Well, I’m still alive. I’ve just spent a fairly insane week in the southern city of Pasto with three crazy Colombian pagans, during the Black and White Festival – its most intense week. I’ve witnessed arcane rituals in front of volcanoes, choked on foam and powder in street battles, and almost lost my mind at an indigenous ceremony. I’ve also fallen in love with this fiercely unique city nestled in its cradle of mountains. One of the reasons is the food, and this is the subject I’d like to explore today.
1. Guinea Pigs.
When I was little, I had a fluffy black and white rabbit called Honey Bunny. I loved this rabbit – it was just so cute and companionable, and, of course, had the best name in the world. Well, one morning, my mother woke me up with some awful news: my beloved companion had died of a heart-attack after a fox had tried to kill it. I was given two guinea pigs to try to assuage my loss; but I didn’t really appreciate the gesture. Smelly, ugly, and stupid; those little rodents could never replace my cuddly Honey Bunny friend (I would learn years later from my sister that the fox had actually ripped my beloved companion to shreds, and that Mum couldn’t bring herself to tell me the terrible truth). Ever since then, I’ve felt an unjustified animosity towards these rodents – that is until yesterday, when I discovered what they’re actually good for. Guinea pigs are delicious!
Pasto and its surrounds are crazy about guinea pigs, especially if they’ve been impaled on a spit and roasted. With good reason, too: the meat is rich, and the skin is crisped to perfection. And so delicious: if a chicken and a pig ever had a love-child, it would taste a bit like Guinea Pig. Eating it, too, I think, gave me a feeling of satisfied vengeance. Honey Bunny: this one’s for you.
You may or may not be aware about my ambiguous relationship with plantain. However, Chachi, a young, skilled Pastuso chef of the Cacao restaurant, has given me another reason to think maybe it’s not that bad, after all. He served us up these canastas, little crisp parcels of plantain deliciousness encasing a mouth-watering array of fillings. We especially waxed lyrical about the one with corn, bacon, and a rich white sauce. OK, plantain; I’ll give you another point in your favour.
Look, even though sometimes it has to be drunk here in Colombia, I don’t like aguardiente. Who in their right mind would drink liquid ant-bite? Narino, the local brand of this terrible drink, is not quite as acrid as the Bogotan version, but it’s still not very good. Chachi, however, again came through in defence of his nation’s food and beverages, by opening up a mysterious soft-drink bottle full of Chapil, a local artisanal version of the Colombian aniseed liquor. Whereas aguardiente is rough as guts, chapil is smooth, well-rounded, and refined. There’s no sharp bite to the throat, but instead a rich, complex, full-bodied aniseed flavour. It does pack a punch, though – it’s not really the sort of thing you’d want to do too many shots of, more something to take your time to enjoy.
After gracing us with this revelation, Chachi had another surprise in store, and served up Hervidos made with this mystical chapil. I’d already had this drink on the banks of La Cocha lagoon, made with the more run-of-the-mill aguardiente, and loved it. Made with blackberry or passionfruit with cinnamon and local herbs, and served piping hot, it’s the perfect pick-me-up on a cool Pasto night. Chachi’s chapil version was viciously good.
Another artisanal treasure of Pasto is the local ice-cream, Paila. Making it is an age-old, proudly practiced tradition, and this pride comes through in the result. Rich, creamy and textured; it’s no wonder the good residents of Pasto go into raptures about it. Served in an array of flavours, we particularly appreciated the plain “cream” variety with its sneaky suggestion of cinnamon.
5. Mr Chicken.
Although it’s not exactly an age-old tradition, the consumption of fried chicken at this monster of a restaurant is nevertheless still a Pasto institution. During Carnaval, this joint was absolutely jumping – it felt like the entire city was in there getting their chicken on. It’s pretty good, too – cooked just the way it should be, with thick, crispy, not too oily skin; and tender and moist inside. Try it with honey; I did after a moment of doubt, and actually really enjoyed it.