QUITO, ECUADOR, Aug. 14, 2013 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Posicionarte, a travel media agency, was invited to discover the brand new Ecuador´s cruise train trip 4 days 3 nights from the Andes to Coast, it´s travel editor Andrew Taylor samples the local Ecuadorian cuisine on a scenic train ride through the volcanic Andes to the Pacific Coast.
Andrew Taylor says: "What I love about Ecuadorian cuisine, in general, is that it´s not fussy and there is no side dish of snobbery". In fact, Ecuadorians generally are very loyal to their recipes of modest fare. Even in the most chitzy-chootsie restaurants in the "modern cities" they struggle to deny certain "common grub" from the menu, because ultimately their customers walk in and order the same dish that they can buy on a street corner.
Within Ecuador there are many indigenous nations (maintaining their own traditions) and the country boasts a rich biodiversity of highlands, cloud forest and coast. The local food culture is based on what is (and always was) available locally - fresh produce! Even the snacks are traditional recipes and use no paper or plastic. Quimbolitos is a corn mix wrapped in Achira leaves while Humitas are wrapped in corn leaves. The perfect packed-lunch to take out onto the fields and pastures, even the wrapper is good for the soil.
For food adventurists this journey could offer a number of startling national dishes that for Andrew's "tender" belly sound like a menu written by Roald Dahl.
• Cow foot soup (Caldo de Patas)
• Pig's Head soup (Caldo de Mondongo)
• Cow's guts casserole (Guatita)
• Fried Guinea Pig (Cuy Asado)
"So boarding the newly restored Tren Crucero, I was eager to know what we were going to be fed."
The train line itself was an absolute life-saver in terms of what food and medicine could be brought to and from the coast to the highlands and vice versa. Back in the day of Ecuadorian Independence from the Spanish, the republicans inherited a country made of small isolated, self-sufficient but impoverished communities. For the most, not much has changed. Largely, the train journey glides through the land of the Quichua de la Sierra nation, now "protected" national parks. The glaciers on the majestic volcanoes are disappearing of course, the streams of which feed rivers in Amazonia. Before the train, there was only a donkey path to the coast and people rarely risked their lives (from bandits, disease or animal attack) to take it.
Mayra Prado, editor of The Route of Flavour by Train, explains:
"The train allowed movement of people and trade. For the first time ever, coastal products, fish and fruit came to the highlands, and grains and vegetables were taken to the coast. So, gastronomic fusions began to take place in both regions, and it created a more balanced diet."
Equally importantly, the train took glacial ice to the coast (boosting fish and meat exportation) and salt to the highlands, where previously there were numerous people suffering with goitre and cretinism because their diet lacked Iodine.
Ferrocarrile's Tren Crucero is a super-comfortable scenic train ride visiting colonial haciendas, a rose and a cacao plantation, a volcano, a glacial highland lake, a remote indigenous market and a Shuar Community (the nation famous for shrinking heads!) The train is beautifully designed with both a colonial and republican dining wagon, lounges with wall to floor windows and sofas, a bar and a shaded "outdoor" viewing deck at the back.
Through the Avenue of Volcanoes, the scenery is largely the same as it has been for hundreds of years. Indigenous people produce 70% of the nation's basic foods and yet still remain in absolute poverty. The menus on the journey were carefully prepared to cater for a variety of tastes and dietary whims.
Often it was the sauces that provide something of a new (and not too challenging) culinary experience.
One lunch, for example, had four main course options: Chicken Medallions with uvilla sauce, Tenderloin in wine sauce, Pork Cutlet with zetas sauce, (and the veggie option) Deilcia Ambatena – a potato tortilla with fried egg and salad. We did get the chance to taste guinea pig, during a buffet lunch in the station of Guamote on market day. Andrew asked the biggest food snob on the train and he said: "It taste like chicken!"
Guamote is a 4,000 year old It's a highland market where agricultural small-holders come down from their homes in the hills and swap their kitchen garden produce, chicken's, pigs and sheep..
At a time where multi-national food corporations are monopolising food production internationally and destroying the availability of our heritage seed, there is wisdom in preserving these paramos. Wandering around the market you get a sense of a very different realm of existence. It´s a tender simplicity. Most people look kind of exhausted. Andrew explains: "There´s a sense of stoicism, too. I guess, the main concern is how much you´re going to have to carry back up the hill at the end of the day."
Andrew's favourite meal was in the haunted colonial hacienda, La Cienega, (34 rooms of rather eerie Andean luxury). A colonial family home turned hotel. It was once a beef and cheese producer. They shared a bottle of wine and tucked into a good old steak listening to a pan pipe genius. Andrew says: "I think it even came with fried potatoes, enough to make any highlander very happy. The talk at the table was of a ghost and it is well worth going to the bar afterwards to ask them their version of the story. The rooms are in the cloisters of the most beautifully tended courtyard garden. I woke at dawn, strolled around and watched the breakfast staff taking five for prayer in the chapel. The smell of coffee is wonderful in the Andes."
Then there was the last supper. From the highland market we descended to 535 metres (via the famous Devil's Nose) to Eternal Primavera, eternal spring (with 37 rooms). It was like a wedding, the seats were set around one side of the table so that we served facing a salsa band across the swimming pool. The culinary highlight was the oven crusted cheese soup, made by laying a very thin layer of dough and then piling it with cheese and herbs to bake. Ask them for the Helado de Paila (a mellow Ice cream made from Paila, a highland grass, which is also the local building material.
The Tren Crucero scenic train ride is a confidently engineered experience and offers very respectable introduction to people from cultures didn't ruin the planet. The onboard team are friendly and professional. You learn a lot from the guides about the history of the volcanoes and the lives of the people in the mountains and their cultural traditions. On the last day we visit a shuar community, who moved from the Amazon after a family row and settled in El Limonar, between the highlands and the coast. Children dance tribal hunting rituals, we watch a healing ceremony and are shown the garden where only women can tend the plants. They tell us about their way of life, where everything is respected as a spirit, how they take from the forest only that which they need and nothing more. "I can´t remember what we ate but it was delicious and the table was laid on platano leaves, I remember" Andrew tells us.
Until New Years Eve 2013, Ecuador's Tren Crucero Experience is priced at a non profit-making level and is available to anyone with $990 all inc, so pack your friends and grab your bags, and choo chew off to a world untouched, it really is a most romantic and humbling journey.
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