September 9, 2012, is a day that shall never be forgotten. I will cherish the moments, tastes, and smells of this day until I either get rolled into my casket or become too senile to remember anything except how to hit people with my cane.
As you all know from my admittedly overzealous ranting in the last few days, today I went to the huge food festival known as Mistura. It was a huge, HUGE affair that has left me probably in an almost diabetic state and probably with a closet full of clothing that no longer fits, a much lighter wallet, and a state of died-and-went-to-heaven…BEFORE I even found the dessert area!
To be able to give proper credit to the entire experience, I’m probably going to break up this festival into 3 posts. This first one is going to be about the overall experience of Mistura and ambiance, and my own personal journey through culinary heaven. Next, I’ll write a post about the food I actually ate, because a lot of those places are local restaurants that deserve solid reviews. (Expect lengthy descriptions/pictures with far too many adjectives about every bite I took.) The third, which I expect the majority of you will anticipate the most, is pretty much going to be a post purely dedicated to some of my favorite photos of the day. (This will also be post #3 because it takes FOREVER to load photos here, so I’m going to take my time.)
So off we go. In the past, Mistura has received complaints for being too crowded and not having NEARLY enough seating for people. So, this year was the first year at a new locale, the Campo de Marte, (very easy to find-located at the roundabout on avenida 28 de Julio/Salaverry/Arequipa) and in my opinion they did a pretty good job. While crowded, we almost were always able to find a table to share with someone, though chances of finding one totally empty went down to about 0 after early morning/before later at night. I had originally wanted to pre-purchase tickets, because if you bought them before a certain date they were only 15 Soles (about $5.73), after that date they were 20 Soles (about $7.63), but unfortunately they still all sold out so my 2 Japanese friends and I had to purchase them from a vendor right outside the venue at 30 Soles each (about $11.45). Although frankly, from the number of free samples you get, that cost is still not bad. I can’t work out if such vendors hocking tickets outside are illegal or not, because they weren’t being SUPER secretive about what they were doing and were conducting business RIGHT in front of police, but they were still kind of skulking around quietly eyeballing up potential buyers and muttering “amiga, amiga, tengo entrada.” (We’ll go ahead and roughly translate the attitude/word combo to “Psst. I’ve got the goods.”) Perhaps it’s just a habit one develops in that line of work?
Once inside-and by the way, it’s good to be a tourist at Mistura, as they have special/faster entrance lines-you can (and should) choose to purchase a “Tarjeta de Mistura” which basically functions as a credit card for the day. You can put 7, 20, or 80 soles on this card, and recharge it as you go at any of the BBVA bank stations set up. AND the awesome thing is that whatever money you DON’T use on the card, you can reclaim from BBVA before the 17th of September. So, this is really nice. A lot of places ONLY take the Tarjeta de Mistura as payment, although you WILL still need cash because other places are “Efectivo” (cash-only), particularly within specialized plazas. And frankly, with the average price for the food being around 12 Soles, I’d go ahead and go big with the 80 Sole Tarjeta. If you don’t use it all, well, congratulations on not being a glutton, and re-claim your money prize later!
Mistura is divided up in several ways. There are large areas covered completely in tables that break up the various plazas/restaurant hubs, more orderly rows of restaurants, and then…aforementioned plazas. At the center of everything is the Gran Mercado, where vendors sell food that’s more of the “later” eating category–as in, for people who live in Peru and are looking to take goods home, or if you’re a tourist, you have some way to transport it. Cheeses, meats, breads, chocolate, alcohol, TONS of quinoa, health/organic foods…this place is absolutely loaded. The Gran Mercado is also broken down by region, so it’s a really cool way to learn about what kinds of products come from what parts of Peru. My friends and I decided to start our day here, walking around and tasting all KINDS of free samples. Honestly it was kind of like a big farmer’s market and I wanted to buy everything in sight…but considering I already have meals prepared for me here that probably would’ve been a waste of money. Tempting, though. VERY tempting. However, if I could go back I PROBABLY would’ve saved the Gran Mercado for a bit later-it would be a good way to pass time while digesting in between meals, and since I skipped breakfast I was absolutely staaaarving by the time we actually got in line for food.
Oh, and about purchasing food–if you’re buying from a restaurant in one of the side-by-side stalls in between plazas, you will be paying with your Tarjeta (I’m not positive they DON’T take cash, I just didn’t try) and you will pay at the restaurant booth. However, if you are buying from one of the independent stands mixed in the seating areas, what you do is find a tiny ticket/visa booth, tell them what you want to buy, and pay there-then you take your ticket and go stand in line at the actual restaurant and hand them your order when you get up to the front. The card machines were, alas, kind of slow, so this helped prevent back-ups at any one given stall. However, if you don’t figure this out, you could end up waiting in a long line for food only to realize you have to do it all over again-after standing in a line to pay.
Anyway. I won’t go into detail about the restaurants we did hit up after that-that’s for the food update later- but onwards with the next general location–the Rincón de Pisco/Café (basically a plaza). Now…I’m presuming these two things were combined strictly because they’re both beverages. Incase I haven’t already mentioned this, the Pisco Sour is the national drink of Peru…a bit of a strong whiskey-like flavor tempered by lemon. Well, normally. But when you have an entire plaza full of it, new combinations emerge….chocolate, peach, etc. One particular display case must’ve had a hundred different kinds of pisco bottles. The stands on the left side of this plaza were all dedicated to alcohol, mostly run by different bars or alcohol companies in Lima, and had all kinds of fun displays with bright colored drinks. On our first walk through we had a few samples (I kid you not, you could make a full meal of this day just by samples) and we returned later during the evening to actually purchase aforementioned drinks. We also walked around and sampled some of the delicious coffees–many of those stands were also selling little chocolates or ice creams too. This was a fairly popular plaza, I must say. And hilariously, my two Japanese friends got asked to pose for pictures there with some Peruvian families. I found this highly ironic as I have had many American friends tell me that when they’ve visited various Asian countries, they experience the same thing.
Most of these Rincon/Plaza areas are in a long line at the back of the event space and broken up by rows of restaurant stalls, so we headed to a couple of those next for some more fare. In the middle of this line is the extremely large indoor auditorium, or something like that, where events are held. Depending on the time and day, sometimes there are cooking competitions, cooking showcases/lessons, presentations, and at night entertainment. My friends and I never actually made it in there (and frankly, there wasn’t a ton listed to be shown on Sunday that I wanted to attend, so that was fine) but at night we did hear some pretty lively traditional music coming from within! Our actual next stop along this line was the Rincón del Pan-aka, the BREAD PLAZA. If you don’t know, I’m a carb-i-vore. Pasta, bread, cake…I live for those things. So I was super pumped about this area. It was a lot more open and spacious than the Rincón de Pisco y Café, but most of that area was fenced off from tourists, because it was FILLED with huge metal tables and workspaces where probably over a hundred bakers spent the entire day mixing, rolling out, shaping, and baking various breads to be sold. Let me tell you, folks, that place smelled DELICIOUS. And the decorations were really cool–all kinds of bread “sculptures” and figures were decorating the pillars and hanging from the ceilings.
Unlike the other plazas, this area was not filled with individual companies. You had to get in line to order/pay for the kind of bread you wanted, (ex: whole wheat, egg bread, etc) and then go stand in the appropriate line to actually go pick that bread up. My friends and I originally didn’t order anything here because there were actual meals we wanted to try first, and unfortunately when we went back later to fill up my need for flour-based goodness, the lines were so ridiculously long and slow that I decided it wasn’t worth it. (True story: I HATE standing in long lines more than almost anything else in the world. Zero tolerance for it unless they are either moving relatively fast, or the payoff is something magical…like some desserts I sampled later in the day.)
The next actual area was…brace yourselves…the Rincón del Chocolate. I don’t think I need to translate that one, nor do I really need to make a point of mentioning how fast I died and went to heaven upon entering this venue. Man. Every stand in this venue was like a personalized Christmas gift to Becky, from God. (This was also the MOST crowded venue we went to.) Some were selling baked goods like enormous brownies, cake slices, chocolate madelines…others sold extremely beautiful, hand-painted chocolate truffles, and many just sold bars of chocolates of all kinds–organic, sugar-free (which, by the way, were somehow still amaaaazingly sweet!), I mean…the list just goes on. And pretty much everywhere had samples. So, SO happy. One of my favorite places, which I will elaborate more on later, was called “chocolate sushi” and sold little sushi-roll shaped pieces of fudge, more or less. There were also some chocolate fountains and one stand was even advertising chocolate truffle making classes at a location miraculously-or perhaps unfortunately-located very near to where I live. I was like a kid in…well…a chocolate store. If I were a tourist going home after this, I definitely would have purchased souvenirs for people here. As I was not…well, my friends and I settled on some chocolate sushi and cake and took it outside to eat on the lawn. But don’t worry, we came back again later in the night. And I bought more. ❤
My personal ventures throughout the day took us back and forth across the event space a bit after this- we were all on the hunt for specific things, so we had to walk around in order to find them. Also, every now and again, frankly, we just had to take a break from all of the food, because we were eating so, SO much. Here’s a very helpful hint: Go with friends. And share everything. We made the mistake at the first restaurant we visited by each ordering our own plates, which, while delicious (I ate allllll of mine, except the slightly-too-spicy-potatoes) were VERY large. If you really want to get your money’s worth for the day, you’re going to want to sample all kinds of different foods, but you can’t eat too much of any one thing. So just keep asking for extra silverware and share-also a good way to save money!
Anyway, we took another food break after a while and meandered around the Bazaar-a venue that, true, did have some samples of foods, but was by and large more commercial. Here one can buy nice cookware or kitchen appliances, or sometimes products from large companies like some national-chain tea companies, etc. Obviously none of us were going to be in Peru long enough to need pots and pans, so we toured through here generally fairly quickly. However, being such a food nerd, I was definitely eyeballing some things.
Though we didn’t get to the final area until late at night, and it wasn’t an officially listed “venue” there was a second dessert area that was dedicated to Manjarblanco, run by Nestlé (I think it was sponsored by them because they all used Nestlé’s sweetened condensed milk to make their manjarblanco products). I’ve mentioned it before, but I’ll reiterate-manjarblanco is more or less the same thing as Dulce de Leche. Kind of like caramel but smoother and less sticky, and very sweet. It’s incorporated into all kinds of Peruvian desserts, from cakes to alfajores, and so Nestlé set up a huge booth with all kinds of desserts made from the stuff. Much like the Rincón de chocolate, this place was jam-packed throughout most of the day. They had truffles filled with manjarblanco, ice cream made with it, emapanadas stuffed with it, cakes drizzled with it, alfajores…the list just goes on and on and on. This place was mildly annoying because you had to go buy tickets for whatever amount of cash you wanted to spend (you could use either cash or your Tarjeta de Mistura to purchase the tickets) and then visit whatever place to spend your tickets…aka the same thing you had to do at most other places, it’s just the lines were very long here and the machines for cards were very, VERY slow. So I waited until it was less crowded at night, and then…waited for what seemed like an eternity. (No fears though, totally worth it.)
Honestly, I really loved this festival. Some of the lines were long to wait in, but really that was just a good sign that you had found THE place to eat whatever product was being sold. There were tourists there, but the majority of people were Peruvian, so their presence was always a good indicator of authenticity. What was so great though was the general atmosphere of friendliness-people were more than happy to share tables, and more than once I asked locals about certain foods and they happily supplied answers. The vendors were great too, letting you sample products before buying, and many of the cooks would pose for photos with their crazy foods without even being asked. While of course it was necessary to be very cautious about money and belongings due to large crowds, (pickpockets are sneaky, after all, and when you’re in close, crowded quarters it’s easy to be robbed) I felt totally safe wearing my camera around my neck the whole day because of the highly visible police presence. It was just such a happy atmosphere–in the afternoon the green spaces were filled with families eating picnic-style on the grass, kids racing across fields or playing with balloons…at night there was a parade and all day long there was music. The sun even made a brief appearance around 3!
Another great aspect to this experience was that I got to know my Japanese friends much better-you just can’t spend an entire day together talking and eating without doing so, and they were really, really nice. And funny. (Particularly after one of them began to enjoy his pisco sour…for someone who had eaten SO much, it certainly had him red in the face rather quickly!) Annnnd now we’re going to go to Lima’s zoo together on Thursday…and so the social-life aspect of my time in Peru seems to be picking up…huzzah!
So there’s part one of the Mistura experience. It might take me a while to write and upload photos for the other two parts, because I do indeed still have homework to do (and frankly this post took like an hour and a half to write, and I didn’t even go into tons of detail!) this week, amongst other things. However, fear not, I’ll get it all up here eventually. Just as a note, because I think restaurants were doing special offers and combinations at this event, I didn’t record the prices of food as I went through the day…because they wouldn’t be applicable if you were to go in and eat at the restaurants themselves. So that much will be left out of my review. However, the day in total (including bus fare! :P) Ended up costing me just a hair over $50. So, definitely not the cheapest day ever (remember, I was even taking turns buying food with others) but for such a great experience, not too bad either. You could definitely do the event for less, but I felt like it was worth experiencing as much as I could with everything conveniently piled into one place. Also I bought a few things to go/take home with me (aka chocolate).
Ok. Time to go to class. -End scene-