sell their wares on the streets.

  • Alissa Nelson
There are a few supermarkets in the city, but there is a bustling energy around the central market, or mercado central. Since there isn't enough of an infrastructure for large-scale shipments from larger coastal cities like Lima, much of the food for sale in the city is grown locally, transported out of the surrounding mountains by donkey and then transferred to cars and trucks.

Before before I visited the mercado central, I hired an excellent guide to take my husband and me on a trek through the mountains to clomp around a set of ruins that could only be reached by hiking two days. Five days without a shower? Sign me up.

Midway through day two of five, I was questioning my decision of choosing the trek that made people raise their eyebrows and speculate on how I must be in particularly great shape. Yes, the views were spectacular, and the rain was holding off wonderfully. But I felt like I was about to fall off the side of the mountain, my husband had some sort of intestinal bug that somehow just caused horrible burping, and we were dodging piles of horse and donkey shit for hours on the 45-degree climbs.

Then from her bag the guide pulled a cherimoya, which she'd picked off a tree at our campsite. It was a green, scaly-looking, oblong fruit, which looked more like an armadillo than an apple. She pried it open with her hands and offered us half. It smelled like butter, and it tasted almost like apple pie.

According to Wikipedia, Mark Twain called it "the most delicious fruit known to men." And after a day of brutal hiking, it was the one thing that could get me up to finish the last few kilometers as the rain started to fall. If you want to try, appears to be your source for animated cherimoya gifs and fruit, shipped from California.

A couple of days later, our cook met us at a stop with a bag of tuna, or prickly pears, which grew along the trail. Peeled, they were an eye-catching orange, and tasted like papaya. We double-fisted tuna by the muddy Aripumyac River (the Mississippi had nothing on this), preparing to ascend again.

  • Alissa Nelson
On our subsequent trips around Cusco, I gazed wistfully out the window of the colectivo (a taxi you hire with a few strangers for dirt cheap) whenever we careened down a street lined with grumpy-looking Quechua women sitting next to mountains of mangoes. But it seemed like exploitative American tourist porn to ask the driver to stop so that I could take pictures of the fruits of the developing world.

The market is like Soulard on steroids: an entire city block of fruits, vegetables, meat, cheese, and food stalls. There are two rows of girls poised by blenders, ready to whip you up some fresh fruit juice. There is, of course, the potato section, right next to the milk section.

We were enticed by a fruit vendor offering samples of gigantic pecans. We managed to pass those by and instead went the route of pointing to things and asking what they were. We walked away with a pepino and a lucuma. The former is a yellow, thin-skinned fruit with brilliant purple stripes; it tasted like a particularly refreshing cantelope.

We encountered lucuma several times in desserts after eating it fresh. It looks like an oversized fig, with the texture of a hard-boiled egg yolk and the taste of a pumpkin or a sweet potato. In desserts, it is rich and silky, completely satisfying and decadent with minimal sweetening.

Finally, I got to sample a maracuna, a bright orange variety of passionfruit. The owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed in Lima instructed me to just put my mouth on it and suck, which was impossible to do with a straight face in front of a room full of middle-aged Canadian tourists.

Maybe it was a function of only traveling to developed countries in the past, but my limited international travel had never focused so heavily on local eating. Peru may be an anomaly, though, a nation with deep ties to the land on which people have lived and struggled under colonial influence for centuries, and the birthplace of so many of the foods that have deeply influenced the world's cuisine.

Alissa Nelson is a graduate student and compulsive buyer of cookbooks. She enjoys scouring seed catalogs and thrift stores alike. Every Wednesday she seeks the bounty of local farmers' markets -- and then cooks it.

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