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Peruvian Pachamanca Puts Our Labor Day Barbecues to Shame

Some of the Many Ingredients to be Placed in the Cook Pit
Some of the Many Ingredients to be Placed in the Cook Pit
Jim Kane

LAGUNA PIURAY, Peru -- If you think your Labor Day cookout is a festive event and a lot of work to prepare, please observe the "pachamanca" that I enjoyed just a few weeks before our own end-of-summer celebration, here in the Sacred Valley.

Chef Pio Vasquez Prepares an Outdoor Feast
Jim Kane

We travel writers were privileged to enjoy one of the special feasts of this country because we accompanied Jim Kane, head of the tour group Culture Xplorers, on a research trip to find even more of the cultural events and places and people that make his tours more meaningful than the usual Machu Picchu-then hotels-then home programs of many a Peruvian tour company.

The pachamanca took place high in the Andes at a lovely lake where every Sunday volunteers, including an adventure activities group, set up a play area for volleyball, standup paddleboarding, and kayaking with and for local schoolchildren.

A group from a yoga center presented a pretty sight as they took a series of stances out onto the lake on paddle boards.

On the day we visited, Chef Pio Vasquez, of the Sacred Valley landmark restaurant El Huacatay, presented this Andean pit roast which celebrates the fertile soil of the area and all that it grows. "This is our Thanksgiving," he noted, as he watched over his pit fire. He had gathered volcanic rocks taken from a nearby river and rolled for smoothness, and had heated them for almost five hours to get just the right temperature for his cookout.

Vasquez had already prepared marinades for lamb and chicken. In addition to the two meats (sometimes he adds goat), he had trout wrapped in foil ready to go into the fire, as well as pineapple, yucca, manioc, six kinds of the 3000 varieties of potato grown in Peru, fava beans, plantains, onions, and cheese. When he determined that the stones were just the right temperature, he lifted them off the pit and began to layer in all of the foods, most in covered clay pots, with the stones, adding red pepper sauce and on top, piles of fresh herbs and wet cloths. Cocoa leaves, used in these parts for a variety of things, including in tea to help counter the effect of the high altitude, were placed at the bottom of the pit before the food went in. Then he set a little cross decorated with flowers on top of the mound, making it look to novices unfamiliar with a pachamanca a bit like a grave, and the oldest person in the crowd sprinkled a few drops of beer on top of it all, said a few words of celebration for the event, and we waited for exactly 30 minutes for the entire pile of food to be cooked and lifted out of the pit.

As wine was served, one of the locals poured a few drops of it onto the ground "for Mother Earth," he explained, in a tradition that is common here (maybe not so popular when done indoors), and the feast began.

The food was all cooked to just the right done-ness, and although not as tasty or moist as some of the wonderful meals we enjoyed throughout this country, it was memorable for the symbolism it portrayed, that is, of gathering friends around the table and thanking Mother Earth for providing such largesse from the soil, pretty much the same thing we do around the grill on Labor Day.