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.