Humble eateries of Arequipa are as treasured as Machu Picchu

Peru's most famous chefs tend to be men but its favourite cooks are women. In the working-class taverns, or picantería, of Arequipa, it is almost always women conducting the kitchens.

Peru's most famous chefs tend to be men but its favourite cooks are women.

In the working-class taverns, or picantería, of Arequipa, it is almost always women conducting the kitchens. Celebrity chefs like Gastón Acurio (Astrid y Gastón) and Virgilio Martínez (Central) win global awards and admiration for their fancy ways with food, but it was Arequipa's mamas who were honoured in 2014 when Peru's Ministry of Culture inscribed picanterías in the Cultural Heritage of the Nation – alongside more readily recognisable national treasures such as Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail.

Such a great honour for a humble eatery. At heart, picanterías are no-frills filling stations for the working classes; typical farmers' taverns where the alcohol is at least as important as the food.

Here in Peru's second city, set in a sunny Andean valley 2300 metres above sea level ringed by snow-streaked volcanoes, local hospitality invariably involves a drink.

"Each picantería has many traditions, and this is one of them," Roger Falcón Quicaño announces as he places a litre glass of purple booze in front of me.

Family business

This is chicha guiñapo, a fermented drink of around 3 to 5 per cent alcohol that's made from coloured maize – corn beer, in other words. It looks like cloudy cordial and tastes like a light punch. He also hands me a shot of aniseed liquor (aguadiente), insisting this is quite normal picantería practice at lunchtime.

Falcón trained initially as an architect but it was probably inevitable he would join the family business as a picantero. His mother, Benita Quicaño Guillen, is an eighth-generation cook who raised him at the family's restaurant, La Benita, in Characato village outside Arequipa.

Today we are sitting at La Benita de Los Claustros, the family's year-old venture set within the cloisters (los claustros) of the 16th-century Company of Jesus Church. Diners can eat and drink while admiring the Baroque colonnade and the colonial elegance of Arequipa's World Heritage-listed historic centre.

Falcón is a rare bird in this woman's world but his youth and passion make him a valuable advocate for keeping picantería traditions, which date from the 16th century, alive in the 21st.

He plies me with classic dishes as he relates how Arequipa's taverns, so recently recognised as a treasure of the nation, have in fact been dying out for many decades.

Battle decline
"There are a lot of picanterías that have disappeared," he says. In 1875 there were an estimated 3200 in the province. By the 1920s there were still more than 2000 but, in 2014, the last picantería in the city's historic centre closed its doors (Dozens remain in outlying areas.)

So last year he and his mother did their bit to battle this decline and opened La Benita de los Claustros – partly to expose foreigners to the distinctive local cooking and hospitality, but also to help revitalise "our age-old profession" and stay relevant in changing times.

Most picanterías only serve lunch but here you can eat all day. The interiors of La Benita are more contemporary than usual, and there is also a separate chicheria – basically a bar that opens in the afternoons and serves everyday drinks such as home-brewed chicha and pisco-based chilcano cocktails.

By now I have sampled several emblematic plates including torrejas, fritters flavoured mainly with local herbs and cheese, and a groaning platter of solterito de queso, a salad of more than a dozen ingredients including diced cheese, chunky choclo corn kernels and beans – lima, of course.

Normally there would be rice and stew (guiso) to follow, and probably an entire degustation of desserts because South Americans are mad for sugar, but I must wave the white flag. I have a lunch date up the road at Chicha (chicha.com.pe), Gastón Acurio's more glamorous take on the picantería, set in a colonial home. (Acurio's menu at Chicha declares Arequipan gastronomy "one of the most beautiful cuisines of Peru".)

Tangled traditions

Whether haute cuisine or home-style, the dishes of Arequipa have evolved from tangled traditions. It is a cuisine where the ingredients of the coast, the altiplano (high plains) and the jungle meet native and colonial cooking methods. A good example of this crossbred approach is the signature rocoto relleno (stuffed pepper): the chilli comes from the jungle but the cheese, cream and meat all arrived from Spain.

Other picantería staples include roast suckling pig, prawn chowder (the Pacific is just 90 minutes away), boiled brisket in spicy mashed potato, and guinea pig.

Each day, across every picantería, there are uniform specials of soup or stew. So a hungry citizen can drop into a tavern on a Tuesday, for instance, and know they can get chairo, a beef soup strengthened with spices, garlic and potato. On Monday, it's tripe soup, which sounds far less enticing.

These recipes tend to be passed down through the generations. La Benita also keeps a strong reference library at hand, including Alonso Ruíz Rosas's hardback bible The Great Mestizo Cuisine of Arequipa, and another tome dedicated solely to the province's food festivals.

It is easier to understand the diversity and sophistication of Arequipan cuisine after a visit to the cornucopia that is San Camilo market, where potatoes come in a rainbow of colours from yellow and pink papa llisa to the blue-tinged ojo azul, and proteins run the gamut from dried scallops to pork trotters. The Arequipa valley is a desert oasis where pre-Incan terraces irrigated by melting glaciers support myriad crops including corn, broccoli and alfalfa.

Democratic spaces

In 2012, the city's leading restaurateurs formed the Picantera Society of Arequipa "… to preserve the quality of its ingredients and know their culinary techniques and procedures".

The society, whose honorary members include Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa, has written a definition of what makes an authentic picantería, right down to prescribing what specials must be served on which day.

Most importantly, it decrees, these Andean pubs should be "democratic spaces where anyone can enjoy the traditional cuisine, take a drink of chicha, and socialise cordially".

It sounds like a recipe for success, for now and for the future.

Finanacial Review |Kendall Hill

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