Fueled by local produce, exotic ingredients, and an influx of foreign chefs, a food scene is redefining an entire nation
Before I left for Cartagena, Colombia, my father was firm: Even if I could avoid being kidnapped during my vacation, lots of dangerous drug "mules" would, of course, accompany me on the return flight.
While stereotypes of Colombia remain stuck in the 1990s, that country has moved on. The northern coastal city of Cartagena, long a vacation spot for Colombians, has blossomed over the last five years into a major culinary and cultural destination. Many of its best restaurants have opened in just the past two years, some by chefs fleeing economic collapse in the so-called First World.
Isolated for decades by some real dangers, lots of bad PR, and endless squabbles with nearly all its neighbors, Colombia has become rather self-sufficient. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the dinner table. It did not surprise me that the odd species of fish on my plate were local—caught in the saltwater of the Caribbean north, or in one of many freshwater lakes. The vegetables were grown in the cool mountainous areas, or the tropical coast, or, as climatically appropriate, somewhere in-between. Chicken, beef, pork, even lamb—also all raised here.
Now the part that's embarrassing for an American whose country no longer makes its own baseballs. The silverware on the table is made in Colombia. As are all the plates, cups, saucers, and other china. The tablecloths, the paper napkins, the glassware, the flowers in the centerpiece? All Colombian. The excellent balsamic vinegar is "de Baranquilla," not "di Modena." You get the idea. It's as if Colombia is a green-nik fantasy universe where all food is locally produced, and nothing is imported from China—a neat commercial arrangement the U.S. could use now.
The foods are quite fresh, of necessity. The distribution system, such as it is, often means bringing vegetables, meat, and dairy products from (apologies for perpetuating this phrase) farm to table. Here this is done simply so it won't spoil. There are few nitrogen-flushed, refrigerated mega-trucks (the roads couldn't support them anyway), and tolerance for less-than-fresh is quite low.
There are scores of fruits that are seldom found elsewhere. Lulo captivated me. About the size of a billiard ball, it has a smooth green-orange skin, with the texture and pliability of a tomato. The lulo looks a bit like a persimmon, until you cut it open: the tart seedy fruit is bright green, and arranged in a weird geometry of also-edible orange flesh. The taste is like a powerful combination of lime, tangerine, and rhubarb. Put into a blender with water and sugar, lulo makes a refreshing (and alarmingly green) drink: jugo de lulo. Sliced thick and roasted with fish, it imparts a complex citrus flavor, and (unlike the lemons we often use for this purpose) is itself a tasty addition to the plate. Lulo gelato, as the sun sets and the heat breaks, is sublime.
Níspero fruit is apricot-shaped. It has a color somewhere between orange and coffee (inside and out) and sweet, distinctively flavored flesh. It makes a popular pale-orange meringue—a staple at many a Cartagena bakery and a pedestrian and promiscuous version of its delicate French counterpart: it's sweeter, denser, and crunchier, almost weatherproof against the heat and humidity. There are too many other fruits to enumerate. But it's so fun to try: silky mamey, a leather-skinned rugby ball with a succulent red and orange interior; black sapote (zapote negro), called "chocolate fruit" for its taste and color; other colors of so-called zapotes; sweet, spiky soursop (guanabana); odd slurpy honeyberrys (mamoncillos), lychee-like fruits that pop out of leathery green acorn-skin; and red "tree tomatoes" (tomates de arbol), which, of course, are not tomatoes (and don't resemble them at all).
The more familiar tropical fruits are also abundant. Also available—everywhere—are familiar vegetables: carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, yellow and white onion, celery, okra, even blueberries—none of which is imported. Here they're often sweeter, more aromatic, and with deeper colors that persist through cooking. Celery here is sold, as I believe it was in some past Golden Age in North America, with the leaves still on.
Cartagena is simply a great a place to eat. Have you ever tried pig that has been raised on raw coconut? Quite good. Ditto Chinese food where the greens are hibiscus leaves. When you connect Cartagena to the rest of the world, interesting becomes amazing.
Elena Stoico and Juan David Urrea, the husband-and-wife chef-owners of Andante Allegro Vivace, a chic 20-seat hot spot hidden in the stone maze of the Old City, are typical of the newly arrived restaurateurs. They were living and thriving in Milan during its pre-crisis go-go years, when Urrea, then 31, was a high-flying publicist. In 2008, he lost his job as the air went out of Europe's economic balloon.
For the next year, the pair had a lot of time to think. Eventually, they thought of the country Urrea had left as a child—Colombia. "We saw no opportunity in Italy, under Berlusconi," Stoico told me. In Cartagena, they found opening their first restaurant surprisingly easy. "We simply rented the space, and got started," Urrea said, switching to Italian when Spanish failed him. He wondered at the lack of bureaucracy in Colombia. In Italy, he told me, the opening would have demanded a staggering pile of licenses, fees, and delays. "We would still probably be going though all the hoops."
Now in their second year, Andante Allegro Vivace is a vertical showplace of sleek design, befitting, well, Milan. The restaurant's story repeats itself at stylish Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese eateries tucked into the cool stone alleys.
Europeans are not the only culinary newcomers. Until recently, Maria Nevett was a political scientist working under Venezulan President Hugo Chávez. Now she is the darling of the Cartagena food scene, developing scores of exotic flavors at a small gelateria favored by, among others, the Colombian first lady and vacationing fashion designer Marc Jacobs. Nevett is an elegant telenovela blonde. Her story has been a favorite of women's magazines in Colombia. "Work in political science under Chávez had become impossible. There's no freedom. So, I said private goodbyes to friends and family, and left quietly, by night bus from Caracas. When the bus finally reached the Colombian border, dawn was breaking." The expression on her face is firm, and pleased. "I've never looked back."
Nevett hired an expert from Italy to teach her the art of making gelato. Scores of unique local fruits, nuts, and spices (with local cream and sugar) create a huge array of flavors that are both delicious and true. And in most cases, they would be impossible to duplicate elsewhere.
Colombia's own diversity is the third source of culinary inspiration. Diana Uribe is from Chocó, a hot, rainy, and predominantly Afro-Colombian coastal province. Her family moved from region to region throughout the eighties and nineties, tracing the Colombian military's whack-a-mole efforts at stabilization during a period in Colombia's history now known simply as "La Violencia." They wound up in Cartagena and stayed.
Uribe's new restaurant is DianaMar. It is simply decorated, spacious, and open to the busy cobblestone street, and the menu reflects her odyssey and heritage. The dishes of Chocó, presented with confident flair, compete quite favorably with those of the neighboring Italians. Sancocho, a hearty, densely populated soup, is common all over Latin America. Uribe's version at DianaMar is directly from Chocó: octopus (pulpo), clams (alnejas), periwinkle (caracol), crab (cangrejo), mussels (mejillones), and squid (calamari). The savory broth—made with coconut milk, seafood stock, achiote, and, at her grandmother's insistence, fine brandy—has a radiant orange hue. Other undisclosed seasonings—I can identify only the cilantro on top—produce a complex dish that is at once rich and light. It's served hot, yet is somehow suited to the heat of the day.
The unique tastes of Colombia's ingredients contribute to success all around, and against odds. Stoico, a superb cook with no previous restaurant experience, says that Italian food is simple. "There is a trinity: tomato, basil, onion. The Colombian varieties can have fantastic tastes, a bit different from Italy. The basil is huge and flavorful, the onion is a bit spicy. It's an opportunity for innovation."
Through experimentation, she has created a cuisine that is at once Italian and tropical. "The olive oil, of course, is imported," she adds. "Like us."
Images: Ike DeLorenzo; lulo image by quimbaya/flickr