Colombian Coffee has to be called all together and with great respect, as it is considered the best mild coffee in the world, even protected by the European Union, a sort of Miss Coffee with bodyguards. Colombians are also very particular when it comes to taking it, because, as it is common in the world of gastronomy, there are a thousand rules on how to do it. Good coffee is prepared without sugar, since it only covers the taste and it's only mixed in amateur mugs or low-quality ones. Furthermore, the type of coffee that they most consume is called "tinto" (red), and it would be what we know as Americano coffee.
If the English pour tea every few minutes and at any situation, Colombians definitely do the same with coffee. The hostels I slept at offered free tintos, and you get to feel comforted when it is certain that, at least, we will still have coffee.
In the coffee region we were lucky enough to visit a coffee plantation, where we were shown the process of threshing and drying. First one machine takes the beans out of the pods and another washes them. Then they go to a dryer where they are left for a whole day or night. Finally, they are packed and sold to companies who then are responsible for roasting and grinding. Drinking coffee directly from the farm leaves you with the feeling that all the coffee you've tried before was toxic. The trouble is that this affects all the coffee you'll make in the future, but, my kingdom for a horse! It's worth it.
I was innocently walking around the Medellin streets, when suddenly I realize there is a woman massaging a tree with some kind of elastic dough. The worst is nobody else seems to find it terribly weird, and that's one of those moments when you realize that there must be a hidden camera, or you are very, very foreign. With an inevitable curiosity I approach the tree and ask the lady directly what is she doing and if it's legal. Thank God Colombians are standardly nice. That's how I discover the beef leg jelly, typical from the Antioquian region and that tastes like marshmallows, if not exactly the same. But, if its made from beef legs, is it savory? Sweet? Beef legs are used only at the beginning to extract the jelly boiling it for hours. Afterwards they strain the liquid and cook it with cinnamon, cloves, sugar and evaporated milk. This mix is left to set, and when it has curdled is when is "massaged" in a stick to obtain the final product. It's sold in little sticks or packed, leaving no traces of its bovine origin. The truth is that this jelly is "bien rica mami" (very tasty mami), although quite overly sweet and hard to finish.
The enyucados or yucca cakes, on the other hand, are in fact perfectly fine to finish, and you even can't get enough of them. They are traditionally made with yucca, coconut, coastal cheese, sugar, butter, aniseed and a pinch of salt, although some varieties do without the cheese and add yokes or coconut, horses for courses!
In my almost blind search for Colombian restaurants around Bogotá, I ran into what it could be one of the few innovative patriotic bets: Nueve (nine). Nine what though? It could be nine pregnant months, nine knights at the table or nine apostles in a reduced version of the Testament. Well no, Nueve makes reference to the nine months of gestation, but the grape ones. We interviewed chef Pedro Escobar to clear our doubts and get some guidance around the almost virgin Colombian restaurant scene:
Interview with Pedro Escobar
Nora - Tell us a bit more about this organic concept of Nueve:
Pedro Escobar - Sure, Nueve makes reference to the wine's world, and first of all it aims to rescue the great effort the vine grower makes for us to taste his work turned into wine filling us with pleasure. For this reason, in Nueve it's all about making this soil the most favored with our work.
N - Let's talk about Nueve's menu: a lot of Spanish elements! We asked the waiter if you went to school in Spain, but he said it's because you travel a lot. In which way and how often these trips influence your your menu?
PE - To travel awakes your senses and makes me have the ingredients very present, so when I go back to Colombia I have better ideas to use these new products. I try to travel many times a year to be able to catch up on what's going on in the gastronomic world, and I bring memories of ingredients that were lost in my mind from each Country to restore them and make them part of my cuisine.
N - Wine is obviously a key element in the restaurant, you only have to go into the main room to realize. However, have you ever thought of trying some local pairings, for example with Colombian aguardientes or other local products?
PE - Wine is the restaurant's core idea indeed, to bring the customer the possibility of trying the highest number of wines, concept that doesn't exist anywhere else in Colombia. It's an education process, so when the public is ready we'll take the leap into new pairings, we'll do it someday.
N - When you enter the restaurant it gives the impression of a home, it seems that we are eating in someone's living room rather than in a restaurant. Is this notion of closed home intentional?
PE - Our intention is to have only two main characters: the food and the wine, so everything else needs to be accessory. In the exercise called enjoyment it's necessary to feel like at home and be as relaxed as possible, exempt of any distraction, that's why our style is exclusive and seclusive.
N - How did the Colombian public receive Nueve's proposal? How well accepted is contemporary cuisine like Nueve's?
PE - When we started with the tapas themes and small plates, many people wanted to see Spanish tortilla and jamón (Spanish ham) in the menu. The hardest part was to convince the customer that the cuisines are universal and that the tapas transcended to the point that they became a common way of eating. Not because they are tapas they necessarily have to be Spanish. The main thing was to have people constructing their own tasting menus without realizing, getting to change from one flavor to another. Even though our gastronomic culture might not be ready for this kind of menus, what seemed important was to prove to the client the advantages of trying new flavors and letting go in a real experience.
N - If you could eat tonight anywhere in the world, where would you go?
PE - I'd love to go to Osteria Francescana, of chef Massimo Botura.
N - Finally, how do you see yourself in 10 years?
PE - I see myself in charge of creating a space for leisure, it doesn't mind if they are culinary, oenological or alcoholic, getting to mix different flavors and working on a cuisine based on the quality of the product and a bit of imagination.
WE EAT AT... Nueve
- Fierce fried plantain: filled with aioli and homemade brava sauce. If fried plantain can be thin, this is the way to do it, no doubt. Dry first, rich after, a fight in the mouth.
- Cartagenean posta little empanadas and coastal serum: completely filled with meat, you get to be grateful for these empanadas in this half empty empanadas world. However, I find the meat a bit dry and lonely. Then there it comes the coastal serum, a typical sour cream, which balances it a bit.
- Vacuum cooked skirt steak, barley risotto and black truffle butter: although the presentation is not perfect - too brown and homogeneous - the flavors more than make it up for you. It's like bringing a field to the tongue, a plate that, if could have a profession, would be a huntsman.
The arepas might as well be the national Colombian plate, although they would have to share it with Venezuela. They are present in almost every breakfast with the coffee and the "good morning" since pre-hispanic times. For those who have never seen one, they look like round bread, usually made of corn, very dense and, as they say here, filling. There are different types for each region and variations in the fillings, being the egg one the best of the surprises. However, at the Colombian houses that hosted me, they would all eat cheese arepa, lightly toasted on the grill, served with scrambled eggs and the mandatory coffee, along with many indications about how to proceed with each of the elements.
I have included the carimañolas in this post because they are breakfast too, particularly in the Atlantic coast. These sweet-named fried things could be confused for giant croquets, but actually these ones are made out of yucca (or cassava). The yucca is one of those fortunate tubers that can be used for many things, and which is not very known around Europe for some unknown foolish reason. They mix yucca with soft cheese, and it is with this kind dough that they wrap the filling, usually beef meat or chicken, to finally fry the closed carimañola until it goldens. They are quite dense to the taste but decidedly satisfactory as breakfast, given the fact that they are little energy bombs.
Today the Caribbean cuisine is a mix rather confusing due to the influences from almost everywhere. As it is unfortunately common, the indigenous Caribes were exterminated almost completely during the Conquer and the remaining ones were sent off to Venezuela and Honduras. Caribe's language was lost around 1920, and their culinary traditions we can only try to sketch. The Colombian Caribbean coast is famous for its fiesta, the rum and for being Shakira's cradle, and there the skin is darker and the spirit alive.
Although the Caribes were known for their cannibal appetite (non proved theory), we won't talk today about human recipes. Other ingredients that they did use are the coconut and the fish, elements that have remained on the coastal tables, although for example a typical dish from Cartagena is the posta negra, which is beef. Some other typical dishes are shellfish rice, which could be a cross between a paella and three-jewel rice, and the coconut rice, which comes with every dish, no exception.
WE EAT AT... La Central Antillana
Cartagena de Indias
We order: Shellfish rice
If the secret of the rice is in the stock, the one used for this plate was the best stock ever boiled, with an incredible depth of flavor and quite a subtle call to the sea, almost elegant. What is not elegant is the imitation-crab stick but we'll forget about it given the excellence of the flavor.
Who would have thought it: Colombians are authentic soup fans. This passion of unknown and unguessable origin is extended through the whole Country. In fact, the Capital’s typical dish is a soup, the Ajiaco, and the one from Cartagena too, the Cartagenero Chicken Sancocho. Besides, absolutely every menu includes a soup for first course, thus the soup in Colombia is unavoidable.
The Ajiaco is a chicken and creole potato soup, quite dense, and it’s usually served with corn, capers and avocado. It’s said that the crucial ingredient is the guasca, similar to basil. In my opinion, this is one of those dishes that only come out right when it’s prepared by a mother, with care and time.
Colombia is divided in multiple regions which, defying the geographers, I'll gather more or less in four: the coast, the mountains, the jungle and the paisa region. The latter includes the people from Antioquia, Risaralda, Caldas, Quindío, North and East of the Cauca valley Northeast of Tolima, where the have a different accent and their own gastronomy. The paisas lisp proudly and are very enthusiastic with the food (and life in general), and, having into account that their typical dish has 14 elements, it could also be said that they also have a great appetite. The bandeja paisa is served on a tray because otherwise there wouldn't be enough space for everything, not joking. Let's say that if Hercules was a worker, on his break he would go to Colombia for a snack, none other that to eat white rice, mince, pork belly, fried egg, plantain, Antioquian chorizo with lemon, arepa, hogao, Cargamanto beans, sliced tomato, avocado and banana. Something light, we don't want to abuse. What is clear is that to face a bandeja paisa, at least you have to fast.
The bandeja paisa was chosen as the national plate not without controversy, because this choice would assume the paisa as the most representative Colombian. This is the reason why they promoted the dish to "mountaineer tray" or "bandeja montañera", although this identity change made no impression on the Colombian people, leaving the Country orphan of a national dish.