Bolivia’s growing gourmet scene: Welcome to the high life in the Andes

'Bolivia' and 'gourmet' are two words seldom seen together. Not any more, says Sarah Gilbert

Tender pork neck, millefeuille of crackling, the sweetness of peaches offset by the tang of red chillies. All washed down with a spicy local syrah. 

I was mid-way through an 11-course tasting menu, and each plate was a revelation, bursting with colour and flavour, from the delicate slivers of ruby-red llama tartare to achiote – an Amazonian superfruit – ice cream topped with salty, home-smoked bacon and tart cherries. And it was all the more surprising because I was dining in Bolivia's high-altitude hub, La Paz.

Bolivia has no shortage of incredible raw ingredients, as I discovered at Mercado Rodriguez the following day. At one makeshift stall run by a cholita – an indigenous Aymara woman – a bowler hat balanced on her head at a precarious angle, I counted at least 10 different tubers, including pop-art coloured yellow and pink papalisas. Mounds of pebble-like tunta, potatoes freeze-dried in the Altiplano, sat next to tiny but fiery ulupica chillis and fragrant quirquiña, Bolivian coriander.

Yet, until recently, no one would have put the words “gourmet” and “Bolivia” in the same sentence. That all changed when Claus Meyer – co-founder of Copenhagen's legendary Noma, which regularly appears on lists of the world's best restaurants – opened Gustu (the Quechua word for flavour) here. It followed a search for a less-privileged country to launch a philanthropic project through Meyer's Melting Pot foundation. Together with a Danish NGO, Ibis, he drew up a shortlist of three countries that met certain criteria: biological diversity, low crime, high poverty, political stability and cuisine with unrealised potential. Bolivia came out on top.

The project began life as a food school, and when the restaurant opened in April 2013 with gastronomic rules even stricter than Noma's – everything, including alcohol, has to be Bolivian – it was the climax of two years' planning.

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A sorbet (High Lives Travel)

Meyer imported his New Nordic Cuisine ideology, state-of-the-art kitchen equipment and two passionate young chefs, Michelangelo Cestari from Venezuela and Kamilla Seidler from Denmark. They arrived in La Paz in October 2012 and immediately began scouting for ingredients. 

“The Nordic region has a vast range of produce and our idea for Gustu was to use ingredients from Argentina, Peru and Brazil,” Cestari told me. “But we soon realised Bolivia had everything we needed and more. It has amazing biodiversity.” The restaurant's interior is a feast for the eyes too and, like the food, everything is Bolivian – hand-carved replicas of wooden totem poles from Jesuit missions, recycled colonial window frames and colourful weavings from Potosi. 

Gustu is rediscovering lost ingredients, supporting small producers and changing lives, while Melting Pot has six culinary schools in El Alto, perched on a plateau 4,150 metres above sea level to the north of La Paz, where young people are trained and given work experience.

While Gustu is inexpensive compared with Noma, it's unaffordable for the majority of Bolivians, so Ara (“to eat” in Cavineña, a language from Bolivia's Amazon region) is due to open imminently; a bistro, bakery and deli that will serve modern takes on traditional dishes, at half the price of Gustu.

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Street food in La Paz (High Lives Travel)

Since Meyer started his project, the gastronomic scene here has changed somewhat; Bolivians have an increasing sense of pride and belief in their produce. Now there's artisanal chocolate from El Ceibo, mixed with salt from Uyuni, the world's largest salt flats; an ever-increasing number of craft beers, such as Kushaav's El Salar which is brewed from the Incan supergrain quinoa; and top-quality bean-to-cup coffee at independent cafés such as Tipica and Roaster Boutique. 

Not forgetting the national tipple, singani, distilled from the aromatic Muscat of Alexandria grapes. Gustu's ground-floor bar is the first to be dedicated to this one-of-a-kind spirit, traditionally drunk as a chuflay, mixed with lime and ginger ale. Here, the singani has been macerated, mixed and muddled into creative cocktails such as the Silver Julep and the Api Old Fashioned. There are also 48 labels from 12 wineries. 

Singani is no longer Bolivia's only home-produced spirit. The country's first premium vodka, 1825 – the year of independence – is triple-distilled using pure mountain water and high-altitude Andean wheat; while Gin La Republica is infused with a bespoke blend of Andean botanicals, with an Amazonian version to follow later.

And the new food movement isn't just about haute cuisine. It's said that on any given day, 90 per cent of Paceñas (La Paz residents) will eat from street stalls, and another Melting Pot project, Suma Phayata (“well cooked” in Aymara), is the city's first official street food tour. There's no fee or guide, you just download a map and work your way around the city, and it's as much about culture as it is a celebration of local flavours, showcasing five redoubtable women who each sell one perfectly executed dish – from tucumanas, deep-fried pastries stuffed with meat or vegetables, to anticuchos, tender morsels of beef heart grilled over an open flame, and tangy tripe soup. 

In a small kiosk in Mercado Lanza, Doña Elvira has been serving choripan – a delicious, doorstep-sized sandwich stuffed with her own secret-recipe chorizo – for more than 34 years. I ask her what's in it. “It's like Coca-Cola,” she laughs. “If I tell you, I'll have to kill you.” 

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Getting there

HighLives Travel (020 8144 2629; highlives.co.uk) offers a 15-day tour of Bolivia, including La Paz, from £2,500pp, excluding flights. 

Air Europa (0871 644 8011; aireuropa.com) flies from Gatwick to Santa Cruz in Bolivia, via Madrid, four times a week from £800. 

Eating and drinking there

Gustu (restaurantgustu.com).

Suma Phayata (sumaphayata.org).

Wines of Bolivia (winesofbolivia.com).

More information

bolivia.travel

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