For a Taste of Ancient Peruvian Cooking, Head to Vermont

Thousands of miles from its place of origin, pachamanca — a centuries-old form of underground cooking — gets a spotlight.

Credit…Video by Kelly Burgess

For a Taste of Ancient Peruvian Cooking, Head to Vermont

Thousands of miles from its place of origin, pachamanca — a centuries-old form of underground cooking — gets a spotlight.

Credit…Video by Kelly Burgess

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ANDOVER, Vt. The scent of mint and smoke erupted from the pit in the earth.

The cooks worked hastily but methodically, placing layers of potatoes, carrots, squash, fava beans, pork butt, chicken quarters, lamb shoulder, herbs and humitas — sweetened, spiced corn wrapped in husks — and separating the ingredients with hot stones that let out a gratifying sizzle whenever food kissed their surfaces.

The elaborate choreography ended with the head cook, Victor Guadalupe, scooping dirt over the top, planting a cross (made of sticks and the twist tie from a bundle of cilantro) in the ground and pouring whiskey on top — a gesture for the Pachamama, or Mother Earth, he said. The guests crowded around the pit with their own shots of whiskey, cheering as if they were at the finals of the FIFA World Cup.

This pachamanca, which means “earth pot” in Quechua, is a Peruvian tradition of cooking food underground — one that is rare to find in an American restaurant, much less one in rural Vermont.

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Esmeralda, which opened last week, operates out of a property its owners purchased in Andover, Vt., in 2019.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

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Ingredients are layered between hot stones in a specific order, so they can cook at different temperatures.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

But that’s where you’ll find Esmeralda, which JuanMa Calderon and Maria Rondeau opened last weekend. For the couple, who also own the boisterous Peruvian restaurant Celeste, in Somerville, Mass., this pachamanca format feels fitting to their free-flowing, dinner party-esque approach.

For Mr. Calderon, 54, who grew up in Lima, Peru, it also feels personal.

He remembers taking trips with relatives as a child to the nearby city of Chaclacayo, where he could smell the smoke from nearby pachamancas, which are usually prepared for special occasions like birthdays or weddings.

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From left, JuanMa Calderon and Maria Rondeau, the owners of Esmeralda, with Victor Guadalupe, the head cook. Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

Pachamanca originated in the central Andes region of Peru at least 800 years ago, and spread further throughout the area during the Incan Empire. The technique is like pressure cooking and searing at once, Ms. Rondeau explained. The combination of residual heat and compact space supercharges the natural flavor of each ingredient.

“It is like an act of faith,” Mr. Calderon said. “It is part of the memory of Peruvian people.”

In June 2019, the couple bought a home in Andover, Vt., about two and a half hours from Cambridge, Mass., where they could live part-time and start a new restaurant.

They weren’t sure what type of place it would be, until Mr. Calderon glimpsed the mountains visible from the kitchen and immediately thought of the Andes. He and Ms. Rondeau decided that their restaurant would center on a monthly pachamanca in their home’s backyard. They’d sell 24 tickets at $185 each for a day of feasting and drinking.

Neither knew how to make a pachamanca. It’s a complicated process: The stones must be the right shape and size to make a dome that holds together with no adhesives, and strong enough not to crack under heat. The wind needs to be able to move through the structure and feed the flames.

Guidance eventually arrived in the form of Mr. Guadalupe, 50, a line cook at the sports bar Winners and the Peruvian restaurant Pollos El Chalan. He grew up in Huancayo, in the highlands of Peru, one of the birthplaces of pachamanca cooking.

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Mr. Guadalupe has been making pachamancas since age 15, and said he had done more than 80 in his lifetime.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

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Mr. Guadalupe places humitas, husks filled with spiced, blended corn, and fresh herbs as the final layer of the pachamanca.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

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The final touches: placing a cross in the ground to ward off the devil and pouring whiskey on top as an offering to the Pachamama, or Mother Earth.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

Mr. Guadalupe learned how to make a pachamanca at age 15, and created them regularly in his village of Yantac. Before joining the Esmeralda team, he hadn’t made one since he moved to Boston in 2006.

When Mr. Guadalupe visited the property for the first time last April, he scoped out the backyard, finding a space that was dry and clear of trees and going to a nearby river to find rocks.

On a recent Wednesday morning, Mr. Calderon and Ms. Rondeau had invited their friends to experience a test run of the Esmeralda’s pachamanca before the restaurant opened. Mr. Calderon assembled a breakfast of sausage, eggs and bacon, while Mr. Guadalupe arranged the stones in the pit, taking his time to choose ones that looked longest to create a sturdy base. (A single misplaced rock can dismantle the whole structure, he said.)

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Mr. Guadalupe and Ms. Rondeau work quickly to unearth the food after it has cooked for an hour.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

Inside the pit, he burned a few logs of hickory, which would heat the stones over the next few hours. Then, he went inside to make the humitas, blending corn into a paste with cinnamon, anise, clove, vanilla and sugar. The meat sat in the dining room, marinating in earthy huacatay, or Peruvian black mint, oregano, spearmint, aji amarillo, aji panca, garlic and soy sauce (a nod to the Chinese and Japanese influence in Peruvian cuisine).

In the kitchen, Ms. Rondeau made a creamy, slightly spicy huancaina sauce from her native Guatemala with saltine crackers, aji amarillo, olive oil, garlic, onion, cream and queso fresco; Mr. Guadalupe prepared a salsa from his childhood, with green chiles, mustard, salt, mayonnaise and huacatay.

When the stones were hot enough for water to sizzle upon contact, Mr. Guadalupe orchestrated the layering of the ingredients, starting with the potatoes, which cook at the hottest temperature, and ending with the humitas and herbs.

Once banana leaves and dirt were draped over the top, and the cross had been planted, Mr. Guadalupe relaxed. When he was 13, his father once forgot to place the cross — which is supposed to prevent the devil from interfering with the cooking — and all the food came out raw.

“You can’t fix it,” Mr. Guadalupe said. “It is ruined.”

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After being pulled from the ground, the food is served on platters alongside various Peruvian condiments.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

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Mr. Calderon and Ms. Rondeau describe Esmeralda as more of a backyard dinner party than a formal restaurant.Credit…Kelly Burgess for The New York Times

After an hour, the frenzy began again, as the guests helped to excavate the food and pile it high on platters, the smell of sweet corn suffusing the air. The precision of the cooking was remarkable: The squash was impossibly plush, the fava beans plump and creamy, the humitas like fragrant, fluffy bouquets, and the chicken succulent, with a beautifully charred crust. Instead of Chicha, the Andean corn beer that traditionally accompanies the feast, guests sipped local I.P.A.s and natural wine. (Since more gamy meats like llama and alpaca are often used in a pachamanca, Mr. Calderon and Ms. Rondeau will eventually incorporate rabbit and venison.)

Around 4 in the afternoon, the party began to die down. Half-drunk bottles of wine were scattered on tables. A few guests picked at leftover fava beans in the kitchen. The faint smell of smoke filled the air.

People were welcome to hang around as long as they’d like, Ms. Rondeau told the group. But it was time for her to take a nap.

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