|Main Street, San Miguel Escobar, Guatemala|
We learn about Maria from de la gente, a co-operative project set up to help small independent coffee growers by giving them agricultural and business support. DLG is based in San Miguel Escobar, near Antigua, the former capital of Guatemala in Central America. The village is surrounded by volcanoes and the small coffee farms which stretch up their scrabbly slopes. It is also where Maria lives.
|The view from Maria's kitchen: looking out to her courtyard with coffee beans |
drying on the concrete floor, and up to the volcano behind
Maria's family are coffee growers. She and her daughters have a sideline in hairdressing, and they also run cookery demonstrations of the national dish, pepián. Maria expects her guests to take an active part in every stage before eating at the family's communal table.
|Pepián as served at La Casa de las Sopas in Antigua, Guatemala|
Pepián is an apparently simple affair, straddling the line between soup and stew. It makes the most of often scarce resources, containing everything needed for a large, family-style meal, the equivalent of our roast chicken and all-the-trimmings Sunday special. Maria takes us through the traditional methods of making pepián, from start (chicken scratching in the yard) to finish (plate on at the table).
|First catch your chicken. then....|
Much of the cooking takes place on a comal, the flat earthenware plate that acts as a griddle over an open fire. It dates back to ancient times, and is used for roasting all manner of ingredients, including coffee and cacao beans. Families use a range of comals of different sizes and thicknesses, depending on exactly what is being cooked. This provides a surprising range of variety and sophistication in experienced hands such as Maria's. Alongside this, there are more familiar large saucepans for boiling and stewing, and earthenware pots that simmer gently beside the cooking fire, and even some more modern accessories.
|The comal is ready to cook.|
The following recipe is not a absolutely accurate replication of the ways in which Maria prepared our pepián, but it should lead to a reasonably authentic result. In any case, every Guatemalteco family has its own spin on the best pepián recipe. This one assumes the chicken is bought ready prepared from a shop, rather than picked up in the yard, dispatched, plucked and gutted.
|Stage one: prepare your chicken!|
(Approximate measures are used here, as Maria judges everything by eye and touch)
1 chicken, jointed
2 onions (quartered)
2 onions (roughly chopped)
2 tbsp salt
2 dried guaque chillies, seeds removed
2 dried pasa chillies, seeds removed
(Mexican specialists stock guajillo and poblano chillies, a close equivalent)
120g pumpkin seeds
100g sesame seeds
1 head of garlic
1 bunch coriander (keep a few leaves aside for garnish)
500g ripe tomatoes, around 500g
250g tomatillos (ideally fresh, but tinned will do, in which case forego the roasting stage))
1 tbsp oregano
1⁄2 cinnamon stick
1 chayote (available in most Asian shops)
3 medium potatoes, peeled.
|Dry frying chillies. tomatoes and tomatillos|
1 Cover the chicken with water in a large saucepan and bring it to the boil. Add salt and the two quartered onions, before reducing to a simmer for an hour.
2 Meanwhile, place a large bowl near the cooker and heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Prepare the remaining ingredients as follows and put them into the bowl:
dry-fry the dried chillies until their aromas are released, then crumble into the
dry-fry the tomatoes and tomatillos (if using fresh) and add to the bowl;
dry-fry the pumpkin seeds until golden brown and add to the bowl;
dry-fry the sesame seeds until golden and add to the bowl;
dry-fry the chopped onions, coriander and garlic cloves, and add to the bowl;
dry-fry the oregano and cinnamon stick until fragrant and add to the bowl.
3 Add 500ml water to the bowl of dry-fried ingredients and then blend until smooth. In Guatemala, the ingredients are ground down using a metate (a bit like a pestle and mortar made out of harsh volcanic stone - see picture below). Maria used an electric blender in addition to her metate to save time and give the ground mixture a finer texture (though we suspect that she might not do so for family and friends who prefer a less smooth sauce).
|Grinding the dry-fried ingredients on volcanic stone|
4 Cut the peeled potatoes into large chunks; peel and slice the chayote into thick segments; cut the remaining onion into chunks. These will be added to the chicken pot once chicken is mostly cooked.
5 Add the sauce mixture to the chicken pot. Continue cooking at a rolling boil until the sauce reduces: it is typically slightly thicker than a normal soup. Then add the vegetables and cook until tender. This dish can be served in a bowl as a stand alone meal or with rice. Guatemalteco style, it would be served with rice, tortillas, a segment of lime and slices of avocado.
|Maria's table is covered in Guatamalteco textiles, |
and the corn tortillas are also wrapped in a bundle
to keep them warm and pliable.