You could taste the surrounding landscape in every spoonful
You can eat a dish a thousand times and still be utterly ignorant of how it should really taste — until you chance upon a version prepared the right way, with the right ingredients, in the proper context.
This has happened to me a couple of times: two years ago, when my family ate homemade tortillas at a stranger’s house in the Jalisco countryside after getting lost on the road, and another time, twenty years ago, when I had the best asado of my life on my uncle’s farm in Colombia.
My Uncle Luis, Aunt Miryam, and I had just driven most of the way from Bogotá to Honda, and we stopped at their cattle farm. Several other cousins were there, and we all sat around a long table under a veranda. In the distance, two farm hands laid a vast cut of beef over a pair of iron stakes and leaned it over a fire. A few hours and several shots of aguardiente later, a friend of my uncle’s delivered a platter of beef chunks to the table and anointed them with a big, swirling palmful of salt. They were charred, tender, smoky, and succulent. A dry, gentle breeze blew through the veranda as we ate. There was no accompaniment other than the sharp anisette aguardiente. At the time, it seemed evident that this was how beef should be cooked and served. I swayed in a hammock afterward in total bliss. I still hope for that taste whenever I eat a grilled or fire-roasted steak, but it might be out of reach.
This summer, when I traveled to Colombia with my wife and kids, we all looked forward to a day on Uncle Luis’ farm, perhaps more than anything else: The boys wanted to ride horses, Zoraida wanted to ask about rotational grazing practices (she works on a regenerative farm), and I wanted a repeat of that meal.
When the morning came to visit the farm, I helped my uncle load his truck. He had just returned from the Plaza de Mercado, and as we lifted the bags into the truck bed, he told me we’d be eating soup. A pang of disappointment gripped my gut; I’d been thinking about that flame-kissed beef for twenty years. I would never be rude enough to make a specific request, but Uncle Luis might have seen my spirit leave my body. On the ride, he grumbled, “For a day at the farm, you shouldn’t expect to eat filet mignon … or a ribeye. No! On the farm, you eat a sancocho — at least around here. In other parts of the country, like Boyacá, you might have a soup based around grains, like wheat or corn, but this is what we do.” I’m glad I bit my tongue. I’ve eaten dozens, maybe hundreds, of sancochos, but I never knew quite how it feels to eat Aunt Miryam’s sancocho, prepared on that day. It may have ruined me forever.
When we arrived at the farm, everyone took shelter from the sun, grabbing sombreros from a big coat rack and finding seats under the veranda, now covered with twenty years’ worth of vines. Aunt Miryam — along with her sister Carmenza and her occasional helper, Sandra — carried grocery bags full of brisket, oxtail, whole chicken, mazorca (a chunkier corn), yuca, squash, green plantain, cilantro, spring onion, aji, and potato, into the kitchen.
Sancocho is always a hearty mix of meats and root vegetables; in fact, the word is used colloquially to describe a mix or a chaotic mess — “esto se volvió un sancocho” (this has turned into a sancocho) — but Miryam’s was especially potent and varied.
As Miryam worked inside, Sandra prepared a fire outside, set a pot of water over it, and began adding ingredients when it came to a boil.
The soup simmered away, while a few of us toured the land on horseback: Zoraida and Naeem crammed into one saddle on a horse named Princessa, and Marcel and I on another horse, Pacho. Luis and Uncle Miguel strolled alongside us carrying large staffs. The sky was a soft blue. Thin screens of white clouds filtered the sunlight. Luis and Miguel chatted about the wind blowing gently from the cordilleras (a subrange of the Andes). We strode through dry land past cattle (Brahman, an American breed of white cows with a prominent bulge at the neck). Some grazed, others drank from a lagoon, and a group of 12 lay in the dirt under a low, sprawling acacia tree.
The land, consisting of flat plains and tall mountains, seemed infinite. Luis said, “It used to be bigger. Miryam’s father bought his first pig at eight years old. He fattened it up, sold it, and bought more pigs and other animals until he could afford land and more land. At its peak, there were 2,500 hectares.” He explained, “Now we have 220 hectares with 300 heads of cattle. We rotate them over three zones.” Their entire diet consists of hot, dry grass. Luis and Miryam sell the cattle at ten months, before the final, expensive phase, when they need supplemental feed to be brought up to market weight.
Returning to the farmhouse after a bumpy ride, I saw Sandra standing under a tree with the cordillera in the background, checking the potatoes with a fork. All of the scents of the farm’s dry earth and the lush vegetation from the mountains blew in, intermingling with the aroma of the soup. It was irresistible. Fortunately, we had been gone for about an hour, and the sancocho had simmered long enough.
We removed our sombreros and sat our sore hides around the table to wait for the soup. Miryam served each person a shallow bowl of broth with one large potato. With so many starchy vegetables in the soup, it was rich and intense. Zoraida has eaten at least as much sancocho as I have, coming from a Panamanian family, but she was just as transfixed as I was, sipping the broth. You could taste the surrounding landscape in every spoonful.
Big bowls of white rice, platters of vegetables (platos secos) tossed in the riogo (a briefly sautéed mix of chopped scallions, garlic and tomato) and a Colombian-style guacamole (the riogo gently mashed with avocado, chili pepper, and cilantro) were all served family style. Aunt Miryam caught me eyeing the chicken foot on her plate, so she gave it to me for a collagen boost. (There were only two, so it was an honor.)
After each eating several bowls of hot, rich broth, we all lazed around drinking limeade and taking naps in hammocks and rockers around the house. I wish I had slept for twenty years to wake up to another sancocho or asado — or maybe a third idyllic meal I have yet to experience.
I’ll likely never have another sancocho like that stateside — I’d have to import the whole farm and a few aunts — but at least now I know how a sancocho should taste.