Updated: May 10
This winter Tom and I decided to take time off and close The Grand Hacienda in the off-season (November - April). Quite frankly, we needed to reset, refocus and recharge - to do what our quests do at The Grand Hacienda – go exploring, travel, relax and unwind, and redefine. We decided to spend our newly acquired free time in a state of renewal – renewal of our wellness, our recipes, our offerings and guest experiences at The Grand Hacienda. With a focus on wellness, health, cooking and gastronomy, we set out on a long journey through Central and South America to explore culture, meet its people, experience traditional food dishes, and take new cooking classes. Our food-minded adventures introduced us to wildly different recipes and techniques, which varied from region to region.
We found it easy to prepare and eat delicious, organic, clean and healthy food everywhere we went. We learned new styles of cooking that blend Spanish and indigenous influences. We experimented with herbs and spices that were new to us. We went to large and expansive fish markets and purchased fresh tuna, shrimp, crab and mahi-mahi that had just been unloaded from the boats. In fact, we spent some time watching the days' catch being unloaded from large and small ships onto trucks that delivered the fish to markets, restaurants and warehouses. Some of the large ships from deep out on the ocean unloaded fish from its frozen storage onto truck, after truck, after truck - for hours. We wondered how there could be any more fish left in the ocean!
We drank incredible coffees and teas and learned more about the health benefits of both. We learned about cellular health and how food is a medicine that can be used to hold off aging. We took cooking classes...and more classes. We experimented with flavors and spices. We soaked up the sun and new cultures.
We ran (literally) through the streets of villages along the way, up and down stairs and along beaches...performing endurance runs and High Intensity Interval Training....and often debating, strategizing and trying to figure out change along the way: why this with that? … do we need to change this? … should we add this? … is this idea a better approach? In addition to getting in great shape, we figured out our new strategies for The Grand Hacienda while running over those uneven, cobblestone, village streets.
Running through South America
Our journey started in Mexico, where – like our home in New Mexico - local recipes are a blend of indigenous and Spanish influences. Most recipes contain their most important crops: corn, beans, squash, fresh fruits and vegetables, chilies, and cacti.
The creativity of food was inspiring…different regions and even different villages have their own recipes – all fresh, all healthy and all delicious. So many flavors! Combining chocolate and chilies. Meats and fruits. Even insects and tacos – don’t worry, we won’t be including insects in our menu planning! The tradition of handmade tortillas. We had our fill of tacos, burritos, enchiladas, pozole and wonderful moles. The culture surrounding food is beautiful – meals are times to share with family and friends, where the love of cooking and the love of communicating over food is evident.
Recipes filled with fresh, organic food.
After Mexico, we set off to Central America - first stop: Guatemala. The regional dishes were similar to Mexican cuisine, but recipes had a bit more of a Maya influence. Pepián stew is considered to be the national dish and combines roasted meat, tomatoes, chilies, seeds, cilantro, onion and spices. Guatemala is also said to be the birth place of chocolate, and the Mayans considered chocolate to be the food of the gods and cherished for its health benefits. Cacao was so precious, it was a form of currency and was traded.
A highlight for us was visiting a chocolate farm and making (and eating) our own chocolate bars from cacao beans.
From Guatemala we ventured into El Salvador, the smallest country in Central America. Salvadorean cuisine has an entirely different flavor profile, but still relies on indigenous foods such as corn and beans. The country dish is pupusa, a corn or rice flatbread stuffed with fillings - meats, cheese, beans, squash and loroco flower buds – and served with tomato sauce and curtido, which is a side dish of cabbage, carrots cucumbers and vegetables. Pupusas are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We learned that pupusas originated in El Salvador as long as 2,000 years ago! Soups are very popular…although I had to pass on the cow feet and tendon soup varieties.
Continuing south, we traveled into South America, first stop: Ecuador. Did you know the famous Panama straw hats are actually made in Ecuador, with the finest hats being hand-crafted in the small village of Montecristi, Ecuador?
Another important fact about Ecuador is they were the first country in the world to recognize and declare the rights of nature, that nature has a right to grow, flourish and exist, and charged the government with the responsibility to protect nature. Much effort is put into protecting Ecuador’s carbon-absorbing mangrove forests, which are actually protected under the Ecuador constitution.
We thought we lived in high altitude in Abiquiú, around 6,200 feet above sea level, but the capital city of Quito has us beat at 9,350 feet above sea level. Its historic center is so well preserved that it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The varied typography and climates in the country enable Ecuadorians to grow some of the finest produce in South America. Another fun fact – Ecuador is the top exporter of bananas…chances are the last banana you ate was from Ecuador. A national dish of bolon de verde should be experienced – a baseball sized ball of dough layered with green plantains and stuffed with pork and cheese. I couldn’t bring myself to join Tom in sampling cuy (pronounced ‘kwee’) – the Ecuadorian specialty of guinea pig, but I could eat llapingachos (like potato pancakes) all day long.
Ecuador has extensive shrimp and mangrove mud crab industries. Crabbers, or cangrejeros, make a living by collecting crabs that burrow in the mud under the mangrove trees, and they have taken on the role of trying to protect the mangroves by reporting illegal activities that impact the mangroves. Protecting the mangrove sites is at odds with the booming shrimp industry; shrimping farmers need more space for their shrimping pools, and too often illegally cut down the mangroves for expansion. In fact, the country has lost about 23% of its mangroves since the 1970’s, and much of that loss is due to uncontrolled expansion of shrimping pools. As we took a ride down through the river on small, long boats, we could see shrimping pool after shrimping pool, all guarded by armed guards.
We left Ecuador and passed over Peru, unfortunately. Due to political unrest, Peru was not allowing visitors to enter the country.
Our last country to visit was Chile. Chile is a long and narrow country – almost 2,700 miles long from north to south and only 112 miles wide from east to west. 90% of its population lives in the middle third of the country. Chile’s diverse geography and climate allows the country to produce wonderful fruits and vegetables, and menus are filled with fresh seafood choices due to the country’s long coastline.
Many say the national dish is Pastel de Chocio – a corn casserole, using the corn variant called chocio, with meat. Dinners are served, and recipes enhanced, with local wines – Chile is the six-largest producer of wine in the world, behind Italy, France, Spain, the US and Australia.
Have you ever enjoyed dulce de leche? This is another notable contribution to cuisine from Chile. And, of course, Chileans are very proud of their pisco – a locally produced brandy. Chile and Peru both claim to have the most authentic, highest quality version of pisco. Since we couldn’t try pisco in Peru, we gave the winning nod to Chile.
The Art of Tea