Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Campesino farmers' market (armadillos and machetes)

Arriving at Bogotá’s landmark Plaza Bolivar for its first-ever campesino market was a pleasant surprise. Given that “campesino” translates as peasant farmer, it was a surprise that it looked like an urban glamping festival. Scores of pristine white tents filled the square, while a man played an armadillo on the stage.
The band, with their traditional black dress and musical mammal, gave the air an authentic Colombian flavour. The plaza was packed with farmers from the surrounding districts who had come to flog their wares to Bogotá residents eager for a bucolic taste of home.
I began my tour in the centre next to tent where, away from prying eyes and the inclement weather, the mayor was giving a speech to dignitaries.
A whole roasted pig resolutely stared at the polished military men guarding the entrance to the tent. The stoic bronze-coloured fellow looked on while a lady delved into his excavated back with a spoon. Sporting a splendid wide-brimmed hat, she dug out a generous portion of lechona for a local office worker. It’s a succulent blend of pork, fragrant rice, potato and onion but served directly out of the pig, it does not suit those who like to pretend that their meat comes from plastic containers in Sainsbury’s.
Overhead were the first signs that the rainy period was finally coming to an end. It had begun to feel as more of a permanent state than something as fleeting as a season. There was evidence of a conjunction in the weather: it was both lashing it down and blowing a gale. Great news. This heralded the start of the promised kite-flying season.
The wind whipped up ash from the dozens of open fires burning under hunks of meat and different types of sausage. Thick soups and meaty stews, such as a local version of el cocido, were cooked over gas. Increasingly hungry and bewildered by the choice, I found myself at a stall selling duck “embriones”. I was offered a little tub containing a glutinous embryo with an accompanying leaflet boasting its magical, medicinal properties. This was not my idea of lunch: I would rather be ill and nearly was.
Moving swiftly away, I was attracted by the Cundinamarca region’s “rellana” sausage—a fat, juicy black pudding bursting out of its skin. At the next stall, steam billowed up as a lady poured lager over a side of “mamona” beef.
By now I could hear my stomach over the sounds of the man playing the armadillo and I’d lost the ability to make a decision. I found myself among stalls selling honey and pollen from the fincas of Cundinamarca. Around me were bananas, vast pumpkins, eggs, great blocks of panella (sugar cane), strawberries and pastry empañadas stuffed with meat—all great in their place but that place was not my stomach, I needed heavier fare.
I even spotted some vegetarian food: chicharrón. A soya version of the pork scratching delight almost seemed like a good idea in my weakened state.
By now it was so late that some Rolos would be thinking about “onces” (elevenses, which are eaten in the afternoon, natch) and I was still browsing desperately. A decision seemed as improbable as the increasingly deflated lechona pigs growing wings.
Finally, the rain cut through the procrastination and the need to find cover demanded a decision.
Sidestepping a senior army officer in full medalled pomp tucking into a plate of brawn, I ducked into the mamona tent and ordered. “Claro, mi amora” (Of course, my love) replied a buxom lady wielding a machete.
The slices of meat were tender with a succulent strip of fat across their top. The elegant woman next to me ordered some aji (chilli sauce). Anticipating a subtle blend of chilli, coriander and tomato; she applied it generously to her forkful of pink meat. Her breath was rasping and face radiated heat, as she grabbed for a water bottle.
It’s a little picante; she understated, passing the puréed 100% pure chilli paste to me.
In front of us, the waitress held my embarrassingly wonky umbrella over the lady with the huge chopper. She systematically hacked through the great chunks of meat. Steam rose from it, silhouetting our hostess who had her own protection: she sported a tea towel on her head protecting her hair, heavily made-up face and prodigious cleavage from the rain.
Behind the brolly, the Catedral Primada looked down through greyness upon the indulgence, while behind it loomed the towering green mountains that flank the east of the city.
Considerably happier now I was eating, my mind moved onto life’s other needs. While I could find no criticism of the range of local foods, there was a noticeable omission: where was the booze? Wine would not be the conventional drink of the campesino but it would be reasonable to expect to find the product of a local microbrewery. However, Colombia’s beers are nearly all produced by one vast conglomerate (now South African owned) and there was none forthcoming.
On my travels around the plaza, I saw not one drop of a proper drink anywhere. I had come across chicha (fermented maize) and masato a fermented rice drink, which fizzed on the tongue. I would politely describe masato as an acquired taste.
Meanwhile as I finished my steak and criolla potatoes, the mayor appeared to be still talking next door. I wondered if they had a drink in there. They needed it.
With the gentle saunter of the pleasantly stuffed, I pottered into the centre of the square, where Bolivar was standing guard. The great Latin American “Liberator” was getting no freedom from the pigeons. They were democratically showing him the same respect they show statues of all the world’s most revered heroes.
The following week at the presidential inauguration of Santos in the same square, I noticed that Bolivar had been given a clean and a polish. Sadly however there would be no happy ending—Bolivar may have seen off the Spanish empire but the pigeons would be back.
To kill off the lingering taste of chilli, I went in search of something sweet in an unexplored part of the plaza. Here I found avena cubana, a sweet milk drink. Elsewhere people ate a shapely cream, strawberries and meringue pudding, which looked like Eton Mess made by someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Stalls sold arequipe (dulce de leche), chocolate and strawberries. I bought some sticky coconut sweets and looked north at the Palacio de Justicia.
In Colombia’s darkest days, more than 100 urban guerrillas had stormed this building. The army took it back and wiped out them all out. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this market would have been impossible as the roads in and out of Bogotá were too dangerous to use.
As I luxuriated in the caries-inducing deliciousness of my sweet, I felt relief that it was possible to be here now.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Boobs, loos and tear gas

I took a bus yesterday morning. A taxi furiously hooted as we got on at the bus stop, he was beside himself that we should fly in the face of the one rule of the road: anarchy. Buses conventionally swing across to pick up passengers whenever they happen to nonchalantly stick out an arm, finger or flick their eyes.

The driver did adhere to the conventional go-kart style of weaving through the traffic. Like his colleagues, he was a discontented fellow who treated life like a fake £5 note that he was doing his best to gamble away.

My destination was the airport. There are always those who feel the need to dress up if they are going to fly. As I swept blushing out of the Ladies toilettes (the symbol really is very androgyneous), I bounced off a woman who looked like an unsubtle edition of Maxim. I’ve never been so close to such a heady combination of silicon, perfume and cleavage—and certainly not in a lavatory.

Later in the day, I went down to the bank. It was a beautiful office that had closed at 4pm (banks are a by-word for wealthy, self-serving bureaucracy everywhere. What other industry has a holiday named after it?).

Outside on the Septima, a thousands’ strong march streamed past. At its vanguard, angry men carried sticks. Behind them, a few young women appeared, some in flip-flops. They were mostly black or indigenous and there was a militant-looking group in light green t-shirts and bandanas.

I asked one man who they were; he ignored me. So I asked one of the militant-looking women, and she refused to speak to even look at me. As I turned away, I knocked into a young man. We apologized and he called me: “Patron”, which means land or slave owner.

They were some of Colombia’s 3.3 million displaced. Hungry and understandably angry, they were wanted their rights. What I suspect they were going to get was tear gassed.

The day before had been Colombia’s bicentenary of independence. The same road had been packed with people but these were much more good-humoured.

I was impressed by them, a similar event in London would have been heaving with people out on the lash. The few drunks stumbling about were embarrassingly conspicuous as opposed to depressingly unremarkable.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Sporting glory escapes again

After years of opportunity to shine, my skills as a cricketer are not so much unrecognized as unrecognizable. Regardless, I found myself in a taxi about to represent Colombia against the visiting national Chile team.

My selection was despite having described myself as the anti-all rounder, without any discernable ability in batting or bowling, and a throwing arm like a confused 10-year-old girl asked to put the shot. It promised to be an interesting international sporting debut.

There were positive signs that I might not be entirely lost, when I heard one of the Chilenos say in a suspiciously good Yorkshire accent: “I’d like an Aguila, that’s a good morning beer.”

Having lost the toss, we honorary Colombians were sent out to field. I strode out attempting to look confident while clad in my new, blindingly white clothes rather than “whites”. My substitute kit seemed more appropriate to an ageing Ibizan Lothario than the summer game.

My attempts to buy a box had been met with bemused looks rather than success. At least I wasn’t wearing jeans, unlike the Canadian in our team (geographically, he was the closest we had to a Colombian; the Chilenos boasted a Yank—their captain.)

The first few overs passed without any conspicuous displays of incompetence: success!

The least I could do was look keen, so when a ball play was played past me, I was off like Usain Bolt’s pasty English uncle. Arms and legs pumping, my cricket hat some way behind, I pounded over the Bogotá sports club outfield. I knew one goal: save the four.

Strong, fast, fit, slip, slide, sodden, bottom, pond. Pond! Clearly there were drainage issues in the outfield and my whites were no longer so white. And it was a four.

Later, I took a catch and opened the batting with the Canadian. He was rather good, better than me anyway. At least I scored one run, after one of my airy wafts finally clipped an edge.

We were making a reasonable game of it, until drinks, when it all fell apart and the Chilenos tidied up our remaining batsmen. All that was left was an afternoon of drinking beer and acquiring sunburn. Stibbs succeeds again.

After some hours, a very elegant Colombian appeared with a tray of whiskys and put them on our table. While he went back into the clubhouse (lined with pictures of the Royal Family), we tidied up the new arrivals. When he sashayed back, he announced he would be leading a tutored whisky tasting.


I could get used to international sport, I thought a little later as I sat on the Transmilenio bus back into town, feeling quite content with my day.

However, I did seem to be drawing an unusual amount of quizzical looks from the dressed-up Colombians on their way out on the town. As I looked around, I was rather conspicuous: the only gringo, radiantly sunburnt, dressed all in white, covered in grass stains and wearing a huge, filthy once-white hat.

What possible context could explain such weird garb? What sort of weird religious sect would take such a man?

I took the stares manfully and thought, these are things I’d do for my country, or at least someone else’s.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Coffee: Colombia's other stimulating export

Our two hostesses took food seriously and would not countenance a missed meal within their dominion. Dazed after an all-night bus journey from Bogotá to Manizales in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera, they swept us (my wife, a friend and member of the family, and I) up in their hospitable arms and sat us down for breakfast.

We were told it was necessarily a light, rushed affair to allow time before lunch. After chaqueta—black coffee made with panela (sugar cane) water—we were given hot chocolate made from a huge bitter slab again blended with panela water. It was accompanied with doblo crema cheese, which we were supposed to melt into the hot chocolate (this really is as bad as it sounds, but fine when eaten separately).

On the side was a generous slice of the ubiquitous arepa—unleavened maize bread eulogized by all Colombians. In my experience, arepas had been as dry and appetizing as sun-bleached bones. Perhaps, they could have a worthy use as building insulation.

These arepas were different: freshly homemade that morning, they were hot, flavoursome and almost succulent—in short, a revelation. Our matriarchal hostesses had blended ash and cocoa into the dough and I ate them all happily, as if I really had a polite alternative while at their table.

I had made the trip from Colombia’s capital to try the country’s finest coffee with my Colombian friend’s cousin Juan Carlos: a taster. His friend-and-fellow-taster Jorge drove us from Manizales to Chinchiná—the centre of Colombian coffee production—where Juan plies his trade.

Jorge—doubtless a thoughtful, deliberate coffee taster—drove in the way he might absent-mindedly slosh back an espresso. We hurtled out of town and into the green valleys with their goats, bamboo, banana trees and tomato plants. Soon we could see coffee plants with their yellow or red beans by the side of the road.

Needing petrol, we swept into a garage. The bags of Chicharrón Light on offer at the till intrigued me. Chicharrón—deep-fried pork rind—is an unlikely diet product and I wondered what “Light” could mean, apart from half-full bags.

Doubtless charged up on diet pork fat, the steep valley roads were busy with cyclists. The gradients and drivers’ disinterest in their safety made for challenging riding. Like everywhere, Colombian cyclists can’t resist ludicrous, dignity-averse lycra. I wondered if they wear Formula 1 jumpsuits to drive to the shops.

We crossed over the River Chinchiná, where local coffee producers are using the microclimate to experiment with new growing techniques. In 1985, lava flowed down the river valley obliterating Armero town and claiming 23,000 lives after the Nevado del Ruiz volcano erupted.

The area is now thriving thanks to the coffee, which has an important role in the Colombian economy, if not necessarily in its culture. The handpicked, venerated arabica beans are nearly all (95%) destined for export.

Compared to its rougher cousin, robusta; arabica is flavoursome and delicate, lacking the bitterness of its less-rarefied relation. Sliding a sweet coffee bean between his fingers, Jorge informed us that their bitterness is in direct relation to their caffeine content; at 1%, arabica’s is half that of robusta.

We arrived at the fairtrade-only Cooperativa de Caficaltores de Manizales as a beaten-up old jeep pulled with a load of bulging sacks. At the gate, a sample of beans are sucked up a tube and then shot through a window and into Juan Carlos’ laboratory.

He and his team then had 20 minutes to make a chemical analysis, roast and taste-test the hopeful arrivistes. Success means blending for export, failure means returning to the local market to be made into tinto.

I like coffee but I was quickly exposed as a complete tasting illiterate. Juan Carlos and Jorge spooned up the surface of their drinks, cupped their noses over the top and inhaled lustily. “Fruity.” “Tropical.” “The scent of love,” they proclaimed. “Er, really?” I kept to myself. I felt like a blind man at the IMAX for the premier of Avatar.

I looked at the wall charts of fragrances and flavours for inspiration. Some I could understand: caramels, charred, chocolate, even red wine (also called tinto in Spanish) at a push. Others—jasmine, raspberry, custard and thyme—seemed unlikely. Horsey, skunky (the animal rather than the wacky backy) and cabbage seemed worthy of retaining my ignorance.

As woodpeckers flew past the window behind the copper, Heath Robinson bean sorter, this seemed like a lovely place to work. Part factory/laboratory and part finca, the tasters’ job is a blend of the systematic and scientific with the romantic and subjective.

After several tastings, I detected a meaty, porky flavour to one blend. Maybe I was getting somewhere, I hoped so. There was a real joy in the process of discovery. Juan Carlos, Jorge and Don Jaime (a plantation owner with a luxuriant Terry Thomas ’tache) shared an infectious enthusiasm that I longed to share as they giggled and gesticulated over a new experience.

Perhaps this is what comes of Juan Carlos’ daily consumption of between 15 and 20 cups of coffee, on top of around 100 slurp-and-spit tastings. However, there was more than caffeine behind today’s hint of nervous excitement: Juan Carlos was revealing a secret, new blend for the first time.

Juan Carlos had high aspirations that this new creation would break 90 points on the international marking system and become one of Colombia’s finest coffees. The other two seemed impressed and tried to tease information about its make-up but he would not be drawn.

I tried to make the right noises.

We had lunch at Don Jaime’s finca. It was a demanding drive in his muscular jeep, which powered through the dirt tracks into the hills. Impressively, Jorge followed in his little Korean car—a trip I would have only thought possible in a 4x4 or hire car.

For lunch, we ate the classic Colombian soup of Sancocho on the veranda facing five lines of hills and mountains that ended at the Andean Cordillera. Peacocks strutted about as we supped the traditional mixture of chicken, spuds, plantains, yucca, herbs, celery, carrot and peppercorns.

In the gardens, flocks of tiny birds with orange bodies and black wings flitted about the tropical flowers. In the valley below, bamboo appeared to have exploded into life like the finale of an all-green firework display.

It seemed idyllic, except for the need for three ferocious guard dogs and a security team. This beautiful country still has its problems, albeit it’s a different country to the days when cocaine ruled over coffee and everything else.

Back at our hostesses’ for lunch the next day, a considerable effort had been made. We were presented with frijol (bean stew with plantain); chicken chicharrón; fried plantain; lemon coleslaw; chicken with a smooth, elaborate Creole stuffing; rice with chicken, pork and sausage, and it was washed down with guayaba juice (no wine).

It was a staggering spread; the two ladies had been cooking since 7am—a startling 10-combined hours. I was amazed and slightly embarrassed about the amount of work involved. When I expressed my gratitude and thanks, they said: “Oh no, all our meals are like this.”

While the family clearly knew how to enjoy food, we had inadvertently stumbled into a hotbed of coffee-driven sobriety. When I asked Juan Carlos if he would like to go out for a drink on Saturday night, he said: “Great, let’s go to the local Juan Valdez [upmarket coffee shop chain]. It’s excellent.”

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Colombian party election HQs tell a tale

Last week I got new gig writing about the Colombian presidential election, which required a little research. It seemed wise to start at the campaign headquarters of the two front-runners.
Currently ahead by a nose is Antanas Mockus. He is a flamboyant character with a Michael-Eavis beard, promising clean politics, change and hope. All good, inspiring stuff, apart from the disastrous beard.
The poll-topping status of the Green Party candidate must come as much as a surprise to him as it does to everyone else. It had been assumed the election would be a victory for Juan Manuel Santos, the supposed heir elect of the wildly popular President Uribe.
Only behind by a whisker, Santos was Defence Minister during the Uribe government, which its supporters credit for pacifying the Farc and saving Colombia from anarchy. He promises continuity, which is difficult to find overly exciting but possibly vote-worthy.
Were they ice creams, Mockus would Ben and Jerry’s (strong, in-your-face new flavours that you’ll love or hate) to Santos’ Haagen Dazs (classics that are comforting or you're sick to death of).
The two HQs are walking distance from each other in the affluent north, which was thoughtful of the party organisers.
A short, spluttering bus ride up the Septima took me to the Green centre of operations. Cleared through security, I was inside the smart, converted family house, which is now home to countless, terribly busy people in green T-shirts.
The walls were covered in signs about upcoming flash mobs and funky posters of their candidates. Posters were hurriedly passed to hard-working activists in green Converse boots emblazed with the party’s sunflowers symbol, slurping (I assume) organic espresso from biodegradable plastic cups.
Further back, cooler, older heads discussed strategy. The charming press lady spoke like the Skatman’s Latina cousin on speed.
The atmosphere was of place where a lot of highly focussed people were going about their business but still finding time for a little flirting and a laugh. In short, if they win, I imagine the party will be a lot of fun—assuming they can find enough fair-trade booze.
And so to Haagen Daaz. A three-block walk past the elegant locals and a couple of tiny, displaced indigenous women breast-feeding infants took me to the U Party HQ.
Rather than an evil empire hidden inside a volcano, it looked like it had recently been a functional municipal building.
For a party selling itself on its trustworthy security credentials, it was a surprise to walk straight in without any of the guards asking who I was.
Once inside, I wondered through the building, which had seen better days, looking for the reception.
I was expecting a lot of sharp-suited, US-educated political experts. Instead a youth with a heavily pierced nose sat next to his mother at the reception desk, in front of a quad/building site. Having asked to speak to their media department, I followed the lad about on his search for the illusive dahlings.
Our quest proved fruitless, and we eventually discovered that they were in another building. Alastair Campbell would have been distinctly unimpressed, he might even have sworn.
The media department were a block away in a lovely adapted home, like the Greens’. Past security, I was shown into what would have been the wood-lined dining room.
Something felt wrong, and then I realised that the whole house lacked any sign of a forthcoming election. It also lacked people. There were banks of computers with one person sat on his own—there was no sign of urgency here.
An elegant, young Colombiana arrived. While she was undeniably convivial and extremely professional; taken as a whole, the Santos brand was looking rather uninspired and shapeless.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Saving Panamericano

Yesterday I had lunch in a relaxed Hare Krishna restaurant overlooking Caracas—one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Unusually, the traffic was noisily backed up for blocks.

Throughout the meal, the air was angrily pierced like a teenage goth’s ears with endless horns and policemen’s whistles. I dread to think what it did to the staff’s chakras.

Intrigued by the brouhaha, I strolled down the street not knowing what to expect. Despite the motorbike police heading towards the problem, pedestrians heading the other way seemed relaxed—there were no signs of outrage, blood or the effects of tear gas.

I arrived at the crossroads to find an unusually enervated school trip. Uniformed children were blocking the city’s Transmilenio bus route and the traffic in all directions.

Like a precocious St Trinians student, a 10-year-old girl happily faced a line of her classmates who were blocking the road, while she led them in an exuberant chant; behind the children, the girl faced a black, tank-like vehicle.

Kids sat in the route of the buses, preventing their passage. They had shut down the city’s entire flagship public transport system and two of the cities main arties. And why?

Their school, Panamericano, was to be knocked down and they did not want to let it happen.

While they fought for its survival, their headmaster stood anxiously on the pavement. When I tried to speak to him, he spotted some movement from the police and was desperate to get away.

The headmaster’s students, however, were not so easily intimidated. After some four hours, a police chief arrived. He was clearly angry and vented this to the TV cameras. His frustration was quickly drowned out by a girl, who may have been as old as 14, expressing the views of the members of the school.

The evening rush hour was approaching and clearly this could not continue indefinitely. The police had been told that enough was enough.

I’d been told that to end demonstrations, Colombian police routinely use tear gas, which in my limited experience is not much fun.

To whistles and jeers from the children, the riot tanks fired up and trundled towards us. This was no idle threat; they meant business and we all ran: kids, press, police.

It seemed the cannon knew no distinction, I watched water spray off the back of a laughing policeman’s tabard. As we all ran for cover from the menacing vehicles and despite the riot police in their wake, the sense of fun seemed to continue—adrenalin and laughter reigned.

Part of me remembered the last day of Common Week, when the fire brigade would spray the squealing kids on Chorleywood Common.

Perhaps I had been deceived by their earlier composure. As I hung down a side street, a girl ran up to me. Hers was not the face of shock and exhilaration from cold water, she was terrified.

One boy purposefully knocked over a police motorbike as he ran—this was not playing the game. He was grabbed and hit by a policeman, an adult remonstrated, and the boy was taken away.

Clearly, while the children knew they were playing a grown-ups' game, the adults would only indulge them so far. Their school, Panamericano, is due to be demolished in a month; I hope they save it.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Going round the cheesey twist in Bogota

This was originally published at Food Tripper. Take a peak for an edited version complete with a snap or two.
There’s even a couple of films on Food Tripper TV.

Surely the foodie’s greatest joy on arriving in any new place is discovering the local gastronomy. The guidebooks are right, landmark museums and galleries can be a great source of culture. My tip is to make a beeline for them and, making the appropriate noises, nip round.

Then, and this is the important bit, hit the invariably excellent restaurant for a taste of what the country is really all about.

Bogotá’s major attractions are mainly around the Séptima (the equivalent to Oxford Street). Sundays are the best day to explore as the road is closed to traffic and freed up for pottering by bicycle and mincing by roller blade.

For a less-energetic jaunt, the road also offers dozens of delicious bargain treats, mostly catering to Colombians’ love of baked pastry and maize.

Setting a cheesy precedent for the day, my first and favourite snack was the arepa de choclo, where the thoroughfare skirts the Parque Nacional. Melted cheese oozed out between two delicious hot, smoky unleavened patties. It’s a moveable feast, as the baker built the wood-fire clay oven onto a silver tricycle herself.

To Colombians, the addition of cheese is as unquestionable as a bonus to a banker; separation is beyond comprehension, no matter how utterly inappropriate it may seem to anyone else.

The combination of saltiness and sweet is beloved by Rolos, as more simply Bogoteños call themselves. They devour cheese with everything: fruit salad, hot chocolate, ice cream, arequipe (caramel-like sauce)… I’ve learnt not to be surprised.

This eccentricity is partly explained by Colombia’s favourite cheeses. No Stinking Bishops, they’re dairy Coldplays: there’s really nothing to dislike—grated, they are more salty texture than flavour.

Along from my flat in the La Macarena district is a fabulous burger restaurant, La Hamburgueseria. The first time I ordered a cheeseburger, I was offered campesino (peasant) or doble crema (double cream) cheese. I asked which has more flavour. “Neither”, came the disappointing but honest reply.

After arepa de choclo, our next snack stop was for a pan de bono: delicious, soft dough bubbles with either cheese or guava jam blended into their centre. They’re widely available but my favourites are from a tiny café/fruit shop—the only bake pan de bono and mini pan de bono, so they’re invariably fresh and exquisite.

Past the vast cinema posters and fishing rod salesmen, who make an unlikely trade on the pavement, is 18th street. A left towards the looming forested mountains flanking the city is a flourishing baker, the Yogurteria. I’m sure their yoghurts are delicious but I’ll never know, as they also sell pastries.

While all the usual suspects are available, my favourite is dangerously hot arequipe in flaky pastry. Unspeakably delicious, it’s only for the sweetest of teeth and most diet averse. I love them. Even Greggs would blanche at selling this to the public: a moment on the lips, a lifetime clogging the pulmonary artery. They probably wouldn’t be legal.

Colombia’s most famous street food is the empanada, which I expected to adore. However, experimentation exposed a sort of fried Cornish pastry, the colour of a radioactive fish finger. Disappointed, I returned to the Séptima.

Despite the setback, I vowed to continue to keep an open mind and greet each offer welcomingly. So when a pretty but bored teenage girl offered me a flier, I looked in her eyes, flashed a winning smile and said: “Perfect, just what I needed!”

A discrete distance later and approaching a bin, I looked down at the flier: “XXX cinema, gay, couple, lesbians”. In retrospect, she had looked a little bemused.

There is a danger that the lure of the new leads to recklessness. In London, I would never buy a hotdog from one of those dirty-finger-nailed sellers’ malodorous stalls; no matter how “relaxed” I was. Go abroad, however, and I’m much more open-minded.

But even I have my limits. Some things are instinctively A Bad Idea. I once met a girl in an internet café crying from pain having eaten a cow’s heart fried over a kerosene stove after a night’s carousing. Fresh from the clean streets of Stockholm, she’d caught her system somewhat unprepared.

I have a more conservative approach to gastronaughting. There’s plenty of delicious street food here without venturing into the meaty vats bubbling on the pavement by the Parque Nacional.

While the providence of the beef is unknown, there are cows living in the more bucolic top end of Parque Nacional. Chewing the cud, they ruminate thoughtfully over the vast cityscape below them.

Despite their setting, a few hundred metres from the “centro internacional” of one of Latin America’s financial hot spots, the cows’ presence is less incongruous than some of the foods combined with their cheese.

Further along the Séptima—past the displaced families, fruit hawkers, (grated cheese an optional extra) and crazies—on the corner of Plaza de Bolívar is a charming oblea seller’s stand. Oblea is a circular wafer sandwich, smeared with arequipe, jam, thick sweetened cream and, of course, grated cheese. Post-lunch office workers get through them like Pac Man devouring pac-dots, while I found a whole one rather testing.

Besides, it was time for the national institution of onces (elevenses), when Rolos dip blocks of cheese into hot chocolate. I like to think someone once had a cheese fondue followed by a chocolate fondue, languorously dragged themselves upright and cried: “Eureka!” To me, the combination is as strange as taking elevenses at 4pm but that’s when it’s taken here.

This peculiar practice is most famously enjoyed at the Puerta Falsa. The tiny old café is off the Plaza de Bolívar in the colonial Candelaria tourist and government area. Generations of elevenses-takers have spent their afternoons here peeling strands of chocolate-flavoured cheese from their chins.

Surprisingly given its popularity, I found the blend of cheese and hot chocolate exactly as bad as it sounded. The campesino gave an oily sheen to the hot chocolate and I can only assume the flavour must be acquired in childhood.

In Puerta Falsa’s window was a range of outrageously enticing sweets. But this was no time for a snack, I ought to take in some culture at the nearby Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). However, I really felt I had eaten enough.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Bullfighting: sherry, coiffures and ballsy men in pink tights

Bullfighting does not have a good press outside of its heartlands and I was interested to see what its fans found to enjoy. The detractors’ case seems pretty clear.
The handsome bullring was packed with an older crowd. We’d shelled out a wopping £70 to spend a couple of hours perched on a few inches of cement to watch livestock being slaughtered.
There was a lot of anticipation and excitement for this—the last event of the season and starred the celebrated José Tomas. The atmosphere was not dissimilar a Latin American version of corporate seats at Twickenham before an international, only with a lot more women and sherry.
Having belted out the national anthem, the freshly coiffered crowd returned to joking, blowing kisses to friends and arcing sherry into their mouths from suede gourds held an extravagant arm’s length away. So far, so good.
The arrival of the bullfighters into the amphitheatre was greeted with cheers. There was no doubting their courage. Not many men can carry off pink stockings into embroidered bib, shoulder pads complete with hanging baubles, and ballet shoes. And do it with machismo.

The first bull, Divinio, was released. Huge, pitch black and furious; he belted around—goaded in his search for something to clatter.
The first matador stepped out with only a pink and yellow cape to protect himself. To cries of “Olé!”, he encouraged the bull to charge at him and get as close as possible.
While the result of the fight may be forgone conclusion, the danger is real. The fighters really have balls—tights don’t allow a great deal of modesty. I couldn't fail to notice that they all ostentatiously dressed to the left. A wayward horn would spell reproductive disaster. Not to mention death.
Two horsemen “picadors” then entered the ring—the heavily padded rides with their eyes covered. To whistles of disapproval, one of the riders speared the bull between his shoulder blades.
Two more men entered the ring with short, brightly decorated harpoons. They eyeballed the bull from a few yards and then ran at it in an attempt to pierce between the bull’s shoulder blades. One of them, El Gourdo—the fat one—was roared with approval as he daintily leapt past the horns, hammered the harpoons home and then vaulted the wall surrounding the ring, with his feet high over his head.
All this was the introduction for the return of the bullfighter, now sporting red cape and sword. This was the time for bull and fighter to perform a peculiar stylized dance, with the fighter showing his control over a half-ton of aggressive bull.
The band broke into pasodobles and the crowd shouted encouragement for a good fight. I was in no position to judge the standard of the performance but there was no doubting the crowd’s infectious excitement.
Eventually, the fighter faced up to the weakened bull, holding the sword over his head, parallel to the sandy floor. We fell deathly silent, the fighter would run, leap over the horns and attempt to sink his sword.

I asked the friend next to me how bull fighting was defined. "Not as a sport but an art," he said. Now, I've been to Tate Britain and bull fighting is more complicated than that: it’s also living history, pantomime, Roman games and bloody slaughterhouse. Much more like Tate Modern.
The bulls’ jet-black hide disguises blood, they make no noise and show no signs of pain or fear. Bloody sand is quickly removed. As such, exposure to the reality of what must be really bloody excruciating is minimized, making the event more palatable to view. If bulls were white and squealed like boiling lobster it would be a much tougher spectacle to appreciate.
In some senses, the cruelty does appear to be limited: administering a clean kill is congratulated. Failure to do so leads to growing discontent from the rumbustious crowd. The result of really great fight is not the death of the bull, instead the crowd calls “Indulto!” If the president of the fight agrees, the bull sees out his days siring further celebrated animals for the ring.
And I assume the toreador must also occasionally come out second.

The penultimate fight built to a crescendo with the crowd shouting Ole and flapping white scarves. It was a truly incredible atmosphere as the kill approached.
Silence. The fighter soared, perfectly administering the coup de grace, the sword disappearing to the hilt. To a man, the roaring crowd rose to its feet.
This was it, the finale of the best fight of the season. Adrenalin ripped round the arena. Everyone seemed to be waving a white scarf. Flowers, hats and cushions were thrown in the ring. The bull stumbled and fell. I felt an overwhelmingly wave of sadness.
One of my group at the fight was a regular. I asked him why he went so often. “To see one like that,” he replied.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Street life, XXX flicks and fishing rods

Even without a proper job, I try to avoid spending my days aimlessly wondering about Bogotá's calles and carreras in my slippers. But a look at local street culture gives a glimpse into the city’s soul and forces me to get out of the flat.

A friendly fellow by nature, when someone offers me a leaflet in the street, my instinct is to look them in the eye, smile broadly and say something like: “Fantastic! That’s exactly what I was need.” I like to think it makes a nice change to being treated like the Invisible Man.

Today, I went through my usual routine. In my mind, I’d put a little light the heart in the pretty teenage leafleteer. A discrete distance away and in reach of a bin, I looked at my new acquisition: “XXX cinema. Gay. Lesbian. Couples.”

In retrospect, her look had been a little quizzical.

The streets are a great place to go shopping for some specialist spontaneous purchases. Vying for trade are the expected magazine and snack stalls, ethno tat and food stands, you would expect.

Private DVD sellers also do a good trade. They’re a bargain too, only 65 pence for perfect versions of new films in a flimsy plastic sheath with a badly photocopied cover.

Memory sticks are also widely available. In an interesting piece of cross-marketing, these same salesmen also flog fishing rods. Not an obvious impromptu purchase and tricky to hide if the police arrive, none the less, they’re a common sight.

Another example of street-hawking optimism is the floggers of 12-foot high cinema posters. Who would suddenly decide they wanted a Saw IV poster, the size of an upended Land Cruiser, I have no idea but their ceilings must be an epic height.