Sunday, May 27, 2012

Country Cooking in Colombia

Butting up against the rugged peaks of Colombia’s Cordillera Central are rounded mountains in a dozen shades of green, their lush, forested slopes interspersed with wax palms, banana trees, and bamboo, and acre upon rolling acre of plantations. This is coffee country – perfect for touring, hiking, and all manner of outdoor recreation, with robust, rustic Andean cuisine to sustain you.

Colombia’s Coffee Triangle, the Zona Cafetera, lies west of the capital Bogotá and south of Medellín.
Apart from its spectacular natural beauty, it is a fascinating region to explore. Scenic roads between the three main cities – Pereira, Armenia, and Manizales – are lined with coffee fields and with flowers, from swaths of carnations grown for export to exotic heliconias. Bustling small towns such as Salento, which overlooks the beautiful Cocora Valley, offer glimpses of local life, from women cooking arepas (a kind of corn tortilla) on sidewalk grills to corner stands piled high with fruits and coconuts. National parks, hot springs, and nature preserves offer a variety of ways to enjoy the magnificent scenery, and adventure sports are popular here too: you can go riding, rafting, or “canopying” through the treetops on aerial cables.
 But the coffee plantations themselves have the greatest appeal. Not only can you tour the farms and watch workers in broad-brimmed straw hats harvesting coffee beans by hand; many also offer simple but charming guest rooms in the brightly painted old haciendas and fincas (farmhouses), filled with antique furnishings and ringed with balconies on which to enjoy the views.
This is also the best place to eat a traditional bandeja paisa, the typical dish of Colombia’s Andean region. Paisa is the name for the people of this region, while bandeja is the Spanish word for “platter” – and it takes an oversized plate to hold all 13 components of the dish. It includes minced beef, fried pork belly, spicy chorizo with lemon, and red kidney beans cooked with pork in an aromatic soup, as well as black pudding and a fried egg. Balancing the dish with color and texture are white rice, avocado, and crispy fried plantain. Last but not least are large, flat arepas, topped with hogao, a spicy sauce made with onions, tomatoes, and garlic.
Bandeja paisa is essentially a peasant dish, with enough protein and calories to keep the workers going through long days in the fields and treks over the mountains. An authentic paisa platter is hearty, tasty, sizzling South American fried food that has spread from the family kitchens of Colombia’s coffee country to restaurant tables across the country.

Coffee bushes blanket the slopes of the rolling Zona Cafetera

Best Places to Eat Bandeja Paisa

Mama Flor
Ask someone in the coffee region where to eat bandeja paisa and the first answer is always an enthusiastic one – Mama Flor! Located in a high-class residential area in one of Pereira’s oldest neighborhoods, the restaurant is surrounded by green zones and has fine views of the city from its small balcony. It was founded by two local businessmen and named after one of the partners’ mothers.
Built in the typical style of the coffee region from wood and guadua (the native bamboo), the restaurant has an airy, open dining room and rustic decor, which attracts international tourists as well as locals who come for the delicious grilled meats and traditional dishes. You can get a great bandeja paisa, known here as “bandeja Mama Flor.” Other special dishes to try include Mama Flor pork (the haunch tip), chunchurria (pork belly), and Mama Flor soup, a traditional plantain recipe.
The restaurant also offers some fish dishes, such as trout and sea bass.
Calle 11 No. 15–12, Los Alpes, Pereira; open noon–11 PM Mon–Sat, noon–5 PM Sun; +57 6 325 1713

Colombia’s unofficial national dish, bandeja paisa is part mixed grill, part tortilla, and extremely filling

Also in the Zona Cafetera
Another place in Pereira to try bandeja paisa is La Piazzolla, on Av. 30 de Agosto (+57 6 326 5433; inexpensive). In Armenia, La Fogata (+57 6 749 5980; moderate) is a popular restaurant serving steaks and pork chops as well as typical paisa dishes.
Also in Colombia
In Medellín, Hato Viejo (+57 4 268 6811; expensive) is a beautiful hacienda with a flower-filled courtyard and fine views of the city.
The Plato Montañero is their bandeja paisa; those with smaller appetites can order a half-portion. Another Medellín favorite is El Rancherito (; moderate), with a large airy dining room and open grill. In Bogotá, enjoy the best of traditional Colombian cuisine at El Portal de La Antigua (; expensive), a classy restaurant with live music.
Around the World
In the US, Houston, Texas, has several Colombian restaurants; one of the best for bandeja paisa is Gran Colombia (; inexpensive). The favorite place for London’s Colombian community to enjoy bandeja paisa is La Bodeguita (www.; inexpensive), tucked away in the hulking Elephant and Castle shopping center on the south side of the Thames River.
What Else to Eat
Colombia has many other delicious regional dishes. In Bogotá and the surrounding Andean region, the most famous dish is ajiaco, a thick, tasty soup made with three kinds of potatoes, chicken, corn, and guasca, a fragrant local herb. It’s served with dishes of cream, capers, and avocado, which you add to taste.
On the north coast, another traditional soup is sancocho, made with various meats to which yucca, plantain, corn, potatoes, and spices are added. Tolimenses are a kind of corn tamale from the Tolima region, made with lechona (roast pig stuffed with rice and vegetables) wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled for several hours. Ternera llanera, a dish from the eastern Llanos cattle ranchlands, is veal spit-roasted over an open fire.
Three Days in Coffee Country
Good roads connect the cities with the smaller towns and rural attractions beyond. Though earthquakes have destroyed many historic areas and left the rebuilt cities with a modern face, you can still find old colonial buildings and cathedrals in this area.
DAY ONE : Spend the day on a coffee farm such as Villa Nora (see Where to Stay), touring the fields and processing sites and enjoying the beautiful rural scenery.
DAY TWO : Visit the Parque Nacional del Café (National Coffee Park), just west of Armenia, offering a coffee museum, guided walks, cultural shows, a children’s theme park, and an aerial cableway. Or visit Panaca in Quimbaya, an agricultural family attraction with farm animals, horseback riding, and an impressive stunt-riding show.
DAY THREE : From the charming town of Salento, with its traditional central plaza, hike into the Cocora Valley with its lush vegetation and towering wax palms, or visit the Acaime Natural Reserve beyond.
Getting There
There are daily flights to Pereira’s Matecaña Airport from Bogotá and other cities. Taxis are inexpensive and you can use them to tour the region if you don’t want to rent a car.
Villa Nora (inexpensive) in Quimbaya has simple rooms and beautiful views on a working coffee farm. +57 6 321 4424
El Eden Country Inn (moderate), just outside Armenia, has spacious, well-furnished rooms with a pool, restaurant, and bar. +57 6 749 5531
El Delirio (expensive), near the National Coffee Park, has eight lovely rooms in a beautifully restored finca. +57 6 745 0405

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