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Land of the Potato Rainbow : In the Andes of Peru, dozens of ancient crops are waiting to be discovered by the outside world.

August 26, 1993|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PISAC, Peru — It's late May, turning to June, harvest time in the Andes. Almost a month into the dry season, the sky is gray; the hillsides lush green, soaked with rains that defy the calendar.

In the bed of a dented white pickup truck, riding the bumps and ruts of a narrow dirt road just above Pisac, Dr. Carlos Arbizu grips the side of the vehicle with one hand and gestures toward the terraced landscape with the other.

"Do you see over there?" he asks, his voice shaking in time to the rhythm of the shuddering truck. "All the way up the mountain? Those houses come from Inca times. That's where they used to process gold."

The wheels slip slightly as the truck skids around a particularly intense bend, and dirt from what used to be the road a moment before rattles 2,000 feet down the steep embankment. Arbizu, unfazed, continues his commentary.

"Now, that smoke at the top of the hill, that is from the famous mud ovens, watia , in which potatoes, just harvested, are being baked for somebody's lunch. And can you see that copper-colored field to the left? That is kiwicha , or amaranth, as you say. Over there where it turns red, that's quinoa. And the dark patch up high--that is potato."

The truck, driven by Dr. Gregorio Meza, director of the Cuzco-based Andean Crop Research Center, slows as the village of Paruparu comes into view.

"You know," confides Arbizu, "I think Gregorio wants to kill us and the car."

Peru's ancient cities are ruins. The gold is gone. Yet the Inca empire lives on. Look at the faces of the women at the Sunday marketplace at Pisac, a bundle of hand-knit alpaca sweaters lugged on their backs, hoping to attract the attention--and American dollars--of tourists on their way to Machu Picchu. And here, in a cluster of mountain villages tenuously anchored onto the inclines of the Urubamba, the Sacred Valley of the Incas, most of the field work is done with the sweat of human labor, the tools little changed in the near half-millennium since the Spaniards arrived.

Farming terraces, many of them the same ones Francisco Pizarro saw when he came to conquer Cuzco, still blanket the steep slopes, a colorful patchwork quilt of colors--purple and magenta, orange and yellow, greens of every hue.

These are the colors of what some call the lost crops of the Incas, protein-rich treasures that the Spaniards left behind: the grains quinoa and kiwicha , the giant-kerneled corn from the valley called blanco Urubamba, the bean-like lupin seeds called tarwai , and potatoes of every size, shape and color, so varied in taste and texture that one believes the Peruvians when they talk about potato connoisseurs, as exacting as wine lovers.

And then there are the crops that few in this country have even heard of: ulluco ( ulluku in Quechua), a slippery, nutty-tasting tuber, often Day-Glo yellow freckled with scarlet; oca ( uqa in Quechua), a dimpled, odd-looking slightly sweet tuber, which Andean women eat after giving birth to regain their strength; the radish-shaped maca , perhaps the only crop in the world to produce reliable yields at an altitude of about 14,750 feet (plus, it tastes a little like butterscotch); mashua , which, for those unafraid of its famous side effect, depressed sexual appetite, contains almost as much protein as milk. Incan women, it is said, used to try to keep their husbands in line by secretly feeding them plenty of mashua before they left for battle or long journeys, a technique some Andean women still find useful.

If Peruvian farmers and scientists have their way, these crops might show up in the produce bins at your local supermarket and in the kitchens of some of the country's best restaurants--imagine ulluco pizza at Spago. A few years of research and some bureaucratic wrangling will inevitably pass before Peru sets up a reliable importation system, as Chile has done for its agricultural products, but there are dozens of ancient crops waiting to be discovered by the outside world, crops that may one day be as economically important as wheat, corn--or the potato.

The Incas may have been the ancient world's greatest agronomists. They hadn't discovered iron, they didn't have cows or oxen to work their fields, they didn't even have a written language. But building on the knowledge of the civilizations that came before them, they transformed some of the earth's most hostile terrain--frost-susceptible, sharp-rising mountains and valleys, with a different microclimate occurring sometimes every few feet--into fertile, productive farmland.

By the time the Spaniards arrived, the Incas had cultivated an estimated 70 different crop species, almost as many as their contemporary farmers in the "developed" societies of all Europe or all Asia.

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