03 | Dec | 13

Richard Johnson

Bite Me

With Britain in the midst of I’m A Celebrity fever — and its orgy of unusual and unedifying eating — it seemed a good time to revisit chef Gavin Quinn on his food adventures in South America. In his first blog post, you may remember, dear reader, that we abandoned him in Venezuela. After a rather bungled departure from Margarita Island, against all odds, he made it over to the mainland complete with his luggage. He takes over his story from there.

“A quick journey down the motorway thick with mudslides and we arrived in tourist spot and university town, Merida. Famed for its cable car, and cobbled streets nestled in the Andean hills, this town was a welcome break from the heat and lethargy of Margarita.

The food was pretty uneventful in Merida — there were many variations of the greasy empanada stuffed full of chicken, meat, veg or cheese but being a university town, the emphasis was by far on cheap booze. Street entrepreneurs selling home brews were in abundance; blackberry or honey wines were quaintly-labelled and sold carts lined up in the streets. Don’t expect Chapel Down, these things certainly won’t be winning any Sommelier Wine awards any time soon, but they make a good forfeit drink when playing cards. Overall, there’s quite a big booze culture across Venezuela, which I initially assumed was just island life, but seemed to be more widespread. Evenings are basically spent hanging around off licences, drinking beer and eating crisps that taste of cheap margarine, with entertainment consisting of music and dancing, courtesy of speaker systems blaring out from the boot of someone’s car.

One of the drinks in the huge downtown market was a real witch’s brew, featuring fruit, oats, liquor, milk, raw eggs and, naturally, eggs of fish and eye of bull. Hubble bubble, toil and trouble…it’s supposed to be a virility drink and had the local workmen queuing up for a cup, but it wasn’t something I’d try again though. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my drinks less fishy, eggy and bloody. However, my oddest dining experience was spending the night in a restaurant converted from an old abbey; cue uninspired pasta dishes, an odd, ethereal darkness, waiters in robes and Enigma on a loop. Ahhh, where would we be without theme restaurants?

Was Merida food-orientated? Sadly not. It had the usual dated European fodder (spag bol, creamy mushroom sauces and other outdated fare that made me wonder whether I’d ever get to use my sugar thermometer again) and was more of a mecca for students or sports enthusiasts due to its trips kayaking, rafting and paragliding. What I did love though were the vendors walking the streets selling fresh fruit literally out of wheelbarrows and the availability of some great produce that could have made any menu fantastic. Markets were bursting at the seams with fruit, spices, meat and even twenty types of chocolate, it’s a shame that a bit of innovation wasn’t applied to any restaurant menu.

I got a chance to get the whites out whilst on a trip to the jungle marshes of Los Llanos. Arriving at camp, I barbecued a huge slab of beef on the open grill and knocked up a hearty Thai-spiced dish for the intrepid travellers. Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese…these cuisines are non-existent in Venezuela and in a country that buys MSG in supermarkets and uses freely, I was glad to make a fresh, healthy dish with a kick, knowing exactly what went into it.

Later in the jungle we fished for piranha and deep fried them that night; great fun but the meat to bone ratio means I won’t be featuring it on any of my forthcoming menus! It’s pretty easy to grab a meal on the way to the marshlands – any roadside café featured a huge side of pork or shoulder of beef gently roasting over the coals, and was served up with rice, potatoes and all the trimmings. Desserts were grated coconut held together with sugar syrup, my teeth ache just thinking about it.

After a couple of months on the road, I’m missing the UK more than ever. I met a great bloke from Leicester who hunts with a hawk and dog, and it took me back to my days working on Loch Fyne with the freshest of produce, trading trays of sticky toffee pudding with local fisherman for buckets of squat lobsters. It’s difficult, as a gringo, not to get ripped off out here, and I miss the banter with suppliers. The meat here is killed and served, there’s no hanging and aging…what I’d give to get a decent ribeye. Given that Argentina is only next door (well, okay, thousands of miles away) you’d think that meat would be something that the continent shines in, but the steak here is young, tasteless and tough. I’m determined to start showing locals how to dry age their meat, but I’m not sure how it will go down.

So, we’re heading out of Venezuela…one country done, how many more to go before we find a new home? Next stop – Colombia, which is apparently enjoying a gourmet revolution. All dependent of course on whether this bus makes it up to the border; it’s pitch dark, pouring with rain and the bus is tearing along these mountain roads at about 100mph, belching out house music. If we make it through this, we’ll hit the mountain town of Pamplona (no bulls in this one though) tomorrow, but will it really be a country reborn or am I just hours away from bandits, kidnappings and drug lords?

In his next blog post, Gavin will be mingling with hill folk and finding out what they snack on in the mountains of Colombia. Gavin Quinn is ex-Head Chef of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, and left the UK in March 2012 to embark upon a long-term culinary tour of South America. To follow his travels, find him on Twitter: @headchefgavin