The well-seasoned story of Margarita

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“Margarita Estupiñán was born in El Charco, Nariño, more than four decades ago. At 12 years old, after a family fight, she left her home and landed in Cali where, for some unknown reason – let’s say almost miraculously – a traditional local family adopted her, raised her, paid her studies and taught her several trades, among them the gratifying art of cooking.

When Margarita was 18, the family said: “We’ve done our part; now it’s your turn”. And thus she set out for Bogotá in search of work. Among other jobs, the “Negrita” (as everyone called her), was employed by the Croydon, a packaging company for roses in the Bogotá savanna.

Some of the flowers didn’t classify as exportable so Margarita bought and sold them, door to door, in the streets of northern Bogotá. One day she sold a rose bouquet to Melisa Guibert, a French women that had a boutique in the El Chicó neighborhood.

That afternoon, Melisa asked her: “Have you eaten (here) yet?” To which Margarita responded: “What do you think?” Melisa took her to her elegant apartment in Los Rosales and prepared a type of meat she had never had before. “I want to learn to make this”, Margarita told her.

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And she not only learned to make a steak like that – as she also learned what it was called -, but then she picked apart a French recipe book from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, in which Mrs Guibert was an expert.

So, during 7 years, Margarita cultivated and dominated this succulent type of world cuisine.

In December, 17 years ago, Margarita went on vacation in Santa Marta, a land she then fell in love with. That’s when she decided to leave everything and, with her savings, opened a small place for French food called San Basilio.

The overwhelming success of the restaurant made Margarita expand, and so she rented a place in the city’s historic downtown, where her business still operates. Since then, Basilea (a name she later chose in order to give it a European touch), is an exquisite gastronomic reference in the city.

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Due to the curious curves that destiny proposed, one afternoon a Swiss man named Christian Bumann happened upon her place. And yes…it was love at first sight (it’s been going strong 8 years).

But the incredible and well-seasoned story of Margarita didn’t and doesn’t stop there. Soon after Christian would get to know, in the intimacy of her home, her other speciality: cuisine of the Colombian Pacífico, and so he got her to open another spot, showcasing her other cuisine. The place became reality and it’s called Casa Marina.

If only due to such a story, it’s worth it to sit down at any of the two places. I’ve gone to Basilea many times, and yes, it’s a classic. A little while back, I visited Casa Marina and, in an “encocado” of shrimp, I found Margarita’s other truth: Pacific cuisine. In both cases, pure seasoning and a lot of heart.” – Source (which I translated)

Casa Marina.
Calle 19 N°. 3-53.
Santa Marta
Tel.: (5) 423 1809

Basilea
Calle 16 N°. 2-58
Santa Marta
Tel.: (5) 431 4138

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Ajiaco – Potato Soup

“Ajiaco is a Colombian potato soup. Although several regions of Colombia have their distinct recipe, the most famous is ajiaco santafereño, named after Santa Fé de Bogotá (the former name of Bogotá) capital of Colombia, where it is a cultural mainstay. It typically contains pieces of chicken, large chunks of corn on the cob, two or three kinds of native potatoes (tiny papas criollas that fall apart and thicken the soup, and give the soup its characteristic dark yellow color; the waxy sabanera and/or the soft pastusa), and guasca (Galinsoga parviflora), a weedy, aromatic herb common in all America that lends the dish part of its distinctive flavour.

The soup is typically served with heavy cream, capers and avocado all mixed in just before eating in the proportions each individual prefers. Ajiaco is so heavy that it is usually considered a full meal. In the highly regional Colombian cuisine, this is most representative dish of Bogotá.” – Wikipedia

Below is the video recipe for making ajiaco from the Tolima department.

The Big-Ass Ants of Colombia

“Aug. 14, 2006 —The first loud crackle tastes and feels like popcorn, but by the time the juices spray wildly in your mouth and the filament-like legs slide down your throat, there’s no mistaking this toasted ant queen. The people of sun-soaked northern Colombia have been eating ants for centuries. They believe the accurately named “hormiga culona” — big-butt queen ant — is everything from a natural form of Viagra to a protein-rich defense against cancer.

Now the invertebrates are going global: A businessman in Santander province exported more than 880 pounds of the inch-long queen ants last year, many of them to be hand-dipped in Belgian chocolate and sold in fancy packaging at $8 for a half dozen at upscale London department stores like Harrods and Fortnum & Mason.

But even as the delicacy begins to expand beyond Colombia, the ants appear to be dwindling in Santander, and that worries the region’s ant-eating bipeds. This year’s harvest, which usually begins around Easter and lasts as late as June, was one of the worst on record, with peasants in the artist colony of Barichara reporting half their normal year’s haul. Entomologists say the winter was unusually harsh and spring rains were late, which may have disturbed the virgin queen ants’ nuptial flights — the one time a year when they emerge from their dune-like ant hills to seek a mate and form a new colony. Almost as often, the queens are grabbed by lizards, birds or humans.

Expanding fields of beans, tomatoes and tobacco also have replaced the region’s last remaining wilderness and farmers consider the leaf-cutting ants — the species atta laevigata — to be serious pests.

“It’s an age-old dilemma for the farmer — should I kill it or eat it?” said Andres Santamaria, who was given a $40,000 grant from Santander’s government to develop an environmentally sustainable, export-oriented program for breeding the ants. Whatever the local conditions, overseas demand by itself won’t endanger the ant supply, say those involved in the trade.

“We’re never going to eat Colombians out of their ants,” said Todd Dalton, a 30-year-old chef in London whose yen for the exotic dish led him to create Edible, a novelty food brand whose products are not for the squeamish.

Last year, Edible sold some 220 pounds of the ants, most of them dipped in chocolate, along with other specialties like lollipops with scorpions inside. In Colombia, people generally toast the ants in salt at community gatherings and eat them as a snack. But there is innovation. Restaurants in Barichara offer an ant-based spread for bread and an ant-flavored lamb sauce. Stuffed tortilla “atta wraps” led the menu at a recent tasting at the Montreal Insectarium, an insect museum in Canada.

“In France, they’re so highly regarded people started calling them the caviar of Santander,” said Stephane Le Tirant, curator at the Montreal Insectarium.

During harvest time in Santander, ants by the bagful are sold at almost every roadside stop. But although relatively abundant, they’re not cheap — costing as much as $11 a pound. The culona is a source of regional pride, its image gracing everything from the logo of a long-distance bus company to the provincial La Culona lottery. It also connects locals to the province’s indigenous past, when ants were a part of a complex mating ritual of the Guane Indians. Rising demand from the outside has helped push up prices that peasant harvesters are getting.

“A few years ago they cost half as much,” said Hernando Medina, the province’s main exporter. Not everyone is cashing in. Jorge Raul Diaz maintains 37 ant colonies on a small farm outside Barichara, but in homage to native culture, he gives them away.

During last year’s harvest, he organized the first culona-gathering contest, in which 22 participants competed over two months to see who could bag the most insects. Carmen Rondon, a jovial 71-year-old cleaning woman, finished second and won an electric blender. She no longer eats the ants, because of a near toothless mouth, but Rondon says she eagerly awaits the yearly hunt, when she scrambles about on hands and knees while ants crawl up and down her legs.

“Whenever the culonas come out, I’m there the first day!” she said.” – Discovery

For another take on the matter, try this article.

Patacones – Fried Plantain Chips

I’ll keep the description short since both the written recipe and the video instructions (below, although her patacones are huge) are available. Just a few tips though, don’t confuse patacones with their sweeter, thinner ‘cousins’, known in Colombia as tajadas or maduros. If you go to another Latin American country and see ‘tostones‘ on the menu, that is the same as patacones. Also, if you are feeling in an experimental mood, change out plantains with breadfruit and just cut off the green outer layer of the breadfruit before proceding. Patacones is basically a Colombian food staple and Colombians will swear by them so be careful about talking bad about them as you may receive the ‘evil eye’.

Mazamorra & Panela – Cuisine

(mazamorra con panela)

Mazamorra

Mazamorra is a traditional maize-based food/drink found in Colombia, where it is also known as Peto. It is typically accompanied with panela (which I’ll write about below), and very popular as a side dish to typical food such as Bandeja paisa. The drink typically includes maize grains, crushed with Mortar and pestle, then soaked in water with soda lye (although traditionally, fern ash is used), and finally cooked until soft. Mazamorra is very common during lunch and dinnertime at any time of year. It is usually sold as street food. The vendors usually ride a tricycle adapted with a large Cauldron and announce themselves with a hand-held vehicle horn. They sell the base mazamorra, and the costumer must add the milk and the panela.

Other derivations exist. In Cundinamarca and Boyacá, where the corn is cooked with onions, coriander, garlic, faba beans, potatoes and mashuas, often with pieces of ribs or beef. This dish is known as Mazamorra Chiquita (small mazamorra).

Mazamorra Recipe

Panela

Panela is an unrefined food product, typical of Colombia, which is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. In Brazil, it is known as rapadura. The main producer of panela is Colombia (about 1.4 million tons/year), where panela production is one of the most important economic activities, with the highest index of panela consumption per capita worldwide.

The main use of the panela is in aguapanela which is one of the most widely drunk beverages in Colombia. Also it is used as a sweetener and in the preparation of desserts. Since it is a very solid block, most Colombian homes have a resistant river stone (la piedra de la panela) to break the panela into smaller, more manageable pieces.