Is corn envy a thing?
While travelling through the Sacred Valley in Peru, we spent a delightful day visiting Maria and Josef del Pilars wonderful corn farm Sarapampa, at Casa Hacienda del Maiz. The farm was established three generations ago by Josefs grandfather, and is still today a thriving family enterprise consisting of some 40 hectares of cornfields and land, as well as a wonderful farm to table experience for travellers. It is situated some 20 km from the village of Pisaq, with easy access along a dirt road big enough for the odd buss.
Upon arrival Maria oversees the cooking for the guests, while Josef holds a presentation of the history of corn farming in the area. Nowadays their farm is cultivated with tractors, but in many smallholdings the traditional wooden tools used for planting corn seeds are still employed. The variety of corn that they grow is the traditional Peruvian or Cusco corn called Choclo, which is a large kernel variety of field corn that is white in colour. The large, bulbous kernels are not as sweet as North American corn, and much starchier with a nutty flavour. It is commonly used locally in Peruvian style ceviche, but as Peruvian cuisine is gaining International attention it is more often found exported to other countries as well. The Giant White variety is also popularly used to make Mana popcorn, as seen in the glass jar below.
The farm still uses some of the traditional methods that have been around for centuries to grow corn. For example, corn kernels are often coated with ash (far right in a bowl in the picture) before planting to protect it from fungus. Traditionally the plants were interlaced with beans, as corn needs a lot of nitrogen to thrive which the beans provided. In between rows of corn and beans, squash was often planted as ground cover to keep weeds at bay as squash don't mind the shade. This combination of plants - corn, beens and squash - was often referred to as the tree sisters. However, with the Spanish conquest of the Andes followed rats, and they too found the combination so yummy that nowadays the squash needs to be grown quite separately.
In the museum at the farm, del Pilar has a most amazing piece of history: a corn cob from the Inka times! It doesn't look like much, but in fact it is a very rare piece of history found in an important Inca grave. The fact that it was part of a ceremonial grave shows among other things that Incan agriculture was a fundamental part of their high standing civilisation. In the area, only 2 % are fertile valleys and an 10 % area of man made terraces are available for food production, which means that cultivation and breeding large yielding cobs was of uttermost importance to feed the people. Comparing the ancient mini-cob with the Giant White corn that has been organically refined through generations of work, one can only say that they did achieve their goal. Another interesting fact is that Cholo won't grow in lower altitudes - it has been bread to overcome the exact challenges that the mountain climate and altitude brings with it and does so beautifully and selectively.
Another staple to the diet was Guinea pigs. I know!! Sounds quite terrible to eat these little sweet pets, doesn't it? But consider the fact that they are kept in much better care and surroundings than almost any of the meet producing animals we keep in Europe or America, and require much less food compared to cows or pigs, it is actually an ecological alternative source of meat protein. Consider too that they can reproduce after three months and usually produce up to five in a litter, and you can see that clearly it makes both economic and ecological sense. In the picture you can see the guinea pigs munching on Munia Andean mint, a very important and versatile herb used both in cooking and as a way of keeping away mould, insects and parasites.
After our wonderful lunch, I got to wondering if corn envy is a "thing" (like handbag envy which apparently is very popular on Keeping up with the Jonses). The Peruvians have about 55 varieties of corn which is more than any other country, and in a wonderful variety of colours. There is red, yellow, white, black, purple and mixed colours of corn, bred since at least 1200 BC to be adopted to varying terrains and climates. In Peru not only does each region have it's own special variety of corn, but also a whole host of recipes for delicious dishes based on corn. They even have a drink called chicha morada that is made from purple corn! But I doubt that I will ever make it, as the Peruvian corn most likely will not grow in the cold lowlands of Northern Europe. Instead, I shall dream of travelling there again one day and meanwhile try my hand at growing the glass corn seeds I have ordered over the internet in a fit of corn envy. I shall keep you posted as to how that goes!