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Celebrity Chef Virgilio Martínez on the Landscape that Defines Peru’s Cuisine

The world renowned Peruvian chef takes us on a culinary journey of his country’s diverse landscape and traditions.

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Peruvian fare has long been known as a fusion between native culinary traditions and the diverse cultural influence that’s been present since Spanish Conquistadors first set foot in Peru over 400 years ago. But now, renowned Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez – behind Central Restaurante, among the World’s 50 Best – is going back to the roots of Peru’s landscape and tradition to create new culinary experiences.

In collaboration with a number of Peru’s chefs and culinary experts, Virgilio established Mater Iniciativa, a group dedicated to exploring the country’s diverse landscape in search of native ingredients and the local traditions that surround them.

“Everyone is now looking for authenticity, natural produce and food that represents the landscape and natural resources.”

These are the ingredients that, with inspiration taken from the local communities, Virgilio then uses to create exciting new cuisine at his restaurant in Lima. Perhaps the best way to experience the biodiversity of Peru, in one sitting, is through the Mater Elevations degustation menu, in which each of the 17 plates represent a different altitude.

“Everyone is now looking for authenticity, natural produce and food that represents the landscape and natural resources,” Virgilio tells us. “We have lots of micro-climates in Peru, from the Pacific coast to the Andes and the Amazonian rainforest, so we have amazing natural ingredients and there are still so many more to discover. We have over 3,000 varieties of potatoes and many different varieties of corn. And, we don’t need the organic labels here; all of it is natural and organic.”

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“Our approach is to keep in mind the different altitudes, micro-climates and ecosystems and try to represent the atmosphere, altitude and the feeling we get from that place in a gastronomic experience, so we have to explore Peru from the jungle to the top of the mountains to research and investigate. It’s more than just foraging; we go to talk to people, understand the culture and learn from their mentality.”

Over the past four years Virgilio and the Mater Iniciativa team have spent time learning from the Amazonian and Andean communities and finding out about their way of life. “It’s important that we approach the natural ingredients as they are supposed to be treated here, rather than with some other influence,” he explains. “And whenever we see a beautiful tradition, it inspires us to replicate that. We use the ideas, culture and ingredients to create something completely new.”

A culinary exploration: region by region

Having explored the land so extensively, Virgilio take us on a journey across Peru – from the northern beaches to high up in the Andes – through some of the regions’ native flavours.

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Image By CIFOR.

Mancora

The altitude: 23 metres

“We’ve been able to find black scallops in Mancora, and the fish is amazing. There are different types of sea bass, sole, mackerel, octopus, crabs, lots of bonito and shrimp. We do make ceviche but we try to use the seafood in a variety of ways as we recreate the ecosystem. From Mancora, we try to recreate something new that’s inspired by the sea using its fish, seaweed and sea asparagus.”

Lowland Amazon

The altitude: 80 – 1,000 metres

“For us the Amazon is mainly about the different fruits and berries that come from the huge rainforest trees. There’s an oval-shaped fruit called aguaje that’s the size of a fig, another called tumbo (similar to a passion fruit) and macambo, which is a fellow theobroma to Peruvian cacao. We are starting to work with the different woods by using them for infusions. The Amazonian people respect and have a connection with the trees in the rainforest and see them as fellow beings.”

ICA

The altitude: 406 metres

“In Peru’s southern arid areas (around Paracas and Nazca), rivers flow down from the Andes to create valleys. We take some of the weed from these rivers, and we’re using the cacti to make our own tiger’s milk (the citrus marinade used in ceviche).”

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Image by Sam Judson.

The Sacred Valley

The altitude: 2,792 metres

“We’re really in love with the Sacred Valley, especially a place called Moray for the legacy of its ancient civilisations and the energy we feel there. The Sacred Valley’s agriculture is amazing and we feel that there’s still a lot to discover. We love to use herbs from the region, like a type of mint called muña that we use to infuse oil. Some of the herbs you find here don’t even have names, which for us is quite exciting.”

Cusco

The altitude: 3,400 metres

“We like to use the wild herbs from around Cusco. We’ll go walking for four or five hours and pick the herbs we find. We love Cusco’s harvest of Andean seeds like kaniwa and kiwicha, as well as the root vegetables.”

Lake Titicaca

The altitude: 3,812 metres

“An amazing experience was discovering the way they freeze and dry white potatoes here to make tunta, which can last a number of years. Cushuro is an Andean algae that grows in Peruvian lakes at this altitude; little bubbles of trapped water from the river become small black spheres.”

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Virgilio Martinez is the chef behind restaurants Lima Fitzrovia and Lima Floral in London, and Central Restaurante in Peru’s capital, which is currently number 15 in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards. Virgilio has made a number of appearances on TV cookery shows and at food events across the globe.

For more inspiration on discovering Peru’s cuisine, read our insider food guides to Lima, and Cusco and the Sacred Valley.