Bolivian Food and the Claus Meyer connection

Bolivia´s food has a reputation of being uninspired and not particularly good.  I don’t share that view at all – to me it has been a fascinating discovery.

A few of the many varieties of potato

There are many new ingredients, interesting flavours, unexpected combinations.  The fresh produce is of a high standard, and is produced in a real way … vegetables and fruits have things not often encountered in first world supermarkets, such as blemishes, irregular shapes, and flavour.

Potatoes are a key part of cuisine here.  There are dozens of varieties on sale, different shapes, sizes, colours, some multi-coloured, not forgetting too the interesting chuño and tunta.  These are small potatoes that are left outside for four days, drying in the bright sunshine during the day, and freezing at night (tunta is soaked in river water for 3 weeks first).  Potatoes so treated last for many years, and have a more pronounced taste and a denser texture when cooked.

One comes across differences in meat and fish too.  Llama and alpaca are a regular features on menus, pleasant enough meats but nothing special in my view.  They are also salted and dried to produce charque, the original form of jerky.  Lamb is lovely and intense, more like middle eastern lamb than northern European.  Trout from Lago Titicaca is wonderful, and it is particularly gratifying that it is properly cooked here, moist and tender, not the overcooked, dry trout that one comes across so often in other places.  Plenty of tropical river fish are also used here, such as the delicate white fish surubi, a close relation of catfish.

Chuño at the back and tunta at the front

Given this great base of ingredients it is not surprising that the traditional cuisine is lovely.  The markets are the best places to find it.  Soups are a major feature and are fantastic. They are hearty, beautifully balanced, and obviously made with proper techniques in a traditional manner.  Caldo de pollo for breakfast is a staple and is right up there with the finest chicken broth I know (from the simple Jewish-Hungarian restaurant Kádár in Budapest).  Also caldo de cordero (lamb), caldo de cabeza (sheep´s head, very good), caldo de cardon (bull´s penis), and plenty of others.

There is an interesting strand of cuisine which mixes sweet and spicy flavours.  The classic example is salteñas, empanadas or pasties made from sweet pastry and filled with a spicy stew.  Not really to my taste, but an interesting combination.  Another, more to my taste, are humintas.  These are triangles of corn-based fruit cake dough with sultanas, hot chillies and cheese, wrapped in corn husks and baked.  They are lovely, sort of like triangular tamales.
Extraordinary caldo de pollo

Bolivia has a thriving microbrew industry with a dozen or so breweries producing craft beers of usually excellent quality.  Wines are made too, nothing that will make headlines in the wine world, but decent quality, well produced wines that stand up well to mid range Chilean and Argentinian products.

The local distilled spirit, singani, is made from grape trash in the same way as grappa or marc de cava.  The primary grape used is muscatel, and the result is a clean, sharp, floral spirit that is pleasant after a meal.  Again I don’t think the marketers of eau de vie and grappa have anything to worry about, but singani is certainly a good addition to the lineup.
A licuado stand in Sucre market

Fruit licuados, which I had come across previously in Mexico, are taken to a whole new level here.  Licuados are made with pretty much any fruit, with either milk or water, and are uniformly delicious and addictive.  A typical market will have dozens of stands offering licuados as well as elaborate fresh fruit salads, enticingly presented and topped with an extravagant tower of whipped cream.

All this comes at a price of course, and in Bolivia that price is incredibly low.  One can easily get spoiled with 10Bs breakfasts (€1.10) and 15Bs (€1.65) lunches in the markets.  A large licuado, the perfect dessert, is under €1.

In La Paz there is a small but blossoming foodie culture.  There is Hallwrights, a good wine bar, offering hand crafted locally produced cheeses, cured meats and bread, accompanied by Bolivian, Chilean and Argentinian wines.   There are great little shops too, like the artisan bakery and deli Arco Iris opposite Sopocachi market, selling interesting bread, pastries, charcuterie, cheeses and local pates.

However, in contrast to the markets, which have been consistently good, restaurants are mixed. There are places catering primarily to tourists, offering the standard fare of pizza, Mexican food and burgers – nothing more needs to be said.  There are local restaurants and some of these are good, but many struggle to get past acceptable.  There are a few international restaurants aimed at the diplomat/expat community, generally OK but nothing special.

Then there is Gustu.

Gustu stands head and shoulders above any other restaurant I have been to in Bolivia.  Indeed it stands above any restaurant I have been to in the last two years, except perhaps for Aponiente in Spain.  It is, in my view, certainly 1 star and more likely 2 star Michelin, and achieves this entirely with Bolivian products and Bolivian cuisine.  Clever, inventive, modern, intelligent, very well executed dishes.  For example, a Bolivian traditional dish is remade into a take on fettucine carbonara, with “fettucine” of palm hearts, a poached egg yolk, desalted deep fried alpaca charque, and beurre noisette.  Spectacular.  The prices are, by Bolivian standards, stratospheric.  By first world standards they are modest for food at this level.

But clever food is only the end product of Gustu, extraordinary enough though it is.  What makes Gustu even more special is that the kitchen and wait staff are primarily Bolivians from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds (all are indigenous, most were street children).  They have been transformed in just 18 months into capable world class kitchen and front of house staff.  How?  Through the work of the charitable foundation Melting Pot, set up and led by Claus Meyer.  Yes, that Claus Meyer – the one who co-owns Noma in Copenhagen. 
Gustu: palm heart fettucine, crispy alpaca charque,
poached egg yolk, beurre noisette

The funding for the cooking school, restaurant and food laboratory has come from his own foundation, the Danish government, and several NGOs.  And it is not just about doing magic with Bolivian food: hundreds of lives being changed in the process.  The restaurant´s manager explained how the intention is to phase out the half dozen or so foreigners leading the restaurant today (including a young Danish superstar chef, Camilla Seidler, just voted best chef in Latin America) with Bolivians, and they feel confident this will take no more than a few more years.  In addition to the training in the restaurant, Melting Pot also runs a cooking school for indigenous poor in El Alto, the sprawling low income area of La Paz.

Sitting having lunch at one of the simple stalls in the market in the lowland city of Santa Cruz, we finished our tasty and ridiculously cheap food, and were chatting over a glass of chicha, the local corn drink.  A small boy, maybe 7 years old, approached us, eyes downcast, and quietly asked if he could have the rice left on Maret´s plate.  Not asking for money, or gifts, or anything else- just leftover rice.  He proffered a plastic carrier bag to put it into.  Of course we gave it to him, and he was gone in a flash, before we could offer something more.  The gap, the almost unfathomable gap, between the first world and the third world is a part of everyday life in some parts of Bolivian cities, and it is into this world that Melting Pot / Gustu stepped, working to make a difference.

Gustu is an act of total generosity on the part of Claus Meyer, empowering disadvantaged Bolivians and putting Bolivia firmly on the foodie map.  It is entirely consistent with the New Nordic Cuisine philosophy, which always was about more than just a local foraging approach to food.  Noma might be getting the limelight, but I would venture that the real story of the New Nordic Cuisine movement is being played out in the mountains of Bolivia (and also in the prisons of Denmark, another Claus Meyer initiative).

For me the experience of Gustu was humbling, a piercing insight into the nature of true generosity and the empowerment of others, and how much further I have to travel in those regards.

As for Bolivian food being uninspired: not at all.  I have long felt that the magic in life is rarely found in the safe middle ground, and that is certainly true for Bolivian cuisine. 

The Glass Bead Game

28 years ago: Wasdale valley, Cumbria, England. A sunny summer day with 2 friends, sitting looking at Great Gable rising like a pyramid at the head of the valley, the lake water reflecting the sky and a few decorative clouds, the scree slopes opposite in hyper clear detail, the curve of the hills.  Seeing the world so vividly, feeling how alive the earth was, how we were part of the planet, how everything was just as it should be.  Grass so green, looking at rocks like one reads a book, the gentle summer breeze caressing my cheek.  The reducing valve of the mind opened a little more.  Coming home to somewhere we´d never been.

Wasdale wasn’t the only magical time that summer.  Diamonds in the night sky, seen from a friend´s garden in Preston of all places.  Dawn on a sea wall looking out over reclaimed salt marsh, the sunrise feeling like the first morning of creation, warming the earth and giving it life, warming me and giving me life.  Bach as the sound of the universe.  William Blake, Roger Waters, Jim Morrison, Van Gogh, Goya : reports from their travels. Long conversations between friends about Rimbaud, Hesse, Nietzsche, Huxley … naïve young minds struggling beyond their limits, stretched, never to regain their old shape again.

28 years later:  A walled garden in the Valle Sagrado, Peru, a deep valley surrounded by mountains dotted with Inca ruins and terraces, bright sunshine, thin air, clouds scudding by high overhead, an infinitely changing tapestry.  A curandero sings gentle icaros and shakes a chakapa.  A dog runs across the grass, golden hair flowing, impossibly fascinating.  Flowers almost ready to burst they are so full of life.  Mountains alive, breathing, living.  Hours slipping by while time stands still.  Sunset listening to Enigma Variations, tears rolling down our cheeks, the best classical concert of her life according to Maret.  The doors of perception opened once more, overseen by a stand of benevolent cacti. 

Coming home again.  Coming home again.

Bolivia´s quiet revolution

The revolution that has occurred quietly in Bolivia is quite something to see.  Evo Morales, President of Bolivia since 2006 and the first from an indigenous group to hold that position, has transformed Bolivian society in a way that is positive for most people in this the poorest country in South America.
The clock in the main square of La Paz, recently changed to turn to the left

Bolivia has a sad history of oppression through decades of extreme right wing dictators at a national and local level.  The list is long and depressing.  To name but a few from recent decades: Hugo Banzer, specialist in “disappearing” those critical of him (as an aside, his official portrait looks like a caricature of a south American tinpot dictator); Luis García Meza Tejada, a cocaine-financed dictator, actively supported by then resident Klaus Barbie, who used the army to protect drug traffickers and had a penchant for murdering intellectuals; and the brutal major of Cochabamba, Manfred Reyes-Villa, now living in luxurious exile in the US with other crypto-facist Bolivian thugs.   Reyes-Villa is a typical example of how the elite has raped Bolivia for so long.  In 2000 he privatised water provision in Cochabamba, passing a law so draconian that wells used by people for many years were sealed, and rainwater collected from roofs was technically owned by the water company.  Water charges were increased to about $20 a month, at a time when typical state employees earned $80 a month and many campesinos less than that.  When people protested in an organized way, threatening his business deal, Reyes-Villa set the army and police on the protesters, and to ensure motivation increased the pay of the police by 50%.  Live ammunition was used against the protesters, some of which was captured by TV cameras. He has been charged with over 20 counts of personal corruption (his mayoral salary of $1000 a month is unlikely to be the source of financing for his beachfront Miami residence), and is avoiding answering those charges by remaining in the US, complaining that the charges are politically motivated.   The indigenous protestors killed to protect his business deal of course remain resolutely dead.
With a tremendous popular mandate, reconfirmed several times, Morales´ government has initiated changes that start to rebalance the poor and the rich here and improve indigenous rights.  A noticeable sign in every restaurant is “Todos somos iguales ante la ley”: everyone is equal before the law.  The point being that discrimination and racism has long been endemic in Bolivian society, and his government quickly passed laws to outlaw it and then publicised those laws extensively.  Civil servants are now required to speak at least one indigenous language as well as Spanish (43% of the population speak an indigenous language as their mother tongue).
“Our country, our businesses”
There has also been a significant increase in direct and indirect transfer payments to the poor during the Morales presidency, especially to the indigenous poor.   Economic inequality, while still dramatic here, has been reduced, with the Gini coefficient now standing at 53 compared to 58 under the right wing dictators, still appallingly high but a notable achievement at a time when the trend in almost every country is in the opposite direction.  Illiteracy has been all but eliminated, and the constitution provides every Bolivian with water, food, free health care, education, and housing as fundamental rights of citizenship.  All this has been achieved with sound government finances – the Morales government has always run a small budget surplus.
The national oil and gas company was nationalised to ensure that profits would benefit the whole nation rather than the elite.  (Compare this for a moment to the actions of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, economics minister at the time, who in 1985 fired two thirds of the oil and tin workforce, as well as removing price controls, to win favour with the international financial markets – yes, two thirds of the workforce.  After that stellar performance he went on to become President and in 2003 massacred even more protesters than Reyes-Villa, this time because of a gas deal, before fleeing to luxurious exile in Washington DC).
Queuing for the Teleferico in El Alto
Another good and symbolic example of how public money is being used in today´s Bolivia is the new Teleferico in La Paz.  This is a top of the line gondala, manufactured and installed by Doppelmayr, that connects downtown La Paz to the huge and poor El Alto area, some 500m higher in elevation, with the intention to reduce traffic congestion.  A single ride is priced at 3 Bolivianos, about 32 euro cents – that is about twice as much as a local minibus, but is still practical for ordinary people, and obviously is highly subsidised.  El Alto is not a beautiful place, but it is home to a million ordinary Bolivians, mostly indigenous.  The elite only venture to El Alto for the airport.   It sends a powerful message – tangible investment to benefit ordinary people.
Protests are a regular event throughout Bolivia, and especially so in La Paz.  The population is actively engaged in politics, pressing for change of things they don’t agree with.  And what is very interesting is that the government actually listens to the protests and quite often makes changes to reflect the protesters´ demands.  In Bolivia this is called listening to the people.  In the UK or the US, supposed beacons of democracy, listening to the people would be a sign of political weakness, derided as flip-flopping.
A protest camp on the Prado, now in its third year
Is this Athenian Democracy in the 21st century?  Well, not quite … a realistic issue is that, as with most forms of lobbying, the protesters´ aims can be narrowly focused, and that often the loudest get heard.  Having said that, their focus is probably no narrower than that of the average corporate lobbyist.  And I would argue that overall the Bolivian setup is a lot more about government by the people for the people, a genuine example of participatory democracy.  In the UK and the US, where corporate lobbyists get listened to and the people not, it is easy to recall politicians loudly paying lip service to the right to protest before sending in armed riot police to remove protestors for the unforgivable crime of camping in cities.  (As an aside, there is a protest camp on the Prado, the smartest boulevard in La Paz, publicising the crimes of some of Banzer´s henchmen, which has been in place for over 800 days … democracy in action.  In London and New York the Occupy protest camps were considered intolerable after a few months).
Bolivia, though, is certainly not a utopia.  The Morales government has always had an authoritarian streak, especially against the right, increasingly so in recent years, and has continued the Bolivian traditional of prosecuting/persecuting previous governmental ministers (not entirely without cause in this case, it should be said).  The press is fairly free, but the hand of the government is heavy. One more concern of note is how many things here are identified with Evo Morales personally.  He is a constant presence on billboards in the city – for example on the autopista from La Paz to El Alto almost every billboard prominently includes his picture.  This is material produced by the government communications department, not his political party – a worrying intermingling of the two.  Although he personally appears to be a man of modest tastes (he lives alone, simply, and reduced the salaries of himself and his ministers on gaining office), it does seem to me that there is more than the beginning of a cult of personality.  He remains genuinely popular – the latest polls ahead of the 2014 election give him 46% support, compared to 13% for his nearest rival.  That is impressive, but less so than the 60%+ support he used to have.
Government propoganda typically features a prominent picture of Evo Morales
The country is polarised politically, as polarised as the US under Bush (the war criminal, not his father) or Hungary.  I´ve met people who are fairly obviously from the elite (being wealthy enough to hang out in wine bars) and they are scathing about Morales.  They might, grudgingly, admit that some of his actions have benefited indigenous people, but go on to point out how unfair these actions are, in their view.   Others, including people involved in education and charity work, and whose interaction with indigenous people is not only as domestic staff, have positive opinions of Morales.  No one I have met is neutral.
Let´s hope things progress on a fair and positive track in Bolivia, that economic inequality will continue to be reduced, and that in the process Morales doesn’t become entrenched as the only political game in town.
On balance, in my view, there is much to be positive about in Bolivia in 2014.  It is a remarkable country in so many ways.