At luxury hotels in Latin America, you are often shielded from the local marketplaces. In Quito’s UNESCO world heritage colonial center, which is not an upscale district by any means, there are now a half dozen beautifully restored colonial buildings turned hotels, though only one that I know of is encouraging you to step out and see how the locals really live.
At Casa Gangotena, a Conde Nast hotlist nominated hotel that opened in 2011, has begun sending guests out in the streets and markets with their executive chef, Andrés Dávila, to buy produce, see an artisan flour mill, and buy and taste street sweets and other snacks.
Dávila’s menu at Gangotena relies heavily on Ecuadorian ingredients and cooking styles. He is quite fond of soups and stews, as most good Ecuadorian cooks tend to be. Essentially he is cooking the same dishes as the local population, though his are more contemporary and show the skill of a culinary school grad. The hotel has initiated several interesting culinary projects, from chocolate tastings with the owners of Pacari to working on a slow food project with neighborhood food vendors.
“We try to show the reality here,” he said. “Some say the center is dangerous. That’s not true. Everyone here looks out for each other. Neighbor for neighbor.”
After leaving the hotel we walked a few blocks uphill to Mercado San Francisco. For those that read this website regularly, you’ll know I often go to neighborhood markets in Latin America and speak with the vendors there about the produce, so it was interesting to go with someone is actually buying that produce for a restaurant, as Dávila does each morning. While meat and seafood are purchased from higher end purveyors he explained most of the fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices come from this traditional market each morning.
What I observed was an interesting exchange of information between the vendors and chef. Dávila tells them that that particular mint is used in mojitos in Cuba or that herb comes form particular flower, while they point out one herb is good for the prostate or arthritis. He asks when certain highland fruits will be coming to the market; they let him know when is the peak season.
He points out zambo, a green seed, to me, which I never really quite understood how important is to the cuisine of southern Ecuador. It is widely used in sauces there, while the peanut is used in the northern coastal sauces from Manabi. It is a good substitute for people with peanut allergies he said, and he uses it quite often in Casa Gangotena’s restaurant.
Afterwards we stop by the Molino, a family run flour mill owned by Francisco Calvopina and his twin brother. The mill is an incredible asset in the neighborhood, though most probably don’t realize it is there. In the small, powder covered factory they break down everything from corn to plantains into flour, offering dozens of different varieties. Before heading back we pick up candy, being made in a streetside shop. At 9:30am I feel like I had a full day.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.