Of Deserts and Pisco, Guinea Pig and the Sky

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During the visit of my mother and sister two weeks ago, one Sunday we decided to take a leisurely drive south of Lima, if for nothing better than to sightsee and have lunch.  When I came to Peru in 2007 I had visited a small restaurant literally built into the side of a very steep hill, called Balcón del Cielo (Balcony of the Sky).  The food is quite good typical Peruvian cuisine, and the view is spectacular, overlooking the valley of Azpitia below with its river and many orchards and mountains looming in the background.

We started the day off around noon (planning to have lunch around 2:00 PM, right on time for Peru!), and started driving south on the Panamericana highway.  As I have commented to many friends who have never been to Lima, you don’t realize that Lima is located in the middle of a desert until you drive outside the city.  The terrain is quite rugged, with large mountains of sand to the east and the Pacific ocean in view to the west.  Every so often during the drive you will come across a green zone, where a river flows from the Andes making its way to the sea.  As it was explained to me by a colleague, there are several river valleys up and down Peru that run east to west, and because of the arid climate these fertile areas were once used by the ancient peoples to cultivate their food.  They were intelligent enough to build their dwellings just outside the green areas so as not to destroy the fertility of the land, a practice apparently forgotten by the modern inhabitants.  All these valleys of Peru contain only one river, the exception being Lima whose valley contains three:  Chillón, Rímac and Lurín, and because of this the Spanish chose this area as the capital of their conquered territories.

As we continued our drive south we approached an exit on the highway marked “Azpitia”.  The last time I had visited the area we had been in Mala and had arrived from a different direction.  This route certainly seemed more convenient, so I exited and the road took us up and over the highway heading eastbound.  No sooner had we crossed the highway did the pavement end and dirt road began.  As my family has at various times lived on country roads, this was nothing unusual for us.  A few kilometers more and the road nearly ended, and there was a sign posted “Azpitia” with an arrow directing us to the right.  We turned and immediately encountered a large somewhat muddy dip in the road.  Now we found ourselves on a smaller, one-lane dirt road, and with heads bobbing due to the uneven surface we continued as fast as I dared to go.  As luck would have it there was a car approaching from the opposite direction, and as they came closer each of us inched off to his side of the road so that we could safely pass.  Another few kilometers more and the road curved to the right, and we found ourselves smack in the middle of desolate, mountainous desert.  I myself was starting to feel a bit apprehensive and hesitantly continued forward at a slower pace, scanning the terrain for any sign of life, animal or plant, benevolent or otherwise.  I suddenly began laughing when I spotted a sign to El Sarcay de Azpitia, a Pisco distillery which produces several very fine types of Peru’s famous spirit.  Looking just ahead we noticed that someone had created an enormous white arrow on the side of the mountain, pointing in the direction of said distillery and marked with its name.  I, at least, was happy to have happened upon this little gem in the midst of the desert!  Onward we continued on bumpy dirt roads surrounded by nothing but sand and dirt and the sun glaring down on us from high above.  We continued another kilometer or so on the road that finally became very narrow, and I carefully maneuvered over the crest of the hill. Revealed to us was the valley of Azpitia, stretching out far below us.  The road now appeared to have been excavated hanging onto the side of the mountain, quite precipitous and I hugged the side of the road with the car as closely as I dared.  In the distance, created on the side of another mountain, was another gigantic arrow pointing us in the direction of El Sarcay.  As we descended on the curving dirt road I was reminded of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball in the movie The Long, Long Trailer.  So, some minutes later we entered El Sarcay de Azpitia and found several other people in their tasting room enjoying small samples of the excellent distillate.  Having tasted a few samples we took a moment to peer into building housing their equipment and various Piscos which were resting in large white containers.  The attendant explained that the harvest was set to begin in just a few days, somewhat later than normal due to cool weather.  As everyone had now worked up an appetite, we left although I was certain I would return soon, hopefully with someone else in the driver’s seat so that I could enjoy a broader sampling of their Pisco.

Continuing towards our dining destination we continued on through very sparsely populated territory.  We passed through an area lush with orchards: avocados, pears, grapes, and other unidentified trees.  The day was very hot and the sun very bright, and we realized that the small irrigation canals running through the orchards were the sole lifeline for the plants growing in this extremely arid climate.  I continued to maneuver the car slowly over the bumpy dirt road, passing from time to time a house or a dog.  After a few more kilometers I turned to the right and seeing the river and valley stretched out below, I realized we were on the final leg of our journey to the famed Balcón del Cielo.  Within a few minutes we pulled up in front of the restaurant, exited the car and made our way into the dining area.  We were fortunate to get a table for the five of us on an isolated terrace in the shade overlooking the broad expanse of the valley below.  Now, this restaurant is particularly known for the river prawns, camarones, which being from Kentucky remind me of crawdads on steroids, reaching a length of about seven or eight inches.  Unfortunately, this is the time of the veda, when it is forbidden to harvest them to allow for the reproductive cycle.  However, one of the features of the day immediately caught my attention: cuyCuy, the little rodent that sends shivers of horror through Americans who fondly think of them as childhood pets – the guinea pig!  I have actually eaten this Peruvian delicacy prepared in several different ways, but I had never tried it simply fried.  I didn’t consider another thing on the menu and immediately placed my order for cuy frito.  When he finally arrived, quartered, pan-fried to a deep golden brown, and with his head, his presentation elicited giggles from around the table.  We couldn’t resist taking a few photos in order to horrify or titillate our family and friends back stateside.  Well, I must say that this was the most delicious preparation of cuy that I have tried.  Although they do have lots of little bones to deal with, the flavor is rich but delicate, and the crispy skin makes a nice contrast to the soft meat.  Not having an extensive list of wines to choose from, and frankly being quite thirsty from the long, hot drive, I opted for a cold beer to accompany my plate of guinea pig.  Had I had my choice of any wine, what would I have chosen to accompany fried cuy?  Because of the richness of the meat I would venture to say a bold Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Savennières comes to mind.  Or a Chardonnay from the Mâcon.  Or perhaps even an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, one that’s a bit richer in body from the Wachau.  Even a lighter red such as a Blauburgunder from Italy’s Südtirol would be quite tasty.  And other cuy inspired wine pairings?  Well, that’s food (or wine) for thought for another visit to the valley of Azpitia.

Many thanks to my mother, Judy Smith-Miller, for the photos shown herein.

About Gregg Smith

Gregg Smith is an American sommelier certified by The Court of Master Sommeliers living in Lima, Peru, and serving as director of the wine and bar program at Central Restaurante.
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One Response to Of Deserts and Pisco, Guinea Pig and the Sky

  1. Shelley says:

    I so hoping to duplicate this itinerary when we come to Lima in June.

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