Bolivian buzz

SANTA CRUZ DE LA SIERRA — While one group of renowned Argentine chefs recently spent a week cooking in London under the Comilona moniker, a different gathering of celebrity chefs from the telly headed to Cachi in Salta for similar reasons this weekend — for Pueblo Abierto. Safety in numbers, it seems.

Llama tartare.
Llama tartare.

Meanwhile, in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, Fernando Rivarola, chef patron of El Baqueano, has been representing at the second edition of Encuentros. Truth be known, the San Telmo eatery is in fact a two-man show, given that his sommelier-partner Gabriela Lafuente manages front of house.

And given that El Baqueano (translation: guide or scout) focuses on sourcing then using native produce such as yacaré (alligator) or llama, the restaurant has garnered a substantial following — as well as plenty of respect thanks to its Cocina Sin Fronteras project.

Inviting notable chefs from around the continent to prepare “frontierless cuisine” has been a veritable hit since it started three years ago, attracting huge names from Latin America’s culinary world.

In March, I devoured every last chunk at the meat fest led by Fer and guests Renzo Garibaldi from Lima’s Osso and Juan Gaffuri from Recoleta’s Elena, while the Virgilio Martínez extravaganza — Virgilio heads Central, the best restaurant in the continent according to Latin America’s 50 Best 2014 — in October 2013 was simply epic.

This time round, however, El Baqueano is playing an away game in Santa Cruz at the Bolivian version of Cocina Sin Fronteras, Encuentros. The brainchild of Cruceño hotelier slash restaurateur Jorge Calvo and Peruvian gastro journalist Javier Masías, Encuentros round one took place in October last year, hosting Lima’s Rafael Piqueras from Maras, who teamed up to cook with Jaime Barbas from host restaurant Jardín de Asia. But besides putting together creative tasting menus that only those from a certain social class can afford, Encuentros also aims to raise Santa Cruz’s culinary bar, starting with the grass roots.

A three-step project, Jorge’s aim is to develop his city’s food scene, learning through the experiences of cooks from other countries.

“Bolivia has so much potential,” he told me on Thursday as we drove to San Juan, a Japanese colony 130km from Santa Cruz, to check out some clams.

El Baqueano's Fer Rivarola at Encuentros.
El Baqueano’s Fer Rivarola at Encuentros.

Overshadowed by neighbours?
Bolivia is often overshadowed by neighbouring Peru — and Santa Cruz in turn usurped by La Paz thanks to Gustu, the culinary project launched by Noma’s Claus Meyer — but the Andean/Amazonian nation’s larder shares many similarities.

Royal quinoa, trout from Lake Titicaca (caught from the highest lake in the world at 3,812 metres, imagine!), paiche river fish from the Amazon, meat such as yacaré alligator or llama and chuño dried potato are just some of Bolivia’s star ingredients. The fresh, minty-citrus herb quirquiña and achachairú fruit are both autochthonous, meanwhile.

Plus there’s a huge food cart or agachados scene, with street food from chicken heart skewers to pork head soup served up from tiny portable grills or enormous vats loaded on the back of a tricycle or a small truck located under flyovers or on roundabouts all over the city.

Beside El Abasto market where home cooks whip up the same dish on a daily basis from their carts, another must is the Mercado Nuevo indoor market’s numerous fixed stands that attract dozens of diners all day long, who chow down red blood cell-producing revuelto de higado (liver and scrambled eggs) or fricase (a tender pork soup), traditional regional dishes. The former made by Mario Higado is a must, not least because of his riotous banter.

Throw into the mix a small yet growing fine dining scene that includes Jorge’s own prestigious establishment Jardín de Asia that fuses Asian flavours with those from the Amazon and Andes, as well as Dossier (possibly Latin America’s most economical eight-step tasting menu at US$20) led by Japan-trained chef Franklin Gushi and it’s evident that Santa Cruz’s fascinating food scene is just getting started.

A sea of bananas at El Abasto market, Santa Cruz de la Sierra
A sea of bananas at El Abasto market, Santa Cruz de la Sierra

On a mission
Encuentros’ first mission is to enthuse cruceño culinary students, which is where guests chefs’ words of advice enter the equation. Given his travels around the continent as well as in Argentina, Fer documents a lot of his research — check out the Andean potato video on YouTube and you’ll never look at a papa andina the same way again — showing a true and inspiring passion for sourcing then cooking with native produce. Around 400 students attended his talk on Monday, keen to snap photos with the chef who ranks 18 in Latin America’s 50 Best.

The second mission then selects the two best cooks from UDI and Atapy culinary schools to undertake a day’s work prepping alongside Fer and Gabi for the Encuentros eight-step tasting menu that saw him team up with Jaime Barbas on Wednesday.

(A bonus track was a discussion led by Javier Masías and me with local journalists, sharing ideas on how to improve local gastronomic writing, something Jorge is keen to address given that copy often focuses on which celebrity was dining out rather than the fare itself.)

And of course the dinner. Fer’s usual scenario focuses on 20 diners but the ante was upped by six with 120 diners keen to sample his wares, prepared in collaboration with Jardín de Asia’s Jaime.

The Bolivian influence
The Bolivian influence was a pintaboca Andean potato causa, notable for its violent violet tone and burst of flavour taken in a single bite, and filete a la ceniza, sirloin bathed in ashes whose smokiness translated into a stunning savoury show (note that the nelore cattle breed used in pretty darn tender). Although Fer travelled with a suitcase stuffed with implements and magical must-carry ingredients, he strictly used Bolivia-sourced produce, that included yacaré alligator and llama.

Standout dishes included the crudo de llama, a delectable tartare topped with tiny ocra and mustard gel balls and violet borage, as well as the Andean potato decline showcasing several techniques applied to a cluster of varieties from a subtle creamy soup to wafer-thin crisp papas that also highlighted each’s differing flavour and textures. The whole yellow oca, edged toward sweet, for example. He also reworked tiramisu to include a crunchy base — so much better than the usual soggy affair — and heavenly salted coffee sauce.

The upshot? Borders are continuing to fall, gastronomically speaking, as experiences becomes shared thanks to ventures such as Buenos Aires’ Cocina Sin Fronteras and Santa Cruz’s Encuentros, with the latter helping to lift Bolivia’s profile out of the shadow of Peru.

Buenos Aires Herald, May 24, 2015
Ph: Pablo Bacarat, Jorge Calvo, SMW

Last week’s Wining On went to Gran Dabbang.

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