On the terrace of his smallholding in Colonia Copacabana, in the heart of coffee country, Celso Mayta shows me his Cup of Excellence certificate. “In 2005, my Golondrina came second in the whole of Bolivia with 93 points,” he says. In these prestigious awards, at which the world’s best ‘cuppers’ taste hundreds of coffees over a three-week period, in countries ranging from Brazil and Colombia to Rwanda, anything over 92 out of 100 is considered world-class.
Shade-grown at 5,250ft, Mayta’s organic caturra and typica beans are washed in clear water from a stream above his house at Finca Golondrina (Hummingbird Farm), near Caranavi, in the subtropical Los Yungas region. They are then sun-dried to produce a caramel aroma and flavours of “citrus, apples, vanilla, chocolate and orange peel”.
Ely Abel, a barista at Gustu — the acclaimed restaurant in the south of La Paz, set up by Claus Meyer, the co-founder of Noma in Copenhagen — explains that high-altitude coffees often display this kind of flavour profile. “Our Senda Salvaje Peaberry coffee, grown at 5,900ft, has aromas of bright red strawberry and honeysuckle with a cocoa finish,” she says. “The mouth is then met with lemon acidity combined with juicy melon sweetness.”
On the steep hillside above Finca Golondrina, a woman in her 60s wearing traditional dress and a bowler hat is harvesting coffee cherries by hand. “That’s my mother,” Mayta says, introducing me to Fagostina Quispe. “When I was a child, I began harvesting coca,” she says, referring to the leaf chewed legally in Bolivia but also the raw ingredient in cocaine. Before the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, the Incas chewed coca in the same way; held in the cheek, a ball of the leaf releases a stimulant that numbs the tongue, enlivens the brain and encourages feats of superhuman endurance. Among its users were the chasquis, near-mythical messengers who sprinted all night along the tracks and precipitous gorges of the Andes with a pellet in their cheek, easily covering the 60 miles from La Paz to the balmy Yungas.
“We liked growing coca more than coffee,” Fagostina confides, “because the sacks were lighter and we could chew the leaf on the way down to stay alert.” All that changed after 2005, when speciality coffee began to command such high prices that it was, for a short time, more profitable than coca. These days, there is less of an economic incentive and Bolivia no longer hosts the Cup of Excellence challenge — but the country’s fruity, floral coffees (including Café Femenino, grown by women) remain one of its surprise exports.
In a cafe off the main square in Caranavi, I order a soup made from chuño — small potatoes spread on the ground to freeze-dry overnight, then trampled by bare feet and exposed to intense sunlight in a five-day process — served with beans, carrots and barley, accompanied by a cold Huari beer.
My main course is sajta (stew) — in this case chicken, but often made with beef and cow’s tongue — accompanied by rice, chuño negro (black wizened potatoes with a slightly sour taste) and sarza, a salad of tomato and shredded onion.
More typical of Los Yungas is the high-carb blow-out silpancho — plain white rice under a layer of sliced boiled potatoes on top, topped with a thin fillet of schnitzel-style meat fried in breadcrumbs, and a fried egg. That’s a slimmer’s choice compared to pique a lo macho, a heaped plateful of bite-sized beef medallions, frankfurter-style sausage and hard-boiled eggs, accompanied by onion, peppers, mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup and locoto, the super-spicy chilli that explains the suffix; ask for it ‘sin picante’ if you are not so macho. Llajwa, an incendiary sauce made from the chilli, is used as a dip to enliven bread or potatoes, as an ingredient in soups and a relish to accompany street foods.
The most famous of these, as I discover in La Paz, is salteñas — a cross between a pasty and a samosa, containing beef, chicken or pork, a spicy sauce and often potatoes and peas, available from the city’s food carts from 7am but usually sold out by noon. Another street snack is charque, originally jerk llama but these days beef. In pre-colonial times, it was salted, dried in the clear mountain air and sold by the Incas at inns on popular mountain routes.
One of these winds its way from the humid, rainy Yungas to chilly La Paz, passing a lake where trout are reared to feed travellers at a ramshackle roadside cafe. It is has no name, but a sign outside says ‘Pongo (Post 23)’ — the district and postcode — followed by the altitude: ‘3,640m’, an oxygen-depleted 12,000ft. Inside, the walls are covered in an unholy alliance of images of Christ, calendars depicting bikini-clad women and a giant poster of a trout on a plate. Served at red Formica tables accommodating 20 (all locals), the trout is the only dish on the menu and the freshest I’ve tasted.
I begin to see how produce like this, presented in a refined way, could make Bolivia the next Peru — hailed as South America’s gourmet destination and spawning high-end restaurants worldwide. Hence the new wave of chefs in La Paz who are using traditional ingredients in new ways and the interest of chefs and restaurateurs from Europe, including Claus Meyer at Gustu, a social enterprise serving up high gastronomy with high ethics, not to mention excellent coffee. On the roof of the world, where the sky’s the limit, what could be more appropriate?
Five Bolivian food finds
1. Wine: Tarija, in the south, has an embryonic industry and a charming wine route, the Ruta del Vino y Singani de Altura, linking bodegas. The best known vineyard is also one of the oldest — Campos de Solana. camposdesolana.com
3. Coffee tour: Three-day excursion from La Paz to visit farms, cooperatives and roasters in Los Yungas, mainly around Coroico. From £600, added to a 13-day Bolivian Odyssey through High Lives. highlives.co.uk
4. Mercado Rodriquez: Browse Andean fruits, vegetables, potatoes and spices, sold by Aymara women in bowler hats and colourful costumes. Stalls serve ‘criolla’ coffee in a tin cup, along with bread and cheese. Near Plaza Sucre, La Paz.
5. Singani: Bolivia’s version of a Peruvian pisco sour, a potent spirit distilled from white muscatel grapes. singani.com
Four places for a taste of Bolivia
Founded by Claus Meyer, the man behind Noma, this restaurant works solely with Bolivian produce and doubles as a food school teaching underprivileged youngsters. Begin with lemony corn and pulled rabbit, or egg in a nest of charque (jerky) and wild palm hearts, followed by shredded potato from Huaycha, poached trout from Lake Titicaca with coa, a minty herb, or llama loin with apple, banana and caramelised chuño (freeze-dried potatoes).
■ How much: Starters £6, mains £15, 15-course tasting menu with wines, £90. Calle 10 No 300, Calacoto, La Paz. restaurantgustu.com
This restaurant at the Hotel Oberland, on the fringes of La Paz where the mountain scenery is other-worldly, is another example of Bolivian-Nordic fusion. The chef, Walter Schmid, is a Swiss German married to a local woman who has clearly informed such dishes as sajta de pollo (chicken stew), lechón (whole roasted pig cooked over charcoal) and quinoa tabbouleh, and is perhaps intrigued by Alpine classics such as raclette and cheese fondue. Styled like a Swiss chalet, the restaurant has a sunny, tranquil garden.
■ How much: Starters £3, mains £5.50. Calle El Agrario 3118, Mallasa, La Paz. T: 00 591 2 274 5040. h-oberland.com
3. VILLA SERENA
Based at an arts and cultural centre, next door to the Full Moon rock bar, Juan Pablo Villalobos’s place feels distinctly backpacker but serves incredible food. Llama features strongly, as a carpaccio with ‘passionfruit and lemon mushrooms’ or vegetables pickled in cognac and mustard, then as a sirloin with red quinoa risotto, creamed potatoes and spicy salsa. Piscivores can opt for paiche (an Amazonian river fish) as a ceviche or baked, grilled surubí (catfish), prawns or trout ‘en papillote’ (cooked in foil). There are three vegetarian options.
■ How much: Starters £5, mains £7. Avenida Ecuador 2582, La Paz. T: 00 591 2 241 8151.
4. HOSTAL EL CAFETAL
The name means ‘coffee plantation’ and this guest house outside Coroico, in the North Yungas, makes an ideal base for visiting coffee farms in the vicinity or in Caranavi, a two-hour drive away. French-owned, the hostel is unexceptional but the restaurant is renowned, lending a Gallic twist to Bolivian staples such as quinotto (quinoa risotto) and llama steak by adding roquefort cheese. However, there’s nothing more authentically local than its lamb curry or more resonantly French than its onion soup, souffles and crepes.
■ How much: Starters £3, mains £5. Calle Miranda (next to the hospital), Coroico. T: 00 591 7 193 3979.
Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)