We escaped early on the sixth day. It had been, to say the very least, a tough conference. Almost everyone was vegetarian or worse. They even had a vegan chef. My Brazilian colleague was categorical: “A vegan Colombian is an impossibility. He cannot be from here.” One evening after three large neat aguardientes (fire water), she caught him alone and couldn’t resist asking. “Colombia,” he said, “but I trained in the US.” “You know,” she said after much introspection, “the US is the root of all evil. Imagine, they brainwashed a Colombian into turning vegan!”
That morning, we had been served tamales for breakfast. A tamale is a Latin American speciality that usually combines either pork, beef, chicken, or all of them, wrapped in banana leaf with some veggies and corn, and steamed. It is traditional Christmas fare made with effort and love. This one, though, was a characterless mash of corn with a layer of rubbery…stuff. What was it? we asked. “Precooked gluten. It comes packed; you can make a dough out of it and then roll it, bake or steam it. Isn’t it great?” came the response.
That was when we flipped. We decided to leave by the first available minibus, some hours ahead of the formal conference closure. Two Brazilians, one Scot, one Kenyan Goan, and one Bengali Indian were united by a common, transcontinental urge to eat a large Colombian steak.
It hadn’t been all bad. The conference was in a stunning tourist village called Villa de Leyva, about 3 hours from Bogotá, in a verdant valley with rainbow skies, hummingbirds, and just a handful of people on horses. Its sleepy 16th century charm, cobbled streets, medieval church, whitewashed, double-storeyed, rammed earth structures, wood balconies and tiled terracotta roofs grew on you.
Bring on Bogotá: Evening at Villa de Leyva. Jhampan Mookerjee
Close to the village was an ancient native spiritual site devoted to worshipping enormous stone phalluses which women touched to get pregnant, and men just looked at fondly and wished for. The region was known for fossils of the Kronosauruses, huge prehistoric marine reptiles with teeth like daggers. You could even trek to some startlingly beautiful and precipitous mountain lakes browsing the fabled biodiversity en route, if the rain let you.
In the evening, if you still had energy, you could wander around looking at kitschy souvenir shops or just lolling around in cafés and bars, which remained open as long as you wished them to. If you were one of those who needed exercise to sleep, the Latino rhythms never faded.
The smell and taste of Colombian coffee first thing in the morning eclipsed everything. The vegan chef would boil the dark roast in a 5-litre stock pot for a while, which was unusual. But had black, without sugar, it was heavenly. In the evening, my favourite Colombian drink, aguardiente, came in handy. Had puro (neat), it is deceptively easy on the tongue and soon knocks you out. After aguardiente, what you ate did not matter. But five days without meat, and talking to women who extol the virtues of vegetarian sushi, was too much. We went questing for meat.
Carne de Res is the rockstar of Colombian meat. Mauro A Fuentes Álvarez/About.me/fotomaf
The minibus hurtled through the cold morning drizzle on a road that went up and down narrow passes in misty montane rainforests. These would open up in valleys with water bodies and meadows peppered with pied cattle. The driver would not take the curves gently. He stopped only when three people threatened to throw up inside. “It feels good,” the Scot said as he crawled back. “This is certainly creating space for meat.”
On cue, we reached Ubaté, where we were greeted by an imposing statue of a Jersey cow. The Milk Capital of Colombia, said the high pedestal. But along with milk and cheese, prodigious quantities of beef were on display too. Large boiled broiler chickens with yellow skin sat in glass boxes along with brown, black and pink sausages made with beef, veal, pork, and chicken, some as thick and long as my arm, spiced and smoked. There was enough offal to make a Scot forget haggis. We spent a few hours there, just looking around in awe and drinking coffee. But we did not eat, for we had a goal: a steak, only at Andrés Carne de Res.
Located further down the highway at the Chia village (an hour out of Bogotá), Andrés Carne de Res—literally, Andrés’ meat restaurant—typifies the meaty side of the Colombian highlands. Meals in these parts usually consist of a large piece of boiled or grilled (parrilla) beef, pork or chicken, along with a small piece of churitzo as a savoury with potatoes or rice. All this could be combined in a sopa (soup) as well. Small, thick rotis made of a roughly ground maize dough called arepa are also served, sometimes filled with melted cheese. For a region that lies in the midst of so much botanical diversity and is reputed for its chillies, there is surprisingly little spice or green in the food.
Andrés Carne de Res is the acid rock star of Bogotá restaurants. The exterior, with its blue plastic cows and steam engines, gives only a hint of the Dali-esque madness that rules inside. The cavernous hall is divided into many parts and in it lie a million things in a bizarre mix of hanging cutlery, muted strobe lights, bottles, stuffed toy tigers, metal birds, old clocks, adding machines, gramophones, and clunky rustic tables and benches to seat guests. A steady, but muted, salsa beats in the background.
We started with Aguila cerveza (eagle beer) accompanied by deep-fried crunchy cubes of pork belly, unripe banana fritters, boiled tapioca, crackling, and various kinds of chopped sausages. This came on a large plate with salsa and a sharp green chutney. While we were thulping this, the waiters brought us butchers’ aprons and some seriously long steak knives. And then, everyone looked up on hearing the sound of an approaching storm.
I never knew five large sizzlers could make so much noise. The humongous steaks were delivered to us with equally large avocados, and some rice on a side plate. Mine was just about seasoned, a bit chewy and delightfully meaty. The musky onion and red wine sauce complemented it perfectly. Even for five starved carnivores, it took some effort to finish. Tired, we asked for another beer, and out of the dark came people with drums and a trombone. With a roll and flourish, we were made to wear a sash in the colours of Colombia and awarded a medal.
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Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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