Tuesday, March 10, 2009
Perhaps it was all a dream...
That's it! It must have been!
Colombia was a dream -- surreal and sublime and saturated with more life, more color, more flavor, than anything real and tangible could ever possibly be.
But I've pinched myself and pinched myself, and it appears as though this life, this life, is actually happening. And yes, I went to beautiful, tragic, glorious, humble, complex and delicious Colombia for five life-heightening days. (I mean that literally and figuratively -- I was 8,000 feet above sea level.)
Blast! Why must I rely on my memory to sustain those five magical days? Why are pictures so tragically disappointing at a time like this? Why can't I seem to find any way to even begin to tell you what it was like? Oh, for shame!
What I'll never be able to convey is the warmth I felt the entire time: warmth from the people, from the music, from the licorice-flavored liqueur called nectar that was passed around by our hosts. Warmth from the singular joy of eating, singing and dancing with people whom you've just met but feel instantly akin to. And, of course, warmth from a belly that was gifted with the most delightful, simple, abundant feasts, which were accompanied always by music, laughing and mojitos.
What I can offer you, dear reader, is just a glimpse of Colombia. A small morsel. An amuse bouche, if you will.
Here's some basic setup: a surprisingly large group of people (about 40) from Los Angeles made the trip to Colombia for a four-day celebration that culminated in our friends' wedding. Our tremendous Colombian hosts not only included us in the four days of festivities, but actually made us feel as though we were the cause of the celebration.
From the moment we landed, we were treated to traditional Colombian foods.
Colombian food is all about rustic simplicity - grilled meats, small yellow and red potatoes with only salt and pepper, and plantains in every form possible. The arepa is a cousin of the tortilla, but is almost like a flat, moist biscuit made from sweet cornmeal. And everything is served with a salsa they call "aji" which is the most thrilling combination of chiles, vinegar, onion and enough cilantro to finally fulfill my endless cilantro craving. Some people have a sweet tooth. I have a cilantro tooth.
It seemed everywhere we went from this point on, there was music, and dancing, and these simple yet astonishing foods. And mojitos seemed to flow from the top of the Andes, clear and fresh and light, and into our bottomless cups.
Perhaps it was the mojitos. Perhaps it was Colombia. But strange things started happening almost immediately -- transcendental and spontaneous and life-affirming moments that led me to believe this really must have been a dream.
We sang "Sweet Caroline" at the top of our lungs, thirty people strong, as we hiked through the jungles of the Andes with our drinks in our hands and cows in our paths.
Mariachi bands, complete with strings and horns and harps seemed to follow us, like conjured minstrels who appeared out of the forest. Their powerful instruments made us sing in languages we didn't speak, to melodies we didn't know.
We danced. All of us. We abandoned our fears or self-consciousness and we danced like gringo fools whenever a song was near.
We climbed to the highest peaks of the Andes, just to drink juices made out of fruits we've never heard of, but looked, as my husband described them, like alien fetuses. I was served a soup, called ajiaco, made simply of chicken and potato and corn. But, my dear reader, that's not all. Oh, not even close! Just before you eat it, you add a thick cream which tasted somewhere between yogurt and sour cream, as well as rice and chilled avocado. And then, (THEN!) in a small container next to your bowl is the most unexpected and enormous capers you could ever imagine. Plop them right in your soup, along with a bit of the brine, and the creamy, thick soup becomes zapped with a cool and salty surprise.
Of course, there were empanadas. Ceviches. Chorizos. Fried pig skins. Fresh cheeses served in every course, even acting as a sort of cheese panna cotta and covered with a honey/molasses sauce and a blackberry compote. (An entirely different kind of cheese cake, it was so light and cool!)
Fried plantain cakes and corn cakes became delivery devices for mounds of fresh ricotta-like cheese, the soft, salty queso against the sweetness and warmth of the plantains and corn.
We ate family style, tearing pieces off with our hands, and sharing enormous platters overflowing with food.
We were told stories about how these platters of food came to be. Apparently, at some point over a hundred years ago, it happened that there were more coffee plantations than there were coffee workers to harvest the beans. The plantation owners had to find a way to convince the in-demand workers to choose their plantation over their neighbors'. One wise plantation owner recognized the power of the stomach, and instead of serving the typical lunch of a meat and a corn cake, (lunch was included in the workers' pay), he lured harvesters to his plantation by serving enormous platters with every kind of food you could want! Sausages! Coconut rice! Grilled beef! Avocados! Potatoes and plantains! Tomato sauces, and aji and beans!
It's like a vegas buffet, but, oh, the food and the views are just a little bit better.
Now these platters are found everywhere, and although at first it was a little intimidating to reach across my fellow diners to stab a potato with my fork or sop up some sauce, once I got a taste of it, I lost all my Anglo-inhibition. And boy, did I stuff myself silly.
But there is one thing that I have been craving since even before my plane's wheels left Colombian soil. One food that stood out for me above all the rest.
The eggs in Colombia, just like all their food, are fresh and local. And, of course, the eggs come from chickens who are living their sweet chicken lives free-range. But it's more than that. I've had farm fresh eggs in both upstate New York and California that were laid fresh that morning from the most gloriously humane farms. It was more than that.
Maybe it's the high altitude, or the magical mariachi bands, or the mojito water walls. Whatever it was, the eggs in Colombia had yolks so deeply-hued orange, they practically begged to turn red. And the flavor -- so rich and buttery and, well, yolky! It was as if every other egg I'd ever eaten was a diluted, faded, pathetic distant step-cousin to the real Colombian egg. If the eggs in the states are Hershey's Kisses, Colombian eggs are 85 % bittersweet chocolate. With each bite, I allowed it to melt on my tongue, and fill my mouth with its richness, almost like it was, well, chocolate!
I don't even like eggs that much.
The first morning I was home, I gently, lovingly fried up some expensive organic free-range brown eggs. Not even close.
I don't have my beloved Colombia eggs to comfort me. But I do have memories of nights that looked like this:
And I have melodies whose lyrics I can't recall but I sing in my head where no one's listening.
And I have a little better grasp of the samba.
And many, many new Colombian friends, and new recipes to try.
I fell in love with Colombia. And although it's a long-distance relationship, I think we can make it work.
(And thank you, Juan Pablo and Vicki, for inviting me.)
Posted by Sara Reddy Coyne