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'The Inca Trail Magician'

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- A beginners' guide to cooking dinner for 15 at 3,800m -

The Inca Trail can be tough, the most physically challenging experience some people will have. Discovering your own reserves of strength and stamina as you hike up hundreds of uneven stone steps in your quest for the Dead Woman's Pass is just one of the ways the experience can also be an intensely rewarding one, not to mention the satisfaction of arriving on foot to a citadel that was unknown to the outside world for hundreds of years thanks to its unbelievably remote setting.

However, the challenge you face seems to pale in comparison to the efforts going on behind the scenes to ensure you are as comfortable on the Inca Trail as you possibly can be. The porters' ability to run up and down steep steps whilst carrying heavy loads is hard to believe. Then there is the quality of the meals that are prepared for you three times a day, rivalling that of many of Cusco's restaurants despite being miles from the nearest village and high up in the mountains.

During a hike along the Inca Trail with our Pura team this month, I sat down with our chef, Percy, to find out more about what is involved in cooking for a group of 15-20 people along the Inca Trail.

Planning

On an average trek, Percy will be cooking for a group of six to eight hikers plus a team of nine porters, cooks, and the guide.

Four breakfasts, four two-course lunches and three two-course dinners quickly add up to more than 250 plates that need filling, so good planning is essential to make sure that the group sets off with the right amount of food on the first day.

Percy prepares the menu for the trek several days earlier, taking into account the dietary needs of each person and the possibility that two or three versions of the same meal may need to be prepared side-by-side. The shopping has to be carefully judged to give him enough food for every meal within the weight limit that the porters are allowed to carry.

During the hike itself, Percy needs to be equally organised each day. All of the staff members have set roles to ensure the campsite preparation and meal service run smoothly. In the mornings, the porters' tasks include taking down the tents, washing up dishes, and packing up the loads they will carry to the next stop for lunch.

The cooks, having just finished making breakfast, will immediately start to think ahead to lunch, which is a two-course meal served during an hour-long break in the day's hike. They don't have much time, so they make their task easier by setting aside the ingredients and utensils they need before they leave in the morning.

As soon as lunch is over, it's back on the trail as fast as possible to get to camp for the night and start preparations for afternoon tea and dinner.

Creativity

Planning goes a long way, but once you're out on the mountain trails, creativity is another essential attribute in an Inca Trail chef. The menu each day is always different ' usually starting with a soup, then a main dish that could be a pasta, a typical Peruvian dish or a hearty salad, and finally a dessert for those with enough room.

Between lunch and dinner you are also treated to afternoon snacks of popcorn, biscuits or tequeños (a popular Peruvian snack of fried wantan dough stuffed with Andean cheese) with guacamole, so there is very little chance of going hungry at any time.

Some foodstuffs don't fare well along the trail and Percy tends to buy a little extra to make up for things getting damaged en route. Occasionally some of the ingredients he needs won't arrive to camp in a usable condition so he abandons his original meal plan and creates something new on the spot. Should someone feel unwell that day, he prepares them a soup alongside the usual meal ' something simple but nutritious, without any condiments and spices.

A birthday cake is one of the most unusual creations you might see coming out of the kitchen tent. Pura's guide, Martyn, considers his birthday month to be his favourite time of year to hike the trail and the cooks' ability to produce a cake from a stove in a tent in the mountains is just one of the reasons he refers to them as 'magicians.'

Enthusiasm

It is easy to understand why people get excited about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. For most, it is a once in a lifetime opportunity, something people dream of doing for years.

What is it that keeps someone like Percy enthusiastic, after twenty years of working on the Inca Trail: He cites his children as his main motivation - thanks to his job, he can give them a good education. He also likes the fact that no trek is ever the same because each one means an opportunity to meet different people from all over the world, each with their own stories and experiences to share.

Sharing a meal is at the very heart of Peruvian hospitality and there is great satisfaction to be had in preparing a traditional meal and seeing how much it is enjoyed. This is why Percy loves to cook a 'lomo saltado' during the Inca Trail - it is one of Peru's emblematic dishes, easy to make, and popular with everyone. With roots in Peruvian and Chinese cooking, it is made up of stir-fried beef, red onions, tomatoes, parsley and aji­ amarillo (a mild Peruvian chilli pepper), and served with chips and rice.

Naturally, he has the art of preparing rice down to a tee: water boils at a lower temperature up in the mountains and he expects the rice to take between five and seven minutes longer than usual to cook, according to the altitude of each campsite.

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The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.

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