Four tourists are pacing and staring at a mound of earth, and I’m one of them. It apparently contains our lunch, though I’m a bit uneasy about consuming anything quite so literally ‘from the land’. There’s no steam, heat or aromas that usually signify food cooking. Just a mound of dry, dusty Sacred Valley earth. If I hadn’t been there to watch what happened first, I wouldn’t believe it, and certainly wouldn’t be eating it.
Standing in an open clearing on an organic farm in the Sacred Valley, I can’t help but feel the weight of history around me. I can see the imposing ruins of Ollantaytambo fortress in the background, and the ancient Inca terraces on which we stand have been farmed for centuries with quinoa, potatoes and corn, nurturing generation after generation. Steven and I are here to witness and partake in a pachamanca lunch.
I had read a lot about this, and was excited to finally experience it. Pacha means earth and manca means oven in Quechua, the language of the Inca, which is still widely spoken in the Andes of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. So the name quite literally describes the cooking method, where meat and vegetables are cooked on hot stones, buried under earth. But for the Incas it meant so much more that whipping up lunch.
Pachamanca was not an every day cooking method. It was a highly ritualised and sacred meal for special occasions. The connection between pachamama (mother earth – don’t confuse the two words!) and the food she provided was extremely important to the Incas.
Preparing the pachamanca lunch – step by step
The first step involves preparing the stones, which are local granite rocks, arranged around a wood and charcoal fire to heat them up. Once they are extremely hot, the stones are transferred to a pit that has been dug in the earth, and quickly brushed off. The ingredients are arranged on the stones, in the order of cooking time required. Our meal includes chicken, pork and lamb from local producers, and vegetables straight off the farm including an array of native potatoes and sweet potatoes, corn, and habas, a type of local bean.
The potatoes and sweet potatoes go in first, and are covered with stones. Then the meat is laid in, skin-side down, sizzling as the fat touches the hot stones. They are quickly covered with more hot stones, and in next go the ears of corn.
The whole thing is covered in herbs – huacatay, a local cousin of marigold. The habas, which don’t need much time or intense heat, are laid on top to slowly cook from the heat and aromas permeating upwards. The mound of stones and food is then covered with an organic cloth – anything synthetic would burn. Finally, the entire mound is covered in earth, carefully checking that there are no gaps for steam to escape.
So that’s how we came to stand staring at a nondescript mound of earth. The cooking time depends on how big the pachamanca is – how much food is in there and how hot the stones are. I was surprised to hear that our meal would cook in only 15 – 20 minutes!
Once the food is cooked, the layering process is quickly reversed, peeling back the layers, finally allowing steam and delicious smells to escape. The food is whisked off to be cut up, and then beautifully presented at the farm table, which was set up al fresco, under a thatched roof with views of Ollantaytambo ruins.
Pachamanca lunch: taking a bite of history
The food that came out of the pachamanca was absolutely delicious – the meat and potatoes were crispy and charred on the outside, with a slight smokey favour, but succulent and soft on the inside. My conclusion is that it’s a cross between a BBQ and a pressure cooker! The pachamanca lunch was served up with a fresh salad from the organic farm, a variety of interesting dips and dressings, and a big jar of chica morada, a refreshing local drink made from purple corn.
Even though this pachamanca was prepared for visitors, the setting on the organic farm is stunning, and you can’t help but feel the connection to pachamama and the ancient land around you, knowing that meals have been prepared here, in this way, by the Andean people for centuries. It was really special.
Pachamanca lunch: an experience to remember
As we slowly tick off the big bucket list sites of Peru, I really feel that some of my favourite moments are the authentic experiences; opportunities to witness and participate in genuine tastes of the country, understanding more about its complex past and the way it shapes modern Peru.
Gastronomy in Peru is booming and gaining an international reputation for its incredibly diverse native ingredients, and the exciting modern fusion of international flavours. But even Lima’s celebrity chefs attribute their roots and inspiration to the Andes. These ancient mountains and pachamama continue to feed and inspire the modern Peru.
For anyone passing through the Sacred Valley with an afternoon to spare, I really recommend this special pachamanca lunch experience at El Albergue Organic Farm – it’s US $40 per person, and you need to book in advance via the hotel adjacent to the farm.