Cusco is a beautiful World Heritage city. We decided we’d spend some time here on our way from Lima to La Paz. Besides being the gateway to Machu Picchu, it’s the former capital of the Inca empire and arguably the cultural capital of Peru. We stayed for nearly a week not doing much because it’s also at 3400 meters above sea level (over 11,000 feet) and it’s quite hilly. We visited the pre-columbian art museum (artifacts from Larco Museum in Lima) and the natural history museum.
We also knew that Virgilio Martínez had a restaurant in Cusco called MIL, and we knew we wanted to go there. What we didn’t know was that it’s actually in Moray, which is 90 minutes from Cusco in the Sacred Valley. So we hired a driver to take us there and back and, like we do when we fly, we asked if there were any interesting places on the way. Turns out there was!
The Maras salt ponds are a pre-Inca salt mine that is still in use today. You come around a corner on the road and are faced with a hillside covered in white terraces. The terrace complex is fed by an underground stream that is channeled into a series of communally managed shallow ponds where the sun evaporates the brine. Anyone in the community can have a pond, everyone maintains the infrastructure of channels, paths, and terraces together. Newcomers get the less desirable locations further away from the village. After the salt is dried and harvested it’s sold all over Peru. I broke my rule about getting more “stuff” and acquired a small bag of the salt. We’ll see if it survives the next time I have to reduce the weight of my luggage.
After visiting the salt mines, we drove a short distance to Moray. Moray is a visually striking set of Inca ruins, consisting of concentric circular terraces about 30m deep. Their purpose is still not known, but the temperature difference from the bottom to the top is about 15ºC total. One possible explanation is that it was an agricultural research center exploring suitability of crops for different climate zones.
MIL is Virgilio Martínez’s Cusco restaurant. Either because it’s the low season, or because it’s not as centrally located, it was easy to get a table. We chose lunch, because it’s often more relaxed, you don’t go to bed uncomfortably full, and the light is better for photos. The complex is beautifully suited to the site, elegantly and simply blending with the terrain and landscape.
When we arrived we were given a tour of the grounds and the other things going on on site. Besides the restaurant and garden, there is a research arm in to local Peruvian ingredients and experiments in how to use them. There’s also an anthropological component, working with local people to learn more about how these foods are used traditionally, not just in consumption but the role they play in society. It reminded me of Orana or Attica in Australia, or Hiakai in New Zealand.
As part of the tour they explained how they were exploring the different local varieties of Cacao, and there were two small electric stone mills grinding their own chocolate. I now want a stone mill, except that I think they probably weigh 20kg just by themselves.
There’s also an area for fermentations including a kombucha made from local tea and panela, and an alembic still and alcoholic herbal infusions.
After the site tour we were seated in the restaurant. Similarly to Central the menu is organized by geography, primarily by elevation, and beyond dietary restrictions there aren’t any choices. We also chose to have the non-alcoholic beverage pairings.
Freeze dried potato (chuño), corn, wild uchucate, oca
Chuño is naturally freeze dried potato, a technique invented centuries ago. There are two varieties: White and Black. White is supposed to be easy to digest, but I haven’t noticed any difficulty with either of them. These were ground and made into crisps, kind of like pringles which should be no surprise as pringles are made from dried potatoes. There was a berry butter yum), and a rocoto, huacatay, and tree tomato (tamarillo) salsa. There was a coca leaf bread with oca which was a lot like a soft bread stuffed with potato, finally singed corn cakes that were a little gummy but full of corn flavor.
Cabuya nectar, lamb, kaniwa grain, white quinoa
The lamb tartare with cherimoya dressing was a great combination, fruity and umami. The kaniwa crisps made the right texture contrast and the a creamy white quinoa dip went well with both. A bowl of fresh garden greens was simple and refreshing in the middle of food that was otherwise about process. A small cup of tumbo and cabuya nectar on the side added needed tartness.
Lupinus legume, pork belly, avocado, rocoto pepper
Lupines are peas, and grow wild all over the world, including Peru. So this course was a sprouted pea bread, and peas in the pork belly confit. I thought this dish might have needed more work. The flavours were great but the textures weren’t quite there yet. The rocoto and avocado salsa on the other hand was really great.
Diversity of Corn
Piscaronto, chullupi, white corn, local cheese
This was some very light corn crisps, a bright green chullupi puree, big kernels of choclo, and toasted fresh cheese. You combine all of the ingredients in the bowl and try to get some of all of them in each bite. The sweetness of the corn, the herbaceous chullupi, the nuggets of choclo all worked well together, I liked the dairy flavors of the local fresh cheese, but Debbie was not as fond of the cheese as I was.
Duck, black quinoa, lake blue-green algae, wheat
We can confirm that ducks and blue-green algae do live at extreme altitude, having seen them on our trip to Colca Canyon. This dish also included crispy kale leaves and a puree with edible flowers.
Potatoes, stems, chaco clay, chincho
This dish connected to the local people and their harvest between June and July. Freshly harvested potatoes are roasted in a traditional oven and eaten communally with your fingers, dipped in sauce. One table nearby asked for a knife and fork which I found slightly disappointing. It was fun to share the potatoes and eat them with your fingers.
Wild muña, tumbo, kjolle
This was more of a palate cleanser than a dessert. Tart tumbo granita with fresh wild muña leaves and a pink potato puree colored with kjolle flower. Kjolle is also the name of Pia León’s restaurant in Lima.
Huatia of Cacao
Mashwa, coca leaf, cacao mucilage
This dessert was coca powder, frozen local cacao mucilage, and frozen chocolate mousse served with thin purple and yellow mashwa crisps. It reminded us of one of the desserts we had a Central, but the ingredients had been prepared differently. We finished with a hot chocolate, and a V60 coffee made with red bourbon arabica beans by Three Monkeys.
We’ve been seeking out Virgilio Martínez’s restaurants in Peru. He’s most famous for Central in Lima, but MIL is one of his pet projects and he was on site! He said hi, and graciously agreed to pose for a picture with us.
MIL was awesome, everything we expected or wanted. The salt ponds and Moray are worth a visit. Having a driver was totally worth it.