Thursday, August 20, 2009

Memory Lane ... or Chair?

As far back as anyone can remember, there's been a hair place (peluquería) on the corner of San Felipe's commercial center, next to the launderer's, which has also been there as long as anyone can recall.

While today it is a beauty parlor and hairstyling shop - in the old days it was a true barbershop, with a full complement of barbers and swivel chairs with straps hanging from them to sharpen the razors.

In the latter 1980s it started to shift its attention more toward women's hair, but it still drew a loyal male clientele. Some years later, the then-owner had a dispute with the main stylist, Sandro, who consequently left to open his own peluquería a hundred or so yards away, in Los Cedros. Sandro drew away many clients, and there are still many people who won't let anyone else cut or style their hair.

One thing that has remained constant, however, is the horse.

Anyone from San Felipe who sees this would instantly recognize where it came from, and any number of us can recall sitting at one of these while getting our hair cut with the invariably huge-seeming scissors, which SNIPPED loudly and menacingly in one's ears.

For us boys, at least, the thrill of the horse "ride" was dampened afterward by the results on our hair. Even in those 1970s days of long hair and bangs, there were but two styles of haircut at that shop, it has been said: the military and the schoolboy, and the relationship between the two was close and clear.

Originally there were four of these cast metal horses around a mirrored pillar. Today there is just the one, sitting in a corner of the shop, a forlorn bearer of innumerable memories waiting for new riders.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Casa Cervecera "De Tomás"

In the first week of August, on one of my last days in Lima, Nico, Diego and I went to visit a locale that I had been curious to visit: Restaurant Cerveceria De Tomas.

Located on Lima's Avenida Rosa Toro, home of many cevicherias, it's fare -not unexpectedely- tended toward seafood. However, the reason for the visit was that De Tomas is Lima's only brewpub.

On the day we went, the place could not have been deader. For most our meal we were the only diners, and only at the end did another table fill up. This may have been in part due to the day of the week -a Tuesday- and the time of the year -mid-Winter- as ceviche is generally regarded as a revitalizer after a hard night and as Summertime fare.

The fare, it must be said, was quite good. Not great, mind you, but solidly done and in that realm De Tomás has no need to envy any of its neighbors I'm sure.

I, of course, was there for the beer.

All of De Tomas offerings seem to be ales. Upon that base, they build their selection of beers by tweaking the malts, and most often, it seems, by use of additives. The server did share that they use a mixture of whole-grain malts and malt extracts depending on the recipe and on availability of particular ingredients. He would not say what hops were used, saying that that was known "only by the technician in charge of making the beer."

From what I can recall, their basic beer was a "Pilsner", although it lacked the body and hop character of any Pilsner I have tasted and did not even compare favourably with Peru's standard Pilsner- and Bavarian-style commercial lagers. If anything, it tasted like a light beer.

From L to R: Pilsner, Algarrobina Beer, Red Beer

The next one on the list, and the second we tried, was one made with the addition of algarrobina, a syrup made from the seed pods of the algarrobo or huarango tree (Prosopis pallida), which is sometimes referred to in English as "American carob" and in Hawaii, where it has been introduced from South America, as "Kiawe." Algarrobina syrup is widely used in Peruvian cooking and is a common flavoring in desserts and cocktails. The beer made with it was actually quite tasty and balanced. The algarrobina added a nice undertone to the beer but did not dominate, and seems to have lent some body to the beer as well.

The third beer tasted was their Red beer. This one was brewed with darker malts and the addition of honey. It also was an improvement over the Pilsner and the honey's influence was noticeable. It's head was also denser and more longlasting than that of the other two.

Other offerings included a dark beer (also brewed with honey), a lime-flavored beer, and a mint-flavored beer, as well a "Premium" beer which included "special malts, honey, and fruit flavors" but which was sadly unavailable at that time.

Considering that Peru's beer culture is dominated by Bavarian- and Pilsner-style lagers and the complete absence, at least in Lima, a metropolis of nearly 9 million souls, of a single other brewpub, one has to recognize that De Tomás is doing well by holding its own ground in the face of some stiff competition.

I suspect that the lightness of the beers and low hop character are probably, more than anything, a measure of the extent to which the availability and prices of malt and hops in Peru are impacted by the sheer size and reach of Backus & Johnston, which holds near-monopoly on beer and brewing in the country.

Backus' monolithic status has been recently challenged by the Brazilian group InBev, and by the Ayacuchano Añaño family with their Aje Group breweries. Hopefully, others -maybe one of the dozen or so small, independent breweries said to be operant in Lima- will follow upon Mr. De Tomás footsteps and open up more brewpubs. For such a beer-drinking nation, it would seem a natural step, and in any case, Mr De Tomás seems committed to making it happen as he offers yearly courses on brewing at the pub.

I think we can all drink to that!

Restaurante y Casa Cervecera "De Tomas"
Av. Agustín La Rosa Toro Nº1151
San Borja
Lima 41 - Perú

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Pisco "Don Moisés"

On the morning after Hernán and Carla's wedding, as we were walking over to their house for lunch and to say our "goodbyes", I noticed the owner of the hotel we were staying at come out of a lot across the street. This drew my attention to the lot itself and, in it, to an old pot still or alambique in the yard.

The hotel's owner, Mr Julio Sánchez, heard me mention it to my dad and stopped to chat with us about it, mentioning that it was still used, and graciously acquiesced when I asked if we might be able to go in an take a closer look.

Mr Sánchez (in the burgundy shirt, at left) proved to be gracious and informative host. He allowed us to clamber up around his still, taking pictures, while he explained the history of the still, how he still uses it make pisco, and told us about himself and Ica.

It turned out that Mr Sánchez and my dad were nearly paisanos (countrymen) as he was originally from the town of Anco, near the border between Ayacucho and the nextdoor department of Huancavelica. Mr Sánchez is also the President of an association of Quechua-speakers in Ica dedicated to preserving and prommoting the use of the language amongst iqueños. Naturally, he and my dad had a lot to talk about.

Mr Sánchez explained to us that he acquired the property with the still on it, and that the place used to be referred to as the "Silent Industry" as it was a bodega which almost exclusively employed deaf-mutes. All the employees knew the procedures in making pisco and the timing of each step was dictated with a series of colored lightbulbs.

Among his other enterprises, Mr Sánchez continues to use the facilities to produce his own high quality artisanal pisco.

During the Vendimia, or grape harvest, in March, the grapes are loaded into a large circular masonry tub - the lagar- to be pressed. Here the grapes are pressed in the traditional way, by foot. It was explained to us that there are some lovely young ladies who are experience grape stompers who come and do the job. Netting must be put up to protect them while they are stepping on the grapes, as the sugars and aromas draw bees and wasps "by the thousands".

The extracted juice is conducted via a pipe to a rectangular lagar built at a lower level, from whence it is transfered to the fermenting vessels, of which there are thirteen built onto the hillside. Mr Sánchez indicated that this step can be done with a pump but that, most often, they find it easier to just use buckets.

After fermentation is complete, the must is then transfered to the alambique for distillation.

The resultant liquor -which can be produced in batches of up to 300 liters- is then aged for the requisite minimum of three months in plastic containers, and then bottled as needed.

Mr Sánchez's very tasty pisco, Pisco "Don Moisés", can be purchased across the street from where it is produced: at the Hotel Belle-Sand, Casuarinas B1-3, Residencial La Angostura, Ica.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


On the morning of August 1st, a few hours before my cousin Hernan's wedding -for which we had journeyed to Ica, and at which I was to stand as witness- a few of us took the opportunity to visit Bodega Vista Alegre to learn a bit about how pisco is made.

Vista Alegre, manufacturer of Sol de Ica piscos and a number of wines, is one of the largest and oldest vineyards in the country, having been founded in the 1850s, and is one of the most modern in terms of equipment.

Peru can lay claim to having the oldest vinicultural history in South America, the Spanish having brought grape vine cuttings from Europe and established the first vineyards -in Ayacucho, it so happens- in the 1550s. Saddly, Peruvians cannot lay claim to a history of great wines, but when it comes to distilling fermented grape must they've certainly learned their craft well!

Pisco has been produced in Peru since at least the early 1600s, and received a boost in the 1640s when wine exports from the Viceroyalty of Peru were banned in order to protect the interests of Spanish wineries. The ban caused wine production to whither, but pisco production continued and expanded as its sales were not legally affected and it was not as perishable as wine.

The process of pisco production starts very much like that of wine. In March, the grapes are picked and brought to a large vat, the lagar, where they will be squeezed, and the skins and juice separated from the seeds and stems which would lend bitterness to the drink. In the old days, and in some artisanal bodegas today, the grapes would be stepped on to extract the juice but in larger operations -such as Vista Alegre's- a press would be used.

Today, Vista Alegre uses a mechanical press to accomplish this task. The must is then transfered to fermentation tanks, where naturally-occurring yeasts on the grapes transform the grape sugars into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and other compounds.

The fermented must -now, I suppose, actually wine- is then transferred to large pot stills (alambiques) where the liquid is heated and its elements separated from one another through evaporation and condensation. As the fermented must is heated, the more volatile compounds evaporate out and rise through the "swan neck" (cuello de cisne) into a condensing chamber, from whence it is sent through a coil (serpentina) immersed in water, which cools it down.

The distiller's craft and knowledge truly come into play at this point as s/he must discard the initial toxic methanol-laden runoff (the "head" or cabeza), judge when the sufficient alcohol level -usually around 42%- has been reached in the main portion of the distillate (the "body" or cuerpo), while keeping it separate from the "tail" (cola) which could introduce off flavors.

The pisco is then aged in a nonreactive container, which must not affect its appearance or character in any way. At some small bodegas the old pisco amphorae are still used, but at industrial scale operations, such as Vista Alegre's, vessels of stainless steel or food-grade plastic are preferred nowadays. Vista Alegre keeps its old ceramic pisco vessels around as a decorative and historical element.

After no less than three months, the pisco is tested, bottled, labeled, and sent out to the consumer.

After the tour, which was really quite interesting, we were conducted to a room near the entrance to sample some of the wines and piscos produced there.

The wines were OK but, like many Peruvian wines, tended toward the sweet and lacked a bit of body. We did, however, enjoy one of the red ones enough to buy a bottle.

We also liked the Sol de Ica acholado (mixed) pisco and my dad and I each purchased a bottle. Along with mine, I also bought one of only 5 remaining in stock out of 50,000 numbered bottles (mine is # 012654) of a special pisco produced in commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World .

Afterward, we headed to the weirdness that is Bodega Lazo in search of a pisco vessel to buy, only to be flatly turned down by the owner, and thence, in a rush, back to the hotel to change for the wedding.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Well, we got back a few days ago and promptly went camping with Liz's side of the family. We are home now, all safe and sound.

More stories and pictures from our wonderful Peru trip will trickle onto this page in the coming days before I have to head back to work.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Polvos Azules

A day or so into Liz and the kids' trip - on the way, in fact, to the Centro- we stopped for an almost obligatory shopping excursion in Polvos Azules.

Polvos Azules owes its name, which means blue powders, to Colonial-era merchants who plied their trade on a street along the Rimac River next to where the Presidential Palaca now stands. After Independence the place name stuck though the blue powders market was long gone.

In time the area was made into a parking lot, which in turn was by the 1980s taken over by street merchants, encouraged in part by the mayor who wanted them off the streets. Thus, Polvos Azules became a warren of informal merchant stalls and peddlers, a magnet for petty criminals, and one of the busiest markets in all of Lima. The very same economic economic and social crises which had pushed so many into street sales pushed an even larger number to seek the bargains to be had in Polvos Azules, where almost anything could be found, from Chinese tweezers or ponytail holders, to sportswear, car parts, and stereos. Some of it was name-brand, some of it fake, some legitimate, some contraband, some stolen, some a mixture of all of the above, but all of it at dirt floor prices and handed over with a big dose of caveat emptor.

Eventually, however, City Hall decided that it wanted the merchants out of Polvos Azules as well. People had tired of years of mismanagement of the city and unkept promises to "reclaim" downtown. Moreover, Lima's historic downtown had been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, and the presence of Polvos Azules and the pressure its tide of humanity put on the city centre were a bit of an embarrassment.

Faced with the threat of eviction, and after a number of fights with the police and a still-unsolved New Years Day fire, the merchants of Polvos Azules offered to buy the ground they were squatting on. The City declined and the merchants were obliged to look elsewhere, eventually finding an unused warehouse along the Paseo de la Republica.

In 1997, sixteen years after its founding, the street market of Polvos Azules moved indoors, its remaining 1500 merchants moving their shops with all their goods and the name Polvos Azules. The purchase went foul and years later they are still in court battling embezzlement, but together the merchants had resisted forcible eviction from the Centro, had raised the US$ 5 million to buy the property, had saved their market, and had reason to be proud. They celebrated the event with a parade and painted the building blue.

Today, Polvos Azules has a web site and a public relations department, but it is still a warren of small shops, spread over three floors and though not as wild and woolly as before it still has a slight air of wildness about it. It is a cacophony of sounds -reggaeton, cumbia, salsa, huayno, videogame sound effects, human voices- all competing for one's attention. A million smells -leather (real and fake), electronics, sweat- assault your senses, only to get worse at lunchtime.

Most importantly, it continues to offer bargains, and whether they like to admit it or not, people of every class pass through Polvos Azules at one time or another. There you can find shoes, clothes, Chinese MP3 players or TVs for a fraction of the price of a departments store, have the voltage changed on foreign appliances or your stereo repaired, you can buy cell phones, music CDs, game systems, even DVDs of films not yet released into theaters for a dollar apiece.

It is an experience, to be sure, and one we never miss out on during our visits to the city and this time was no exception. We came out with a repaired CD player, several pairs of new shoes, shoulder bags, and several counterfeit CDs which were so good that I thought they were legitimate but used ones until I found that the label had a different one printed on the reverse and the tracks are mislabeled when played on Windows Media Player. What did I say about about caveat emptor...?

Sunday, August 2, 2009


Over the weekend we headed south along the coast to Ica for a cousin's wedding. While there we took the opportunity to visit some vineyards and the desert around the Huacachina.

Bodega Lazo

We went to Bodega Lazo looking to purchase a botija - one of the old ceramic amphorae used to age pisco.

Bodega Lazo, a small artisanal winery and pisco distillery, turned out to be a truly weird place. They still use the botijas, which alone sets them apart, but along with the botijas, the place is crammed with the oddest assortment of brick-a-brack, from pre-Columbian artifacts to old phones, broken radios, swords, stuffed animals, and even a large bust of Juan Velasco Alvarado.

The owner wanted to sell us some of the small fake botijas produced for tourists, but refused to sell us one of the antique ones, even when we pointed out a couple that were lying in the dirt clearly long unused.


This morning, before heading back to Lima, we headed to the oasis of Huacachina for some fun in the desert.

From Huacachina one can hire a ride in a four-wheel drive sand vehicle for a ride across the desert and over the large sand dunes which surround the Huacachina.

Part of the ride is a stop at a large multi-tiered dune for some sandboarding: