Sugar, No Spice and All Things Rice – Last Weeks in Cuellaje

They don’t call it rainy season for nothing! Life and work in Cuellaje has been progressing, albeit at snail’s pace, bogged down with heavy rainfall, the occasional landslide, and well just lifestyle in general in this corner of the world. The South Americans aren’t known for their exceptional organisational and time management skills, and in no place is it more evident than in the countryside.

After our first six weeks here in Cuellaje, we managed to complete quite a few interviews with community members about their sustainable farming and living practices, the views on mining in Intag and their opinions on further development of sustainable tourism in their Parish.  Enough to complete our first report. And with all the rain we were having, what’s best but to stay indoors and write.

When we did venture outside into the wet, our only mode of transport besides walking was the lechero, or milk truck, bright and early before the farmer started work for the day. The lechero and his milk vats is Cuellaje’s equivalent of a public bus network. As long as you have the courage to get up before the crack of dawn and sit out the bumpy ride in the back of the Ute, you can pretty much find a lechero to take you anywhere you need to go, rain, hail or shine.

One afternoon we braved the downpour and ventured over to the abuelos, the grandparent’s house where our host Dad and brother were busy preparing cane sugar for juicing and making sweet, sticky treats. We arrived just in time to help boil down the juice to make panela, a local specialty of blocks of pure cane sugar.

Many fincas in the area make panela to sell at the Sunday market in Cuellaje and even transport it to Otavalo for sale. Earlier in our stay, we had witnessed the making of true ingenuity on Ivan’s hydroelectric cane sugar pulp mill, now we were able to get stuck in to the making of the stuff.

First we boiled down the cane juice that was extracted earlier in the day. Once it got boiling it produced foam that is then skimmed off the top until the juice is a clear, thick, golden liquid. From there, Angel poured the liquid into wooden panela moulds. The rest we got to play with!

Taking the left-over syrup, we cooled it down until it was malleable and started stretching and pulling the sticky stuff like taffy until it became a light-golden colour. Unfortunately, we lacked the skill to finish what’s called Melcocha (natural candy), turning it instead into a sticky web of sugar coated hands.

And so we abandoned our efforts and watched Angel ply the sugar until it formed a large baton in a similar texture as honeycomb. That is what they call santos, the crème de la crème of the whole process.

During our whole stay we have spent quite a bit of time playing with the lovely kiddies of La Loma. They’re so well behaved that it gives you a warped view on pre-teen life. The 14th of January was a designated fiesta day in La Loma. The aim was to raise funds for those parents who are struggling to send their children to school.

The party got started mid-morning with football and Ecua-volley (Ecuadorian style volley that requires 3-aside and mainly touch and go), while our host family were busy preparing empanadas and chicha (a fermented drink typically made with corn, yucca and other types of vegetables) to sell in the community square.

I spent the morning indoors working, while Antoine went out to finish off the remainder of his tests on water in the different communities.

After working all morning, we arrived late afternoon when things started to heat up. Groups of teenage girls were having dance-offs and crates of beer were fast selling out. Chivalry starts young in this part of the world. While sitting watching the makeshift dance floor fill up I was approached by a 6-year-old holding out his hand ‘shall we dance?’ ‘Vamos a bailar?’ He asked politely. How can a girl refuse! That started a succession of dance numbers with under ten’s.

The kids got stuck into the empanadas in the evening, and when we would ask what their favourite food is, like anyone else in Ecuador, they would reply matter-of-factly “rice, potatoes and chicken”, without fail. Rice is the national dish that trumps all other foods. For us it was becoming a little heavy consuming the white stuff for lunch, dinner and sometimes breakfast too.

Yucca is the second dish of choice for Ecuadorian camperos, followed by sopa de gallina del campo (country chicken soup) in close second. Although we really enjoyed living the lifestyle of the locals, we really missed the herbs and spices that we’re used to adding, en masse, into our cooking.

Nonetheless, we got addicted to some local cuisine like fluffy, cheesy empanadas, so different to the Argentinean kind. Locro de papas y queso was a favourite of mine, a thick potato soup with creamy melted cheese folded through it. Then there’s the juice. Freshly blended exotic fruit every morning is hard to beat. We exchanged recipes and I’ll be putting them up here soon.

Stay tuned…

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  • Natasha Malinda from Melbourne, Australia
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