We had come to the town for bread, and bread we found: sweet and eggy and perfumed with cinnamon and crushed anis. I had rendezvoused with our designer Doug and his lovely wife Alex a few days earlier, and after a few days of being crushed by the Cusco hoards, we escaped to the countryside, in search of better food and company. So there we stood on the street corner smiling stupidly, breaking off warm bread in large chunks as the woman responsible for the heroic loaf, Sra. Rosario Baraques, 90 years young, waved to us from her perch by the hearth.
But something even stronger than the scent of toasted grain and caramelized sugar was working its way up the street, tractor beaming us in over the cobblestones of Oropesa. Its source was a block party of sorts, a spirited collection of revelers and plastic tables and heaping plates of food, all bathed in a mix of frying grease and Peruvian pipe jams from the radio.
It was a record-skip moment when we first approached: Who are these gringos and why aren’t they back in Cusco eating banana pancakes and hummus? Thoughts of retreat are unshakeable at times like these, both out of a desire to preserve the integrity of a superlative scene and to save a bit of pride in the face of inevitable awkwardness, but we forged ahead, emboldened by the beer we’d already had and the promise of more.
What we didn’t realize, though, was that despite the dense concentration of Pilsen bottles collected on the tables, beer had nothing to do with merrymaking going down before us; these people were here for the food. A bucket of butterflied trout slathered in a scarlet-red coat of pureed peppers and spice lay on the ground. Above it, a mix of cornmeal and granulated garlic. A middle-aged woman, plump and sweet as an apple empanada, gently dredged the filets in the cornmeal, then laid them across a large makeshift griddle covered in half an inch of oil, hissing hot from the pile of logs burning beneath. “Trucha o pollo?” With a trout stream gurgling not more than 100 yards from our table, did she really need to ask?
The fish comes with the two staples that follow you everywhere in the Andes: potatoes (Peru claims 3,000 varieties are cultivated within its borders… these particular papas were first boiled, then crisped on the griddle alongside the trout) and emerald green salsa de ají, Peru’s primary source of heat, a chili- and herb-based sauce that’s equal parts spicy and floral. These impressive sidekicks, though, are quickly forgotten, as is the fork they spent 15 minutes fetching for their gringo guests, as the first chunk of fish is lifted to your lips. It’s a marriage of extremes: crisp and tender, salty and sweet, rugged and refined. If I found this fish find hidden in the back of my fridge three days later, I’d devour it on the spot without thinking twice.
Turns out these trout whisperers, this band of half-a-dozen cornmeal-coated women, aren’t just crack cooks; they also represent a lifeline for the community. With iron sheet trays and plastic trout buckets in tow, they roam from town to town in Cusco’s Valle del Sur, cooking fish, roasting chicken and selling beer, then offering the proceeds up to families in need. Cusco, after all, is one of Peru’s poorest regions, a fact readily apparent once you venture beyond the historic center of the city itself. And easily forgettable once you find yourself a part of a scene as vibrant and beautiful as the one we stumbled onto.
We made quite a few friends that afternoon. A couple taught me a few choice phrases in Quechua, an archaeologist offered us an exclusive tour of the valley’s lesser-known ruins, a big-bellied man showed us how they pour the first few ounces of their large bottles of beer out for their dead Incan homies—a tradition that apparently predates urban forty-ounce etiquette by about 500 years.
Environment has an undeniable influence on the way we perceive taste, which is why a lobster on a bench on the coast of Maine or a plate of fried dumplings on the streets of Shanghai can be every bit as satisfying as a $300 tasting menu at the French Laundry. And that’s why, as I spent the better part of an hour freeing every last morsel of trout from its skeleton, playing those fish bones like a harmonica, thoroughly lost in the hospitality of the Andean people, there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that at that moment, I was eating the most delicious fish in the world.