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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The London Foodie Goes to Peru - Cuzco (Part I)

The Magnificent Ancient Capital of the Inca Empire

Cuzco is the ancient capital of the Inca Empire, which at its height extended north into Ecuador, east into Brazil, and south through Bolivia to northern Chile. The city is thought to have been founded around 1100 AD, and today besides being a major tourist destination, it is also the only base from which a visit to Machu Picchu is possible.

Almost every street in the centre of town has remains of Inca stonework, arches and doorways, and in many cases colonial or modern buildings are constructed on top of massive Inca foundations.

The city has around 300,000 inhabitants, and it is striking that many, if not most, still speak the Inca language Quechua among themselves, in preference to Spanish. The centre of Cuzco, around the Plaza de Armas, contains most of the sites of touristic interest, and is easily explored on foot. Cuzco makes an excellent base for a stay of a week or so, being interesting in itself, and also a convenient spot for journeys into the Sacred Valley and of course Machu Picchu.

Having thoroughly enjoyed staying at the magnificent Residence Phou Vao, one of the Belmond Hotels (former Orient Express Group) in Luang Prabang, Laos (reviewed here), I was delighted to discover that they owned two historic properties in the heart of Cuzco. Finding it hard to choose between them, we stayed at both! They are situated next door to each other on the beautiful Plazoleta las Nazarenas.

Where to Stay

The Belmond Hotel Monsterio is a stunning building, just a few tens of metres from the central Plaza de Armas in Cuzco, and it was a great privilege to stay there. It was built in 1595 on the site of the Palace of the Inca Amaru Qhala. In 1598 it was founded as a seminary to train catholic priests. It was seriously damaged in an earthquake in 1650, and when it was restored a beautiful Baroque chapel was added, with magnificent paintings by Cusquenian artists.

It continued as a seminary until 1965, when it was converted into a hotel. It was taken over by the Belmond Group (former Orient Express) in 1999, and remains a national landmark protected by the National Institute of Culture. The heart of the hotel is a central courtyard with an original fountain, and a 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by gardens and peaceful stone cloisters.

Belmond Hotel Monasterio's Private Chapel
Our room was a junior suite, and was a duplex with a large double bed and bathroom on the lower floor, and a living room on the upper floor complete with an electrically operated Velux window, cable TV, minibar and butler service.

Probably the largest and most comfortable bed I have ever slept in at Belmond Hotel Monasterio

Magnificent views of ancient Cuzco from our room at Belmond Hotel Monasterio
The bed also had a large TV at its foot, which niftily appeared from its cabinet at the touch of a button. Best of all though was the stunning view of ancient Cuzco and its rooftops through the window, and the beautiful original artwork throughout the room. It was originally a priestly cell, but today is luxurious and atmospheric spot for a 5 star stay in the town.

Hotel Monasterio has two restaurants; Illariy for breakfast and lunch, with a wonderful view of the hotel's largest courtyard and gardens, and the more formal Restaurant Tupay for dinner.

The "Lobby" with its cocktail bar looks like no hotel lobby I've ever seen, being a stunning baroque reception room, and we enjoyed some excellent Pisco Sours there.

Pisco Sour Class with Belmond Hotel Monasterio's Head-Barman
Breakfast is a magnificent affair at the Belmond Hotel Monasterio, with a massive buffet with a huge choice of freshly made pastries, breads, cakes and puddings, along with hams, cheeses, tropical fruit, juices, yoghurts and the like.

There is also a range of items cooked to order. The setting is stunning, and we opted to take ours in the beautiful courtyard to the sound of a live guitarist.

Next door to Hotel Monasterio, the Palacio Nazarenas is an equally magnificent property consisting of 55 suites set around six interlocking and rather intimate courtyards, each with a tranquil garden at its heart. Erected shortly after the Spanish conquest as a private home, it was acquired by the Jesuits in 1644, and for most of the next 300 years was used by various religious orders for charitable and educational purposes.

It was acquired by the Belmond Group (former Orient Express) in 1999, who spent 10 years developing the design of the hotel, followed by restoration and construction. The hotel opened to guests in June 2012.

Belmond Palacio Nazarena's Private Chapel
Today, the Palacio Nazarenas is glorious, blending original features including Inca walls and colonial frescoes with the latest technology for the rooms and common areas.

Each suite has a personal butler 24 hours a day, as well as a supply of top quality Piscos and Rums in each room included in the room rate. Our butler rustled up a couple of excellent Pisco sours for us before dinner.

Butler Rustling Up a Couple of Pisco Sour at our Room at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas has a heated swimming pool (unlike Hotel Monasterio), with a poolside restaurant and bar. There is also a beautiful library, and a business centre complete with full-sized billiard table.

Gorgeous and Heated Swimming Pools at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas

Our suite was spacious, with a private balcony overlooking the swimming pool and the rooftops of Cuzco.

View from our room at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas

With plush carpet underfoot, and heated bathroom floors (Cuzco can get pretty chilly), as well as elegant furniture and armchairs, it was a luxurious spot to return to after a busy day of sight-seeing in the city.

Our own Pisco Sour Station at our room at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas

Breakfast was taken in the cafe/bar overlooking the swimming pool or at our own room, and included a generous array of breads, juices, yoghurts and made-to-order items, as well as excellent coffee.

I thoroughly enjoyed the freshly baked bread, the sweet and beautifully presented platter of fruits and honeys and cold meats. Belmond Palacio Nazarena's Eggs Benedict were however the highlight of our breakfast!

Possibly the most beautiful and tasty eggs Benedict I have tried!
Decisions decisions!

We found it very hard to decide which hotel we preferred, and both were outstandingly good. I felt that there was a slightly greater sense of history and that the rooms kept the spirit of the monastic rooms they once were at the Hotel Monasterio. The restaurant overlooking the courtyard with its massive and ancient tree at its heart was spectacularly beautiful. One the other hand, the Palacio Nazarenas had more generously sized rooms, private butler facilities and a swimming pool, and their restaurant has just been taken over by Virgilio Martinez from Lima’s Central, one of the hottest chefs on the continent. I think whichever you choose you won't regret it. For hotels of this quality standard, they are good value for money too.

Where to Eat

MAP Café

Just across the square from the two Belmond hotels is the MAP Café, situated in a glass box in a courtyard of the Museo de Arte Precolombino. This is considered one of the top restaurants in Cuzco, and the Head Chef is Manuel Cordova (who unfortunately was not working on the lunchtime of our visit). The café also has a well-regarded pastry chef, Rebeca Delgado.

The menu offers a range of traditional and Novo Andino dishes, and we opted for the Tiradito of Seabass with Aji Mirasol (dried Aji Amarillo) and Tumbo (similar to passionfruit) (£10). Tiradito is a Nikkei adaptation of ceviche, in which the fish is cut and served sashimi-style, rather than in the traditional cubes. MAP Café's version had the fish-stock and lime-based "leche de tigre", peanut praline, and crispy sweet potato. It was excellent, with perfectly fresh fish, a nice zing from the citrus, and satisfying crunch from the praline and sweet potato.

We also had what was described on the menu as "Crayfish River Stone Ceviche" (£10). Served on sizzling river stones, this was a mixture in fact of sautéed fresh water prawns rather than crayfish, yucca, red onion, and aji amarillo (yellow chilli pepper). Despite being served prawns for crayfish, the dish was delicious, and I really enjoyed the addition of aji amarillo to the traditional ceviche dressing.

For our main courses, we had Pork Adobo and the Ayaviri leg of suckling lamb. The pork (£15) is a classic dish from Arequipa, in which the meat is first marinated in aji panca (dried rocoto pepper), laurel and white wine vinegar, then simmered for 8 hours. The meat is then covered in Panko breadcrumbs and deep fried, and served with sweet potato, goats cheese and Amaretti-filled ravioli, with a sauce made from aji panca and Inka beer. The sauce was magnificent, rich and concentrated, although sadly the pork was dry and crumbly from over-cooking.

The suckling lamb (£15) was better, having been seared then slow-roasted, served on Lima bean purėe with coriander pesto, and garnished with green salad, basil and mint, cinnamon and slivers of dried tomato confit. Again I thought it just a little overcooked and so not as tender as expected, but otherwise it was delicious.

Overall, the cooking at MAP Cafe was a little uneven on our visit and some of the dishes served were not as described on their menu which I find very frustrating. I am told that the Head Chef is usually present for dinner, which might be a better bet.

"Opera Dinners" at Hotel Monasterio

Dinner is served every evening in the Tupay Restaurant at Hotel Monasterio, and for two evenings per week, these are accompanied by live music. On the evening we attended, there was a pianist, a flautist, a tenor and a soprano, performing a variety of classical works including Mozart and Schubert during the dinner.

We started with a 'solterito arequipeño' salad - shrimp, sweetcorn, fava beans, soft Andean cheese, tomato, onion, olive and chilli (£15).  This was very flavourful; although I found the corn and beans were a little firm.

Next came grilled shrimp with quinoa, roasted yellow chilli and citrus foam (£15), which was delicious.

The main courses were marinated suckling pig, and a leg of lamb.  The pork came with a mandarin and ginger reduction, sweet potato millefeuille and fennel bulbs (£26). The pork was wonderfully tender and very well seasoned, although the dish could have been better had the skin been a little crispier.

The 'Ayaviry' lamb leg, with oregano and grilled aubergine topped with creamy goats cheese (£23), was excellent.

To accompany, we shared a fine bottle of Malbec Padrillos, Argentina 2012 (£50).

The Opera Dinners at Belmond Hotel Monasterio provide an interesting opportunity to experience the splendour of a monastic dining room restored to full glory, with live music. The food is very good, and prices are in line with those in the UK.

Senzo Restaurant, Palacio Nazarenas

When we were there in March 2014, there was a great sense of anticipation, because the hotel's Senzo Restaurant was being refurbished in a modern design ready for the arrival in April of the new 'superstar' chef Virgilio Martinez. His Central restaurant in Lima which I had the great pleasure to visit whilst in the Peruvian capital, figures among the top 10 restaurants in Latin America while in London his Lima restaurant garnered its first Michelin star within months of opening (reviewed here).

It is likely that the menu will change substantially, but when we were there, the kitchen was in the very capable hands of Chef Veronica Rojas, who trained under Virgilio. We decided to have the £60 per head tasting menu - Diverse Terrains. We kicked off with Anato bread - a sweet potato bread with crispy cereals, and a delicious, herb-infused amuse bouche of dried mushroom and beetroot shoot broth.

The first starter served was Trout with Leche de Tigre presented tiradito-style with cushuro (a high altitude alga in spherical shape). The trout was tender, very fresh, and the alga delicately flavoured but delicious.

Next came a dish described as Sweet Roots, Sprouts, Garden Vegetables, Mushrooms, Crispy Beetroot, Red Onion. I found this a little problematic - the cream was too sweet for me (potatoes and orange puree), and too heavily flavoured with orange. It was not unpleasant, but reminded me of baby food.

The fish course was Arapaima (a fish native to the Amazon), with Aji Amarillo. It was served with onions, the Peruvian cocona fruit, mushrooms, beetroot noodles and a black 'charcoal' made from mandioca soaked in squid ink. This was delicious, the fish having a lovely dense texture, although again I found the sauce a little too sweet for my palate.

The main course was Malaya (skirt steak - cooked sous vide), with potato mash, crispy onion, lake herbs, served with a demiglace, Chaco edible clay with Eucalyptus honey. The beef was well cooked and tender, the demiglace glossy and flavoursome and the clay, indeed very edible.

For dessert, we had sweet mullaca - a sorbet of sweet passionfruit, cacao and highland jungle fruit. This was delicious, with rich and bitter chocolate and a delicate, refreshing fruit sorbet.

The cooking at Senzo restaurant was innovative and well-exectuted making use of some native ingredients. It is likely to step up a notch further during 2014 as Virgilio Martinez gets a grip on the new kitchen. This is definitely the place to watch food-wise in Cuzco.

What to Do

Loaf around in the ancient Inca capital, and arguably the finest city in Peru

There are many wonderful sights in and around Cuzco, and it is a great place to explore Peru's Inca heritage using the discounted tickets available from the Tourist Office. You can read more about this in Cuzco (Part II).

However, the city is at 2,500 metres of altitude, and it is a good idea on arrival to take a couple of days relaxing and exploring the many bars, restaurants, shops and squares in town. We enjoyed window-shopping and cocktails at Macondo, a gorgeous shop and bar in the old town with a fantastic range of tasteful art-work and gifts.

The Fallen Angel, just around the corner from Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, was also an interesting experience for its wacky decor as well as strong and well-made Pisco Sours.

Attend a Cooking Class at Hotel Monasterio

We attended a class with the Head Chef of Hotel Monasterio. This started with a tour of the San Pedro market, but unlike many such tours I have done over the years, on this one we got to cut open and taste a wide variety of local fruits and vegetables, which was a wonderful experience.

Belmond Hotel Monasterio's Head Chef taking us around the market giving a thorough explanation of myriad ingredients, he went well beyond the call of duty on our visit, thank you Chef!
We tried lucuma, with its creamy texture and complex flavours of butterscotch, coffee and chocolate, tuna (a cactus fruit), and tumbo, which looks a bit like a banana but inside is full of seeds like passion fruit. We also tried chirimoya and grenadilla - like a very sweet passion fruit.

Delicious and creamy Lucuma fruit

We had our first sight of the strange moraya, which we were to taste later at Central in Lima.  This is a dried potato, which has been in use since pre-Inca times as a light and convenient source of carbohydrate for armies.  It can be rehydrated, cut into pieces and fried in oil to make Revuelto de Moraya, or eaten fresh.

Dehydrated potaotes - Moraya

There are over 3860 potatoes native to Peru, and we saw a few dozen different varieties in the market, as well as Andean mushrooms, and Maca powder, a local energiser also known as the Inca Viagra!

Maca powder, the Inca Viagra!

Cui or Guinea Pigs are one of Peru's delicacies
There was an array of native Peruvian Ajis (chillies). These included Aji Rocoto red coloured and rather hot, which can be eaten stuffed as in Aji ArequipeñoAji Limo, which is red and long and with citrusy tones, from Lima, and used for ceviche and tiradito. Aji Amarillo is yellow, less spicy than Limo and is also the most popular ajis in Peru, it is used to make a variety of sauces and is part of many dishes including the wonderful Aji de Galina, and when dried is known as Aji MirasolAji Panca (dried aji rocoto) has a rich depth of flavour that underpins the marinade and sauce that is used to make Anticuchos de Corazon (beef heart skewers) that are a traditional street food in Peru.

Aji rocoto, aji limo and aji amarillo

Aji Mirasol (dried aji amarillo) and Aji Panca (dried aji rocoto)
We also saw muña - a herb used to preserve potato since Inca times, and now used used by Novo Andino chefs, and ate a delicious Cusqueno tamale - sweet and sour with pork fat, crushed corn and sugar.

Enjoying a glass of chicha with the locals
At the end of the market visit, we returned to the hotel's dining room for the class, learning how to prepare ceviche of grouper, the Peruvian national dish adapted from Chinese immigrants -  Lomo saltado (stif-fried beef fillet), Revuelto de Moraya, Quinoa risotto and a dessert of local fruit.

Overall the class and market visit by Belmond Hotel Monasterio were an excellent experience, and provided a very useful insight into the ingredients used in Peruvian cooking.  I found it very helpful to refer back to my notes from this class when dining in Lima and elsewhere, and would highly recommend this experience for anyone wanting to learn more about Peruvian cuisine and ingredients.

The man is on fire!

Travel Essentials

Belmond Hotel Monasterio
Calle Palacio 136
Plazoleta Nazarenas
Cuzco, Peru

The junior suite we stayed in is advertised at the rack rate of £288 per night.

Belmond Palacio Nazarenas
Plazoleta Nazarenas 144

Our junior suite is currently advertised at a rack rate of £353 per night.

MAP Cafe
Museo de Arte Precolombino
Plazoleto las Nazarenas 231


Cuesta San Blas, Cusco, Peru
+51 84 229415

Fallen Angel

Plazoleta Nazarenas 221, Cusco, Peru
Phone:+51 84 258184


It is possible to take a very slow train (around 10 hours) from Lake Titicaca to Cuzco, and there are numerous coach companies that will do the trip stopping at several tourist spots on the way, and taking 6-8 hours.

We were keen to make the most of our limited time in Cuzco, and so took a flight with the Chilean company Lan Airlines (www.lan.com) from nearby Juliaca airport to Cuzco for £88 per person.

1 comment:

  1. also a good comfortable alternative is the http://www.hotelgoldeninca.com


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