Posted by: acooksca | 04/03/2009

The Saqisili Market of Cotopaxi, Ecuador

Flying into Quito, Ecuador is exciting. The city and its airport are tucked between volcanoes in a crenelated valley andes-market-2aat nearly 9,000 feet. They say Quito airport has the most weather related incidents in South America. The plane slams down on the first available pavement and, with a reversing thrust blast, rolls to a stop just feet from the end of the runway.

Driving the roads out of Quito are no less nerve racking. But our driver, Alex, is able to turn around and explain the politics of Ecuador to rear seat passengers while dodging buses, donkeys, kids and potholes on the rutted country roads. We are heading south from Quito to the Cotopaxi region and Saqisili, a large market town of Andean locals called “Indigenos”.

Cotopaxi is the world’s tallest active volcano at just under 20,000 feet. At its base is a fertile valley of ancient agricultural ways. Cultivation spreads up the mountain sides to about the 14,000 foot mark. Corn grows as high as 13, 500 feet here. Because it is on the equator, the snow level begins above 14,500 feet.

Steep valleys are the home to thousands of indigenous people growing crops, weaving sheep wool textiles and grazing animals. The life seems agrarian, rather than poor, and families provide for themselves from their own plots of land. Goods and supplies are traded and bought in central market towns.

We have come for the large Thursday market in Saquisili. I always  enjoy the live animal markets…with loud squeals and shrieks, reverberating with bidding and yelling. So Alex takes us to the live animal market at the edge of town.

Small girls struggle with gunny sacks of wriggling piglets. Men heave sheep into an already wool-to-the-wall packed pick-up. Large pigs squeal when new owners try to move them. A woman pulls a milking goat on a rope through the crowd offering to provide a warm freshly extract cup of goat’s milk to order. A minivan goes by with young llamas looking out the windows as if on tour.

The main market takes over the streets and squares of the town in splashes of colorful textiles, thin tin pots, cheap clothes from China and other everyday goods. All are being inspected by the diminutive-sized locals. Everyone is wearing a hat. Some are dressed in their best go-to-market clothes.

From a chocolate seller we buy wafers of bitter chocolate swirled with cocoa butter and granular sugar.  Alex introduces us to a medicine seller. He demonstrates how the sap of a tree called Sangre de Drago (Dragon’s blood) turns from a deep blood colored liquid to a white latex-like cream to heal skin.

Heaps of enticing tomatoes and leeks share plank space with large smooth skinned avocados, squash and herbs. Potatoes are featured in their own area. Piles of different varieties and colors represent this most important food source. A traditional rough potato, onion and avocado soup is eaten every day. A swirl of mild, local cheese adds extra protein to the soup.

Alex identifies dried fava beans, quinoa, toasted and ground wheat and has us sample boiled and salted beans from a lupine plant. Night-time temperatures at this altitude are in the forties and every food  is high protein and carbs.

There are only a few other tourists here. Few sellers offer the kind of things we would buy. But a boldly executed textile catches my eye. We start a conversation of pidgin Spanish. A weaver shows how she spins wool, dyes the threads with vegetable dyes, then weaves finished goods. After the required haggling we walk away when we don’t reach a price. She follows us through the market and eventually offers us her woven piece for an agreed price of $17. Everyone is happy.

A good souvenir would be a small Tigua painting of brightly colored villages and volcanoes executed on stretched sheep skin. Or a hat. This is the place of Panama hats. They are really from Ecuador. I should have bought a Panama hat. It would have come in handy for the next four days.

Hiking the footpaths that vertically zigzag between 9,000 and 13,000 feet is slow going for four sea-level travelers with a local guide. Only the sound of catching our breath disturbs the quiet. The scenery is absorbing with swatches of cultivation dancing up the mountains. Llamas and donkeys carry goods on wooden pack frames, their saddle blankets a blaze of vivid colors. Each child we pass shyly reaches out for our offered treat from under a home woven wrap.

andes-1aOn the fourth day our guide suggests one last 1,500 foot accent. But we have a better idea. We are near the Paramo, a grassy plateau above 13,000 feet. Locals subsist here on grazing cattle. They produce excess milk without the ability to move it to lower altitudes to sell. A few years back, volunteers from Switzerland came to this wind swept, muddy place and taught the locals to make cheese. And we want to visit the facility…(or maybe just stop hiking up mountains).

We join a stream of older women, children, donkeys and llamas carrying pails of this morning’s milk down the muddy road to a compact concrete building. Each of the four small, moist rooms has a specific function: collection of milk, boiling and curds separation, pressing into molds and ageing. Three types of mildly flavored cheeses are produced as well as ice cream… the treat being enjoyed by all those hanging around the facility with their empty milk pails.

This is a fresh curd cheese that you encounter in rural places. It is simple to make, chews a bit rubbery and is pretty bland. Yet on a cool night in the Andes of Ecuador, when it is added to that wonderful potato, onion and avocado soup, this cheese couldn’t be more welcome.

Originally published in Farmstead Cheese News by Karen Bolla, edited for A Cook’s California (A Cook’s CA)  by Karen Bolla.

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