Almazen is the only organic vegetarian restaurant in Lima, Peru. It’s been open for four years, and is run by Henry Vera and his wife, Mariella Matos. But it’s really a 30-year old project in the making. Henry is the kind of chef that leaves his kitchen to walk individual diners with dietary restrictions through the menu, something that’s unusual for a restaurant chef. He’ll also come out to ask how the meal is, which is less unusual, but still rare. But it’s the feeling of eating in his home, and his sincere concern for your health and desire for you to enjoy his food that makes El Almazen a unique eating experience in the heart of Lima.
Try to find this restaurant and you’ll probably wander past it 3 times until you notice the house (yes, it’s a plain, almost unmarked blue and white building) on the corner of Recavarren and José Galvez. It’s worth turning around that fourth time, though, for quinotto with cashew cream, hearty sweet potato, zucchini, carrot and tomato stews with brown rice, stuffed peppers and eggplants, and the best often gluten-free, dairy-free Peruvian take on Mediterranean fare in the city.
Henry and I split a pot of tea one afternoon before dinner service to talk about biodynamics, organics, Peruvian root vegetables, his Peruvian-Mediterranean menu, and his love of real food. Neither he nor Mariella are trained chefs, but he’s Italian, which is close. He’s also an artist, as it turns out:
“I’m a painter professionally. Culinary, somehow it’s lifetime. My grandmother is of Italian origin. She’s from Chiavari – it’s the little town near the ocean near Genova and she came here in the 80’s and settled in Northern Peru. She married a German. Somehow Italian people are always related to cooking, so since I was 4 years old I was always helping to make something – peeling the artichokes. There was always something to be done in the kitchen.
This is not an Italian restaurant but you have this approach to senses, like smell, flavour. Fish, for example, that was one of the main things that I learned about since I was a little kid – how to buy a fish. It doesn’t matter if you eat fish or not. Understanding it helps you to have this sensitivity to what fresh food is. So you use it to buy fruit, vegetables and that can be lost in huge chain businesses. This restaurant is like my house, it’s like opening my door of my house, having people come.”
Though Almazen is a house, it’s not Henry and Mariella’s home. They live closer to the Bioferia Organic Market, which he helped start decades ago with a few friends.
“It started as a social project. Usually when you start projects like this you need financial support and we were helped by different institutions. European – German, Poland, Belgian. It was for the production of organics. I was always somehow related with organic production since the 80’s, maybe before. Not in this scale of market, but somehow I had a personal desire to be involved with organic farming.”
THE MENU, AND JUSTIFYING ORGANICS
“Usually the menu is inspired by the relationship that we have with producers of the Bioferia. It’s all about flavour. I’m bored by always making the same things. You could kill yourself cooking. So things have been blended. I don’t make any difference between cooking and painting – flavours, colours, textures, smells. It’s more open than painting, or making art in terms of pockets or surfaces.”
One of the most beautifully plated dishes on the menu regularly is a Peruvian causa, a stacked layered dish often made with crab or seafood salad between layers of puréed and spiced potatoes. But in this case it’s non-traditionally made with quinoa and avocado cream surrounded by a sweet carrot, cucumber, and cherry tomato “mandala.”
“It’s like a pattern,” says Henry. “Causa is like playing drums or playing guitar; there are regular shapes – usually it’s root vegetables in the mash. It could be yucca, manioca, arracacha, or it could be potato – white or black. Here [in Peru] we have thousands of potatoes, and if you don’t have potatoes you could use layers of tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever. The kind of causa that we make here needs a basement, like a support. So quinoa, that’s usually the main ingredient that we use, and we shape the base like a drum. It needs a support. Otherwise it will fall apart. So you have a layer of a mashed root vegetable, then you have this middle layer of quinoa with veggies – chopped veggies – onion, tomato, cilantro, hot pepper, whatever – and you need something to make it gluey and we usually use avocado or brazil nut cream or cashew cream or pecan cream. And it’s not always drum-shaped. It could be balls filled with avocado cream or hot pepper cream with salad and dipping sauces – causitas, small causas.
Since most of the restaurant’s vegetables come from the Bioferia, which happens every Saturday in the Parque Reducto, Friday can sometimes be a tough day to come up with a menu. But it can also lead to culinary inspiration.
“Friday it’s usually like making magic in the kitchen because there’s nothing to cook. You’re waiting until tomorrow for the big shopping at the market. So today I found a few eggplants in the fridge, so I flamed them, gave them a smoked flavour, peeled them, ground it in a mortar and turns into babaganoush with tahini, apple vinegar and salt.”
The babaganoush makes its way onto the Andean tasting board along with hummus, roasted and raw vegetables, pita bread, and baked chickpea falafels with olive tapenade.
“The menu depends on how we feel. My wife we were working together for the first two years of the restaurant but it was hard to do. Both of us, early mornings, late nights. I lost 7 kilos. It’s really hard work in the kitchen. So after awhile we started to be aware of the effects…Sometimes it’s better not to be together in the kitchen if you’re a couple because usually in the kitchen there’s a strong-headedness. We work opposite days now. She comes usually on Tuesday and Thursday and I’m usually here Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday. So the restaurant has a different character on different days. It has been like a natural perfect balance. We are always sharing and she makes things that I suggest and I make things that she suggests. So it’s like a dialogue.”
VEGETARIANISM AND VEGANISM
“She’s more into vegan. She doesn’t eat cheese, eggs, dairy, and I will say that the days that she’s in the kitchen the general shape [of the menu] is more vegan, but yesterday she made some kind of egg and yogurt soufflé. I’m not completely vegan. I eat cheese and milk once in awhile, eggs once in a while, and fish two or three times a year. They’re killing the ocean. Here in the South Pacific just in front of Peruvian coast there’s like several institutions that set the levels of fish – IMAPF. They have statistics about the decrease of the biomass of fish. In the last 7 years it’s decreased 18%. Almost a quarter. Nobody cares if there’s a period of not fishing. They go ahead because the prices. And they pick up baby octopus. It’s a famous dish that’s spread all over. You go to the seafood restaurants and you buy baby octopus – pulpitos – and baby pulpo al olivo and they don’t give time to go into the reproduction period, so they’re definitely killing the ocean. And the ocean’s life is not a resource that you can rebuild. You won’t be able to eat baby octopus in the future, but now you can go and ask for baby octopus any time of the year and they’ll charge you double. They say “wild fish” is the more natural way of getting protein that hasn’t been artificially handled, artificially fed, but they’re just fishing everything.”
NEW CHEFS AND BIG RESTAURANT BUSINESS
Henry doesn’t follow the “top restaurants in the city”, and he doesn’t always respect them. He says they make huge amounts of money in short period because they’re so expensive, but even though they call themselves “high quality”, there’s a disrespect for ingredients and the future availability of those ingredients.
“I think the problem now in Peru is food is a big business. There’s a fashion of cooking. Also pride, but I think that people should be a little more careful about the resources that they use for cooking. It’s commercial. If you are able to control your resources in what you need and what you are able to produce at that point then you are able to make a balance. If you focus just in business it could be harmful to continue, whether it’s organic or not. I think when things get so big in terms of scale there’s a direct relationship between amounts and quality [the more food you need, the lower the quality becomes]. Even Gaston Acurio isn’t the cook of his restaurants. He’s like a business, like an enterprise. It’s basically marketing. He’s not a bad guy. I think deeply he’s a good person, you know, but once you’re involved in such a huge, enormous business the pressures are so hard that the values start to decrease. I will say that he’s someone who’s deeply convinced that there’s a way to find a balance and to have a conscious relationship to products. Since we started the Bioferia some people [from restaurants] pass through and pick up some stuff but a restaurant that’s basically connected with 100% products with organic farming in Peru, and I’ve been looking for them on the internet, but I don’t find them.
I’m a bit of an outsider. I don’t care what’s going on in business or development but I would say there are people who are interested in this kind of organic production. But if you’re interested in building a business, in terms of profit, but I will say it’s definitely impossible to make money if you are making organic production and cooking. Most of the fanciest restaurants in Lima buy all their products at La Parada. It’s the big market where everything that’s harvested all over the country goes. There’s a fruit market and also vegetables and most of them are very harmfully handled in terms of pollution and pesticides. Even products that are by standards forbidden in North America and Europe 20 years ago and they are still using them here and they are still producing them in Germany, in Switzerland and North America. They don’t use them because the stands don’t permit it but they export to Africa, India, China, Latin America. I eat some non-organic fruits and vegetables, but not tomatoes, strawberries, and cuculbitacias, which means going by the ground, having springs, like pumpkins, watermelons, zucchini, squash. Usually most of them are heavily sprayed with pesticides. And it’s not recommended to eat them daily. Once in awhile only.”
CATERING TO FOOD SENSITIVITIES AND ALLERGIES
“Many kinds of people with some kind of sensitivity to the approach of cooking that we do come to El Almazen. Today we got a lady here from Australia. She came late around 3:40. We were closing the kitchen and she was just arriving to Lima and she was with a lot of desire to try and she heard about the restaurant and she asked me for raw and we made it. It wasn’t in the menu but I got the menu. We are not rigid. We can make exceptions. Our aji cream we can do raw. Sometimes we work with the drum-shaped timbales and instead of boiled or cooked quinoa we use quinoa sprouts. Sweet flavour. So quick, and nutritious.
It’s not extremely expensive. You’ll go to fancy restaurants and you’ll pay for the main dish 70 soles. That’s twice the price of what we have here even though the value of the products that I use here is three times the prices they pay at La Parada. It’s more a matter of principles. And they [many customers] associate value with meat. That I would say is a false point of view. You could definitely spend much more money buying some kind of vegetables, especially if they’re organically grown or maybe the same price that you would pay for a piece of chicken. Chicken here is cheap. It’s funny because Peru has, I think, in Latin America, the second place in terms of consumption of chicken. First is Brazil, then Peru.”
“Desserts are basically done by my wife. We don’t use sugar at all. We use agave, yacon (a starchy root vegetable), sometimes panela – it’s cane sugar but it’s non-refined. It’s like sugar cane syrup but it’s solid, it’s dry and usually the amounts are little, for making flavours more evident. And quinoa flour. It’s a little bitter. And this time of the year, in summer, we go more into not flour-y desserts. For example the mousses, the chocolate mousse. Dairy-free, it’s with agar-agar, cashew, and brazil nuts. If you want to give this creamy filling you could use only brazilnuts or cashew, but the agar-agar is just a small amount.”
Henry’s family also owns farmland to the east, and until his farmhand married a Brazilian, he was harvesting twice a week and using it to supply the restaurant. He’s hoping to find a new farmer later this year to run it again and keep it biodynamic.
“It’s a family business. My parents started with step horses – caballo de paso. They’re typical from Peru. They’re desert horses. They walk in the sand without having trouble in the steps, without slipping. Usually horses have always two legs fixed to the earth but the step horses they just have one. The others in the air because they make a double movement. People who raise step horses they don’t call the front legs ‘legs’. They call them arms and hands. They make an amazing movement with they’re front arms off to the side. So you could sit down on a horse of that kind and you could take a cup of tea and you won’t spill anything. My parents had a passion for these horses and they have a big piece of land near Lima in a place called Ceneguilla because you need around 10 or 20 years to develop this. It takes generations to find what you’re looking for in terms of colour, kind of step, amount of looking. It’s like a science. They grow these horses for a passion but I use the manure on the farm. That’s the manure I usually use for making my compost. I started making the compost 5 years ago – and with biodynamic it’s the main thing for developing your project. The compost is considered like a human being, like an entity. It’s a living thing. It was basically grass and manure and after one year we were able to harvest the compost and with that compost we started to make the beds for growing the veggies. In the middle of the project I found a guy a young guy who was my pupil in the Waldorf school. I was doing woodworking and he was studying in the Waldorf school and I asked him if he was interested in being in charge of a farm and for about two years he was in charge of the farm. We work with a calendar, we work with preparations. We do a cow horn manure. We don’t make it in the farm, but we have an association of biodynamics in Peru. Usually farmers or also people who are also related to education, who are training people. And we share the preparations of horns. And there are homeopathic sprays but they’re really called something else. Maybe a tea. We are moving more than things than just what you can touch. We are moving more etherical forces – it’s something more. It’s like a breathing, it’s like a pulse.”
Tel (though it never seems to work): +511 2430474
Recavarren 298 (at José Galvez, cuadra 4), Miraflores, Lima, Peru
Monday-Friday: lunch and dinner, Saturday dinner only (and sometimes not). Saturday morning find El Almazen at the Bioferia, where stuffed yucca balls with salsa criollo, hummus wraps, baked eggplant with sweet potatoes and lentils, lasagna, chocolate mousse, gluten-free quinoa mango jelly rolls, and strawberry cream pies are on sale for less than restaurant prices. (5-10 soles)
Dinner or lunch: 15-35 soles