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Extract from Part Three: Vegetable

Oca – Andes, Bolivia

The world-changing tuber, the potato, was domesticated in the Andes 7,000 years ago. This is the centre of diversity for the potato, its birthplace if you like, and that of many other tubers too, including oca. No population anywhere in the world has as many diverse tubers as the people of the Andes. There are 4,000 Andean varieties of potato alone, which are grown in rotation with beans and corn. This diversity was created in many tiny settlements across the Andes, where each tuber adapted to a particular altitude, microclimate and soil. Preserved tubers became an essential food of the Andes. To see oca being preserved, I headed high up in the Andes to one of the historic Incan outposts, a small village 4,000 metres up the Apolobamba mountain range. Ayllu Agua Blanca is home to one hundred families who, for several months of the year, live surrounded by frost and fog. Dried khaya, oca, is their daily bread here.

I followed a group of Quechua women from the village up a mountain path towards their fields. The altitude made it a struggle for me to keep up as they marched ahead. They were dressed in the traditional cholita outfit: heavy, multi-layered petticoats, blue skirts, dark brown bowler hats (the borsalino) and beautiful woven red and yellow shawls. It didn’t look like an outfit designed for climbing mountains or for farming tubers, but they made it look effortless. The villagers plant tubers in fields and terraces spread around the valley. This might seem impractical, what with all the climbing and walking involved in getting from one plot to another. But this way they can spread risk; if frost or disease hits one field, they can fall back on another at a different altitude and soil. They also plant different crops each year, including oca, papalisa tubers, beans and quinoa. Across the community this adds up to a collection of hundreds of different varieties. ‘Rotation is important,’ one of the women said. ‘The soil needs to rest.’

At one of the fields, they harvested sacks of oca which they then carried on their backs to the Pelechuco River, a forty-minute hike. The riverbank looked as if it had been bombed; several metre-wide holes pitted the earth, each one dug so close to the other you needed to tiptoe along their narrow ridges to avoid falling in. Each of the pits was filled with water, hay and handfuls of muna (Andean mint). The sack of oca was lowered in and weighed down by stones where it would be left for at least a month. Over the loud rush of the Pelechuco, one of the women, Vasillia, lifted out some of the rocks, reached her arm into the cold water of the pit and pulled up one of the older sacks. Pinching a tuber that was losing its skin, she shook her head. ‘Not yet,’ she said, ‘another week.’ It needed to be soft and feel like a sponge. By then, the sourness of the acid would have leached away.

From here, the oca that are ready are taken further up the mountain and spread out across the ground like chuño on the altiplano. For around a week, the oca goes through the cycle of freezing and thawing. ‘When they start to look as if they are rotten, we press them,’ Vasillia explained. And so, on the freezing mountainside, they walk barefoot to force out the last of the moisture. When they are dry, flat and dark in colour, the tubers are taken to the village.

Inside a small kitchen, the women took pieces of dried oca – like charred pieces of blackened wood – and ground them down to make a dough. A strong, sweet smell of farmyard (a legacy of the fermented hay placed inside the pits) hung in the air as salt, herbs and sugar were added to the dough which was then moulded into mini-burger-sized pieces. Fried in corn oil, they became hard chewy discs that tasted part treacle, part liquorice and part barnyard.

On the day I left the Apolobamba, the village held an atapi, a communal meal that brought all of the surrounding villages together. Some had walked for miles so they could swap news and share food. Spread over blankets were the various tubers the communities had brought with them; fifty or sixty types of oca, chuño, tunta and native potatoes of different shapes, sizes and colours. Each tuber was adapted to its village, some higher up the mountain, some lower, making the feast a celebration of diversity.

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