“It is believed the potato is a filler, a food that’s low in nutrients—that is a myth we are trying to change,” he tells us, after a long day working in his blooming fields on Pachamama’s soil. As a fourth-generation farmer, affectionately nicknamed “The Potato Whisperer,” he grew up playing with the potatoes, ocas and mashuas he now cultivates. “I am an agronomist but I don’t know if I should also call myself an investigator or a very restless entrepreneur,” he jokes. His friendly demeanor is so quintessentially Peruvian (“he is more Peruvian than the potato” is a popular national saying).
The path to tuber technicolor began 15 years ago, when Manuel and his father, a fellow agronomist and conservationist, visited Andean communities and gathered 350 native potato varieties with different flavors and textures and thousands of years of regional history. When Manuel observed that pigmentation was linked to nutritional value, he started playing genetic matchmaker. He cross-pollinated ultra-pigmented varieties by hand (“I transfer the pollen from A to B”) and thereby intensified the color generationally with a simple method possibly used for millennia. In creating biofortified potatoes rich in vitamin C, iron, zinc, and antioxidants, he believes he can combat illness and childhood malnutrition, prevalent in remote villages. Even the peels are vitamin C-packed, a fact, Manuel says, that surprises most. “Two years ago, we had a red potato that looked like a beet,” he tells us proudly. According to Manuel, beet-red potatoes are high in beta-carotenes, while their purple cousins contain anthocyanins, thought to prevent ocular disease and cancer, respectively.
His efforts in rescuing dwindling varieties and revaluing Andean crops were not always recognized. Locally, people tend to favor big and bland peeling-friendly potatoes, with little nutritional content. Manuel’s tubers can be vibrant and intricate, looking more 3D-printed than naturally grown, which initially garnered him strange looks at markets. His varieties include the leona negra (black lioness), puma maki (puma’s paw), and kachunwakachi, which resembles the love child of a potato and a pine cone. Its Quechua name means “make the daughter-in-law cry” because peeling it can be arduous (and emotional). Kitchen knives aside, bringing back native species from obscurity and encouraging their widespread cultivation is essential, not only for nutrition, culinary innovation, and cultural heritage but also for a changing climate. “If you have diversity, there’s certain varieties that tolerate changes—that can survive pests, diseases, droughts, frost,” Manuel explains.
Over lunch, where the potato is not a side dish but a well-deserving main, Manuel sips from his own label of oca wine. Oca, one of the oldest Andean crops, is a sweet and tangy tuber with sunset shades—yellows, oranges, pinks, reds, and purples. Growing up, Manuel ate them like apples. To achieve ultimate sweetness, his father would use inherited sun-drying techniques. “He would wash the ocas and lay them out to concentrate the sugars,” Manuel recalls. The idea of then fermenting those sun-bathed tubers took hold, resulting in oca wine, the first of its kind. It is on the wine pairing menu at the acclaimed fine dining restaurant Mil Centro in Moray, 50 km Northwest of Cusco. “When I read that they were going to open and were dedicated to research, I think that’s the part that most caught my attention.”
A few years ago, when I first traveled to Moray myself, my breath was taken away, and not just because it’s located at 3,481 meters. Moray is an otherworldly Inca complex in the Sacred Valley, made up of excavated concentric circle terraces. Studies suggest it served as a research center for the Incas, where they experimented with crops at diverse elevations and temperatures. On the edge of Moray sits Mil Centro, a concept restaurant and microdistillery, housing a modern-day research center, Mater Iniciativa—whose location could not be more fitting.
Travels in his native Peru—and specifically to the ruins of Moray—inspired world renowned chef Virgilio Martínez to present Peru’s gastronomy in his select group of fine dining restaurants as ecosystem-based dishes, which vary according to altitude. Mil, for example, focuses on Andean-specific ingredients. Mater Iniciativa is the investigative arm of the group and is overseen by his sister, Malena Martínez. Mater extends beyond gastronomy into arts and culture, reincorporating techniques and rediscovering native products—ingredients, medicinal herbs, and botanical dyes.
Teams are guided in gathering local histories and uses and return with intriguing findings for analysis, cataloguing, and experimentation. Their evolving and far-reaching registry (500 products plus 100 traditions, and counting) works to preserve and protect national culture.
Mil Centro carefully integrates with its environment—from the earth-plastered walls to the ichu grass roof applying Incan weaving techniques) and the artisan ceramics (some crafted by neighboring villagers in a Mater-led workshop). Rows of foraged flora, like kjolle flowers, tiklla warmi plants and cjuñu muña bunches, hang to dry, while meticulously-labeled mason jars hold products like krameria lappacea root and cushuro cyanobacteria. “When the identity is very well rooted, it allows us to be able to better transmit things,” Virgilio says. “We don’t have to use special effects or rethink things so much.” The concept works organically because it is as clear as the nearby Andean glacial lakes.
Surrounding farmlands allow them to grow crops, such as potatoes, ocas, kiwicha, and tarwi, and run community workshops. “We wanted to create a space for an honest conversation, so we decided to do it in the fields. Our farm work became our table,” Malena says, of this dialogue and exchange. “One of the things that makes me proud is that Peruvian gastronomy is closely linked to agriculture,” Virgilio adds. Mil Centro collaborates with adjacent communities, Mullakas-Misminay and Kacllaraccay, and farmers like Manuel Choqque Bravo. “We learn a lot from the relationship with the producers and their environment. From their craft and art,” he says. “This, for us, is vital.”
As for the tug-of-war between tradition and innovation, Virgilio says it’s not necessary. “We see that there shouldn’t be a struggle between the two. That’s why we see tradition as the root of everything, of the knowledge itself. And we give it a very important place.” Therefore, each dish not only uses indigenous altitudinal ingredients, but also relays a thoughtful cultural translation of a place—for instance, the huatia, a large earth oven used in communal harvest celebrations, is reimagined as a potato-centered table experience (“You are eating what comes from the earth in the earth,” Malena says, of its significance).
Mater and Mil are part of a growing movement that uses gastronomy and the arts as important platforms for showcasing, honoring, promoting, and preserving Peru’s heritage in the region and on the world stage. “There is knowledge that has been lost and that we have been finding,” Virgilio says, of this effort. “As part of our culture, we understand we have to rescue it.”
Initiatives like these demonstrate that the key to Peru’s sustainable future is a symbiosis between tradition and innovation, rooted in the deep respect and understanding of its biodiversity and cultural identity. As evidenced, successful models recognize the equal importance of everyone involved—a concept that extrapolates to Andean culture.
Whether it is the villager, the medicine man, the forager, the farmer, the researcher, the restaurateur, the ancestors, or the visitors themselves—they all hold equal value in keeping these stories alive. Perhaps Peru’s greatest richness after all, is its humanity
“Pachamama’s Land’’ is an essay in the 2021 issue of Directions, our annual magazine that looks at movements in travel, art, design, food, and wellness. This year’s issue “Odyssey’’ explores the central theme of Walking by inviting a broad range of voices to take a conscious exploration of this simple act.