Arriving at Bogotá’s landmark Plaza Bolivar for its first-ever campesino market was a pleasant surprise. Given that “campesino” translates as peasant farmer, it was a surprise that it looked like an urban glamping festival. Scores of pristine white tents filled the square, while a man played an armadillo on the stage.
The band, with their traditional black dress and musical mammal, gave the air an authentic Colombian flavour. The plaza was packed with farmers from the surrounding districts who had come to flog their wares to Bogotá residents eager for a bucolic taste of home. I began my tour in the centre next to a tent where, away from prying eyes and the inclement weather, the mayor was giving a speech to dignitaries.
A whole roasted pig resolutely stared at the polished military men guarding the entrance to the tent. The stoic bronze-coloured fellow looked on while a lady delved into his excavated back with a spoon. Sporting a splendid wide-brimmed hat, she dug out a generous portion of lechona for a local office worker. It’s a succulent blend of pork, fragrant rice, potato and onion but served directly out of the pig, it does not suit those who like to pretend that their meat comes from plastic containers in Sainsbury’s.
Overhead were the first signs that the rainy period was finally coming to an end. It had begun to feel as more of a permanent state than something as fleeting as a season. There was evidence of a conjunction in the weather: it was both lashing it down and blowing a gale. Great news. This heralded the start of the promised kite-flying season.
The wind whipped up ash from the dozens of open fires burning under hunks of meat and different types of sausage. Thick soups and meaty stews, such as a local version of el cocido, were cooked over gas. Increasingly hungry and bewildered by the choice, I found myself at a stall selling duck “embriones”. I was offered a little tub containing a glutinous embryo with an accompanying leaflet boasting its magical, medicinal properties. This was not my idea of lunch: I would rather be ill and nearly was.
Moving swiftly away, I was attracted by the Cundinamarca region’s “rellana” sausage—a fat, juicy black pudding bursting out of its skin. At the next stall, steam billowed up as a lady poured lager over a side of “mamona” beef.
By now I could hear my stomach over the sounds of the man playing the armadillo and I’d lost the ability to make a decision. I found myself among stalls selling honey and pollen from the fincas of Cundinamarca. Around me were bananas, vast pumpkins, eggs, great blocks of panella (sugar cane), strawberries and pastry empañadas stuffed with meat—all great in their place but that place was not my stomach, I needed heavier fare.
I even spotted some vegetarian food: chicharrón. A soya version of the pork scratching delight almost seemed like a good idea in my weakened state.
By now it was so late that some Rolos would be thinking about “onces” (elevenses, which are eaten in the afternoon, natch) and I was still browsing desperately. A decision seemed as improbable as the increasingly deflated lechona pigs growing wings.
Finally, the rain cut through the procrastination and the need to find cover demanded a decision.
Sidestepping a senior army officer in full medalled pomp tucking into a plate of brawn, I ducked into the mamona tent and ordered. “Claro, mi amora” (Of course, my love) replied a buxom lady wielding a machete.
The slices of meat were tender with a succulent strip of fat across their top. The elegant woman next to me ordered some aji (chilli sauce). Anticipating a subtle blend of chilli, coriander and tomato; she applied it generously to her forkful of pink meat. Her breath was rasping and face radiated heat, as she grabbed for a water bottle. It’s a little picante; she understated, passing the puréed 100% pure chilli paste to me.
In front of us, the waitress held my embarrassingly wonky umbrella over the lady with the huge chopper. She systematically hacked through the great chunks of meat. Steam rose from it, silhouetting our hostess who had her own protection: she sported a tea towel on her head protecting her hair, heavily made-up face and prodigious cleavage from the rain.
Behind the brolly, the Catedral Primada looked down through greyness upon the indulgence, while behind it loomed the towering green mountains that flank the east of the city.
Considerably happier now I was eating, my mind moved onto life’s other needs. While I could find no criticism of the range of local foods, there was a noticeable omission: where was the booze? Wine would not be the conventional drink of the campesino but it would be reasonable to expect to find the product of a local microbrewery. However, Colombia’s beers are nearly all produced by one vast conglomerate (now South African owned) and there was none forthcoming.
On my travels around the plaza, I saw not one drop of a proper drink anywhere. I had come across chicha (fermented maize) and masato a fermented rice drink, which fizzed on the tongue. I would politely describe masato as an acquired taste.
Meanwhile as I finished my steak and criolla potatoes, the mayor appeared to be still talking next door. I wondered if they had a drink in there. They needed it.
With the gentle saunter of the pleasantly stuffed, I pottered into the centre of the square, where Bolivar was standing guard. The great Latin American “Liberator” was getting no freedom from the pigeons. They were democratically showing him the same respect they show statues of all the world’s most revered heroes.
The following week at the presidential inauguration of Santos in the same square, I noticed that Bolivar had been given a clean and a polish. Sadly however there would be no happy ending—Bolivar may have seen off the Spanish empire but the pigeons would be back.
To kill off the lingering taste of chilli, I went in search of something sweet in an unexplored part of the plaza. Here I found avena cubana, a sweet milk drink. Elsewhere people ate a shapely cream, strawberries and meringue pudding, which looked like Eton Mess made by someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Stalls sold arequipe (dulce de leche), chocolate and strawberries. I bought some sticky coconut sweets and looked north at the Palacio de Justicia.
In Colombia’s darkest days, more than 100 urban guerrillas had stormed this building. The army took it back and wiped out them all out. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, this market would have been impossible as the roads in and out of Bogotá were too dangerous to use.
As I luxuriated in the caries-inducing deliciousness of my sweet, I felt relief that it was possible to be here now.
Photography by David Romero León, Oxfam GB