Sunday, November 15, 2009

HAVE A HEART

The other night I attended a media evening to celebrate the discovery of an amazing ‘mummy’, Senora de Cao (the lady of Cao), who has been uncovered in coastal Peru complete with her favourite keepsakes and ornate carved jewellery. Very impressive.

I have to admit I was a bit hazy about Peru. I knew a few things, most of them sticking in my mind from primary school – you know, Lake Titicaca is the world’s highest lake, for example, and that the local people travel on it in reed boats. I’ve always wanted to see that.

But my knowledge base falls into a complete abyss when it comes to Peruvian food. I guess I imagined it was like Argentina’s cuisine – meat, meat and more meat – which is silly as it is across the continent, and far north with a totally different climate and terrain.

One thing I learned is that Peru has three thousand varieties of potatoes. Not really surprising as, after all, these were one of the New World finds made by Columbus – but three thousand types? Later I discovered there are 200 varieties around Lake Titicaca alone.

After the presentation we were taken to the hotel’s rooftop terrace overlooking a part of Sydney where some of the city’s older buildings make a gracious foreground for the glittering highrise of the CBD.

A small group of Peruvian dancers in hot pink, black and lime green, blue and yellow national dress entertained us. If it was a courtship dance, as it seemed to be, then the guys were certainly being persuasive, and the girls provocative. The fast-tempo panflute music was evocative of the era in the seventies when it became a hit here too.

Finally – by now we were starving – when the canap├ęs arrived, prepared by the Mercure Hotel’s chefs but to Peruvian recipes, of course, we fell on them. Some were recognisable enough. There were tiny empanada-type pastries, a chicken ‘curry’ sitting on a deadly-hot Tabasco base, but one I puzzled over.

On one platter, bamboo skewers held small cubes of meat, and of course potatoes. However it was the meat that had me guessing. It was dark brown and tasted decidedly beefy but the texture didn’t show muscle fibres. It was tender, but dense, and raised a long-lost taste memory that I just couldn’t immediately unearth. It wasn’t liver…….


“Chicken,” said one friend who had gobbled it so fast he plainly hadn’t looked.

“Pork,” said another, adding, “it looks like pork.”

It didn’t at all, so I waylaid the next server and asked him.

“Beef heart,” he said confidently, and then it all made sense. The density of the texture, that subtle long-ago flavour.

My mother used to stuff and bake heart – maybe it was a sheep’s heart, I was too young to take much interest – but it was delicious, and I loved it. Although you may shudder.

A little exploring on the internet taught me that I had eaten anticuchos, a popular snack in Peru. They are simply marinated and grilled cubes of beef heart served on skewers and often sold by street vendors or in Creole restaurants.

The downside is that, like lots of offal, heart is not actually so good for our own hearts because it is quite high in cholesterol. But you’d have to agree that it is still truly heart-y eating.

(Further reading: Everything but the Squeal, Wakefield Press, 2009, is a fabulous book which I enjoyed immensely.

It concerns John Barlow’s quest to eat every part of the pig as it is used in various local dishes throughout the pig-raising, pork-loving region of Galicia in Spain’s north-west corner. It is beautifully written account of his ‘year of pigging out’ – sometimes nausea-inducing, especially for his wife who did not participate and banned some recipes being tested in her kitchen. She is a vegetarian!)

So tell me, please, dear food-lovers and fellow eating adventurers…..what is the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?