Sunday, May 27, 2012

Chicharrones in Caracas Venezuela

Venezuela is a dream road-trip destination. Drivers navigate against a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped Andean peaks and white-sand Caribbean beaches as they cruise through the lush Orinoco Basin, the skyscrapers of Caracas or the grassy savannas of Los Llanos. The savanna roads are lined with gaily painted food stands selling chicharrones, the nation’s favorite travel snack.

Venezuela so inspired an awestruck Christopher Columbus during his third New World voyage that he described it as “paradise on earth.” Today, its Angel Falls – the world’s highest waterfall – still inspires plenty of hyperbole among travelers, as do the mighty Orinoco River and vast Lake Maracaibo. Elegant colonial towns steeped in whimsical nostalgia, such as the mountain settlement of Colonia Tovar, are easily reached by car from the valley-capital of Caracas via the rolling forests of the Cordillera de la Costa. Scenic shore-side roads reveal a palm-scattered, semitropical coast; the warm sands of the western coast roll out before emerald rain forest and resplendent cloud-topped mountain peaks.
Venezuela’s maximum speed limit restricts every driver to a genteel 55 mph (80 km/h), so even hotheads settle into a relaxed, steady pace on the road. The highways have well-maintained surfaces that stretch out like asphalt tentacles to bird-filled rain forests, flooded meadows, and rustic mud-and-thatch villages, extending farther into ragged rural roadways, from dusty gravel to dirt tracks with potholes the size of minivans. Drivers need to keep their wits about them – all manner of farm animals and some extraordinary wildlife are prone to exploring Venezuelan roads too.

Angel Falls – the highest waterfall in the world – cascades over Mount Auyantepui in the Parque Nacional Canaima
No road trip is complete without chicharrones, crunchy, deep-fried chunks of seasoned pork rind.
Believed to have originated in Spain, they are plied by buhoneros (vendors) at virtually every street corner and highway rest stop of Venezuela’s provinces and its capital, Caracas. Some rinds are heavily salted, slightly greasy, and slow-cooked to melt away the fat; others are peppered, fatty, and chewy. Cooked to a deep russet red, many still have bristles poking through the golden rind. Some are spicy and crinkled; others are shiny, dry, and smooth. All are frazzled until the rind puffs up into irregular curls and squiggles, some in great slabs, others in tiny popcorn-sized nibbles. There are dozens of chicharrón sellers in the capital’s tree-lined Parque Central, each touting their own style of chicharrones, roasted to a recipe handed down through the generations that invariably still tastes good today.

Best Places to Eat Chicharrones

Sabana Grande Boulevard
Outdoor cooking on an open fire using the hottest fat helps to give chicharrones their salty, baconlike flavor and irresistible crunch.
The best places to savor the flavors of Caracas’s ultra-crunchy style of pork are the side streets of Sabana Grande Boulevard, where you can enjoy them sitting between groups of elderly chess and domino players hunched over wooden tables, amid the food and clothesstrewn market stands. Though different parts of the pig can be used, the skin of the belly strip is commonly the basis of Venezuelan pork rinds sold by sidewalk food stands in Caracas. Often touted by the owners of the carts that sell arepas (fried cornbread patties), chicharrones are offered as an alternative to the normal patty stuffings, such as carne mechada (shredded beef), caraotas negras (black beans), pollo guisado (stewed chicken), and queso rallado (grated cheese).
Sabana Grande Boulevard, Caracas; hours vary (stands operate virtually 24 hours a day, daily)

Chicharrones, roasted pork-skin snacks, are often eaten with coffee or aged rum
Also in Caracas
Both Sabana Grande Boulevard and Parque Central can be hectic; for a change of pace, venture into the city’s atmospheric Spanish quarter of La Candelaria to find chicharrón sellers among its old cobblestone alleyways and handsome colonial plazas.
Also in Venezuela
You’ll also find chicharrones along the road that crosses the Andes from Mérida to Barinas at the western edge of the Los Llanos region. At these welcome pit-stops, rosy-cheeked women in colorful aprons cut belly pork into ribbons on jagged rocks, chickens pecking greedily on the scraps, while black cauldrons of fat spit and pop.
Car-weary travelers satisfy their rumbling stomachs, dipping into paper cones for chunks of the salt-encrusted crackling, washed down by fizzy drinks hawked by the local children.
Around the World
In New York, richly flavored homemade Venezuelan dishes are served up with considerable pride at the Cocotero Restaurant (; inexpensive) on West 18th Street in Chelsea. An imaginative menu proves to New York gastronomes that Venezuelan fare extends well beyond griddle-cooked arepas without foregoing authentic simple recipes and homegrown produce. Yet it is the hole-in-the-wall joint La Reina del Chicharron (212 304 1070; inexpensive) that is the food temple in which fried pork scratchings are truly worshipped.
Chef Elsa’s chicharrones are crispy, crunchy, and served in a bag solo or in a dish of mashed plantains. It’s strictly cash only.
What Else to Eat
In Venezuela’s cool, crisp mountain region, age-old Andean cuisine dates back to ancient pre-Hispanic cultures when warming, high-protein foods were cooked over glowing embers. Dishes were filling and calorific, using root vegetables, grains, nuts, and plants with meat from guinea pigs (cuy) and llamas. Several types of edible clay, such as pasa, were used as a gloopy sauce. Quinoa remains an all-important Andean food staple in stews and soups. Meat and fish are still preserved by drying and salting.
In Los Llanos, culinary traditions center on the region’s grass-reared herds of cattle, with numerous recipes that celebrate a simple slab of beef. Steaks are man-sized, cut generously thick and hung over a smoky open fire for several hours. In Cowboy Country, very few green vegetables are consumed.
Three Days in and around Caracas
The road from Caracas to Mérida in the Andean Mountains weaves between two mountain chains. To reach the grassy savannas of Los Llanos, you’ll journey along roads hemmed by knots of ferns, palms, and vines before delving into the domain of the Venezuelan cowboy.
DAY ONE : Take a city tour of Caracas’s challenging contemporary architecture, handsome ranchos, historic houses, and extensive slums of tin huts and cardboard boxes, all overlooked by Mount Avila, which rises from the beautiful Parque Nacional El Avila.
DAY TWO : Explore the sparsely populated Los Llanos countryside by driving across its picturesque rolling plains, punctuated by cattle farms and thousand-strong beef herds. Cook around an open fire on the banks of the Orinoco, South America’s second-longest river.
DAY THREE : Trek the scenic, leafy trails that loop the Andean town of Mérida, nestled in a verdant valley close to the Mucuy National Park and its crystal-clear rivers. Mérida also boasts the longest cable-car ride in the world, to the top of Bolívar Mountain.
Getting to Caracas
Simón Bolívar International Airport in Maiquetia is 13 miles (20 km) from downtown Caracas. There are car rentals at the airport.
Where to stay in Caracas
El Fundo de Pedernales (inexpensive) is a friendly lodge in the stunning Los Llanos plains offering guided tours. +58 256 514 5070
Hotel Plaza Mérida (moderate) is a charming 46-room hotel nestled in the mountain foothills that’s packed with local art and
Embassy Suites by Hilton (expensive), in the business district of El Rosal, Caracas, has an outdoor swimming pool, gym, and business suites.

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