Cooking local is so 2004. Gastronomy that aims to preserve cultures and traditions on a nationwide level is already a thing in Peru where Mater Iniciativa, an organization founded by a world-renowned chef duo, puts humanitarian concerns ahead of geographical borders and takes a holistic approach to cuisine.
The menu is presented on a round piece of cardboard, 16 dishes curled in a spiral of enticing ingredients; farmed, wild, wondrous. Some from the sea, others from the Andes and possibly from the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The potatoes come from a tuber-alchemist, the dessert is made with edible clay. Every dish a mini-tableau of one single eco system, at one single altitude, from 25 meters below the surface of the ocean, to 4500 meters above the same. A meal at Central is a passage through the whole of Peru. Dizzying. Delectable. Exceptional.
The four-hour fiesta is signed Virgilio Martínez, an unshaven chef sensation and super-charged polymath with a penchant for the Peruvian biodiversity – one of the world’s richest. With his wife Pia León and his sister Malena Martínez he founded Mater Iniciativa, a research center and NGO that (among other things) aims to map all of the country’s ingredients and their origins. More ambitious than the pan flute players on your local subway platform. The venture defines Central, just like it shapes the culinary philosophies at their bistro Mayo, at Pia’s restaurant, Kjolle, located one flight up in the same sleek modern structure, and at MIL, the trio’s locavore satellite-eatery in Moray, Cusco, among the Sacred Valley’s snowcapped alps, where Mater’s true soul hobnobs with the Apus, the Inca people’s mythological mountain spirits.
“A plate of food can never be more important than the traditions that make up their individual components,” says Virgilio. “Mater, which we finance ourselves to avoid sponsors dictating our work, allows us to discover and learn about new ingredients, we study their heritage in order to tell their stories in our dishes. Seven years ago we started rather aimlessly by renting a house in the Cusco region, it turned into a library for our Mater-findings, an atelier of sorts that gave birth to MIL and that inspired us to explore other regions. It’s a privilege to be able to see things that other chefs might not see, that’s why I want to share them. But we were naïve in the beginning, we had overly enthusiastic ideas about finding new territories, clichés about collaborations etc,” he admits, laughing at himself.
Mil’s unassuming exterior. A Mil moment of high altitude cuisine: chuño (freeze-dried potato), oca (an oxalis-related tuber) and uchucuta (a traditional green sauce made with wild herbs). Architectural detail. Photos: Mater Iniciativa
The adobe structure that houses MIL blends into the landscape at the foot of Moray’s terraced Inca ruins; an architectural understatement, designed for anonymity, with an inner courtyard surrounded by a lab, a kitchen and a dining room, all of it tastefully low-key and one with nature, to appease the locals. Mater now collaborates with two small neighboring communities, Mullak’as Misminay and Kacllaraccay. The natives contribute with wisdom about plants and traditional farming methods, Mater supplies its lands, together they grow crops and share the harvests, concurrently, the villagers receive help developing more diverse crops to secure their incomes, instead of taking government hand-outs, which they dislike and know is wrong.
“Initially it was hard, they were suspicious, we came from the big city, it’s a different world. Respect and acceptance is something you have to earn, it doesn’t happen instantaneously. We’re getting used to the fact that things take time, and that the results might not necessarily be what we’d expected, sometimes they’re better, sometimes worse. We’re dealing with a foreign culture, even though it’s Peruvian. Everything starts with a dialogue, a hug, a shared moment, says La Señora Malena, as the locals now lovingly call the honey-soft Mater boss and former physician.
Photographed: Chefs Virgilio Martínez, Pia León; and Malena Martínez.
Mater’s mission statement is straightforward: a forum for exchanging ideas, knowledge and science, a way to promote science through gastronomy. It has cemented relationships with agronomists, botanists, anthropologists and more, and it has generated handicraft projects with artists.
“It’s like a jelly fish that morphs with the individuals it attracts, people approach us spontaneously to offer their expertise. We don’t want to control the project, it’s got a life of own. Mater was a tool to make Central unique, but then we matured and suddenly it turned into a way of contributing to the greater good and leaving a legacy,” explains Malena as we’re sitting in their office between the garden and Central’s dining room; a creative oasis and glassed-in herbarium with dead plants and living curiosity.
AGRICULTURE AND EXPERIMENTATION AT MATER
Peru boasts 55 types of indigenous corn as well as 4200 kinds of potatoes and edible tubers. Of those, I’ve planted two, papa huayro and papa qompis, together with the villagers of Kacllaraccay. The air is thin up here, the light cold and the sun savagely hot. It takes more than mere curiosity to reach this place, it takes a flight from Lima to Cusco, a car ride to the end of the road and a wheezing trek across a green-brown patchwork of sloping fields. The scuffed, unpronounceable village is lined with thatched-roofed adobe houses that open unto muddy inner courtyards. This is where I start my day, in Gabina’s home, peeling potatoes among donkeys, dogs, cats and a rotund sow.
“Your hands will get filthy,” exclaims Gabina when I run a knife over the spuds to prove that I’m not afraid of grime. Acceptance has to be earned, hands-on journalism is a dirty job. Gabina is preparing the lunch we’ll eat on the field, she hands me a mug of chicha de jora, a corn brew that tastes a little bit like cider and a lot like barnyard. If you’re a pro you down it in one go. Then we head off up the mountain. Eagles soar in the vast sky, donkeys bray to each other, it smells of soil and toil.
Inés drapes me in a piece of plastic burlap, tying it on my right shoulder as a stylized toga to hold the planter potatoes. I fill it with papa huayro until my back screams stop, then I wobble out among the furrows, plowed by two tired oxen. I drop four potatoes, take one step and drop four more semillas, or seeds, over and over again. We fill the next field with papa qompis. We, a team of nine people; me in boots, the others in open-toed sandals, the women wear towering alpaca hats, wide skirts and expertly mismatched sweaters, the men are less fashion-forward. We share 40 liters of chicha, two jerry cans schlepped up to 3800 meters above sea level. One single enamel mug gets passed around, first you spill some for Pachamama, or Earth Mother, then you swig the contents and hand the mug to the thirsty companion nearest you. The slightly alcoholic brew brings on a pleasant, caffeine-esque, labor-lubricating buzz. Until it starts hailing and we’re forced to huddle together under a makeshift tarp; 45 minutes in nature’s own popcorn popper. Suddenly, the cold is obnoxious, mud seeps in here and there, and that’s when the next party trick is brought out: matacuy, howling-at-the-moon-juice that, according to its name, will kill guinea pigs, served in a shared shot glass. Swig after swig, the warming hooch reaches all the way down to my stubbornly wet socks. When the sun deigns to come out again, Gabina miraculously shows up with our donkey-carted lunch; a sturdy beef stew, as well as fistfuls of roasted fava beans and gigantic choclo corn kernels. Blas, the jokester among the men, invites me to a formidable, matacuy-fired foxtrot in the sludge, my lungs feel two sizes too small.
“You’re a hard worker, and you’re strong,” applauds Inés. “Come back and harvest with us, I’ll give you your own patch of land.” The best compliment a rookie city rat could get.
High altitude farming in the Andes. Peru boasts 55 types of indigenous corn as well as 4200 kinds of potatoes and edible tubers. Photos: Mater Iniciativa.
The country’s exact number of indigenous spud-varieties depends on whom you ask. Manuel Choqque, the Potato Prince of Huatata, MIL’s neighbor and Mater’s tuber expert, alleges that there are in fact 4600. For the past 15 years he’s been cultivating edible roots from seeds and hand pollinating flowers to bolster the quality of the vegetables. Pale violet- and coral-streaked breeds have become deep amethyst and ruby jewels studded with vitamins, antioxidants and beta carotene. More pigment equals more nutrition. A potato-tomato hybrid that produces both nightshades is also underway; incredible but logical, in a sense, as they’re both part of the Solanum family. Manuel’s been dabbling with this one for ten years and claims it’ll come to fruition in the next two. He grows 350 different tubers on one single hectare; potatoes, mashwas and the oxalis-cousin, oca, whose leaves taste like actual oxalis. When I visit, he’s set out a freshly harvested cabinet of curiosities; colored, speckled, bulbous, skinny, pine cone-reminiscent aliens.
“In the pre-Inca culture, they also refined potatoes, not for their nutritional values, but to develop different shapes for offerings; snakes, condors, pumas, star constellations and alpacas, things they worshiped. That’s my theory anyway, because highly pigmented potatoes never existed but whimsically shaped ones certainly did,” says Manuel over a snack of––what else––boiled spuds; yellow, mealy and vaguely sweet; purple and chalky-dry; as well as creamy red nuggets. We wash them down with Manuel’s oca wine O Tuber, a more recent project.
“As a child, dad and I ate raw ocas when we worked the fields, I remember them being sweet. Sugar can be converted into alcohol, that’s how the idea was born. Peruvians eat 87 kilos of potatoes per person, per year, but they consume less than 100 grams of oca, it’s a neglected vegetable, only cultivated as a hobby, or to feed the animals. If I make booze with it, maybe people will finally get a taste for it.”
Manuel is a self-taught winemaker, he produces four, sulfite-free elixirs that can be found at both Central and MIL. The faint yellow one has fermented in a steel tank for six months, rested in demijohns for two more and been allowed to clarify for eight weeks. It’s voluptuous, both in flavor and in mouth feel, it has a balanced sweetness and the nose of a good natural wine, it does a happy dance with Virgilio’s dessert of coconut cream, yacón root, coffee chips and lemon granite. (Altitude: 240 meters above sea level, according to Central’s menu.)
“Mater encourages people to develop and build self confidence. Manuel had no voice previously, he was really shy, as was Nilver,” declares Malena.
The chat-cascade Nilver Melgarejo, Mater’s cacao researcher, dreams of producing single origin chocolate and wants a bigger tempering machine, to make more confections faster at MIL’s Wonka-lab. He’s free to experiment with beans and cacao percentages, just like the grog-guru and beverage researcher, Manuel Contreras, has carte blanche to distil assorted tipples with medicinal herbs in the bar next door.
Further afield, the women’s collective, Warmi (woman/women in Quechua) is encouraged to earn money by making naturally dyed alpaca yarn, distributed by Mater. Cash means freedom for these women. The freedom to create their own opportunities and to keep traditions alive.
Mater encourages people to develop and build self confidence, the organization also supports small-scale businesses like the Warmi collective, a group of women who gather once a week to make hand dyed wool, sold through Mater’s channels. Photos: Céline Morançay and Mater Iniciativa
And herein lies the difference, instead of, like so many other restaurateurs, solely preach local gastronomy, Malena, Virgilio and Pia have created a nationwide forum for growth and sustainability that boosts not only their own culinary activities but also the conservation of nature, culture and heritage. Mater’s endeavors don’t stop at the farm gate, they nurture the whole Peruvian biodiversity and build relationships in a larger, humanitarian context. Central’s menu contains 247 ingredients from all corners of the country, benefiting small suppliers everywhere and, by extension, erasing geographical borders.
Back in Kacllaraccay, with the Warmi clan, I roll up my sleeves and dunk hand spun skeins in a cauldron balancing on a rudimentary fireplace. The musty smell of wet wool spars with the fresh aroma of just-picked eucalyptus that will dye the yarn a soft lavender color. My hands are as sticky-black with resin as the Warmi mamas’ kids are rumpled. They’re playing with a puppy and a torn soccer ball while the women spin gossip and mellow-hued wool. They’re not dawdling, in a couple of weeks the boss, Seferina, and her friend Elba will travel to Lima to sell the yarns at a crafts fair. Neither one of them has ever flown in an airplane, nor seen the sea at the foot of the capital.
At Central, Kjolle and MIL the dishes are presented as “moments”. Instead of just consuming a daintily arranged portion of food, the guests are encouraged to spend a brief period of time in its company. I think of the moment when Seferina and Elba flew high above the clouds and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
A meal at Central is a gustatory exploration of Peru’s astounding biodiversity, one of the world’s richest. Every dish a mini-tableau of one single eco system, at one single altitude, from 25 meters below the surface of the ocean, to 4500 meters above the same. Photos: Central/Mater Iniciativa.
Mater Iniciativa, named after the Latin word for mother, is a Peruvian research center. The NGO was founded in 2013 by the siblings Virgilio and Malena Martínez and Virgilio’s wife Pia León, to explore and study the Peruvian biodiversity. It quickly grew into something much more complex.
Chefs Virgilio and Pia own and run Central, Kjolle and Mayo in Barranco, Lima, as well as MIL, in Moray, Cusco. Central has been voted Peru’s best restaurant and is currently number six on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Pia opened Kjolle in 2018, the same year she was named Latin America’s Best Female Chef. The three Lima-eateries are located in Casa Tupac, a former cultural center with a generous garden planted in mini-eco systems. Sometimes the kitchen brigade cooks out here, in a traditional earthen oven, or huatia.