Michael made one of the best paellas of his life the other day, and when we tried to analyze why it was so good, he attributed it to just the right intensity of the charcoal fire in his cookshack…...and just the right amount of chicken stock for the rice (not too dry, not too mushy).I think he enjoyed the prep as much as the cooking and consuming. The week before: a trip to Cuenca for arborio rice, green beans and little chicken wings; another to neighboring Tambo on Saturday market day for langostinos; several times around Cañar for rum (to soak the saffron) and vegetables. And here are all the ingredients, prepped and prettily lined up: roasted sweet red peppers, garlic, onions, green beans, saffron (in little glass), rice, tomatoes and langostinos.Several hours later…Paella for six! The guests were not able to come so we dined in glory in front of the fire, with Russian Red Boxed Wine, watching Better Call Saul and House of Cards.
Other pleasures in our life lately are country walks, and the people we meet on those walks. A couple of weeks ago Michael arranged for a tiny adventure on a road that has intrigued him for years, as seen from the bus to/from Cuenca. From behind Tayta Bueran, the mountain that dominates Cañar, a road meanders to the west off the PanAm towards the jagged mountains in the distance, usually covered by clouds. We took the Cuenca bus to the point where Michael thought the road started (well, we got off a little too soon and had to walk about a half-kilometer with buses and big transports rushing by, putting me briefly in a bad mood). But once we found the way we were soon joined by a small man carrying a shovel, and we fell into step. Lucindo, from Molobog Grande, the valley with the wonderful name on the other side of the PanAm, was headed for his potato patch a few kilometers towards the mountains. As we walked and talked, and he answered our questions, he aptly captured the history of this region – the hacienda era, agrarian reform, and what “progress” has meant for the small farmer like himself. “All this was all owned by families from Cuenca,” – he gestured to the broad valley below – “Malos and Andrades.” Names mean everything in upper-class Cuenca and M. and I immediately recognized these. “The agrarian reform came and the government helped us create a cooperative, Buena Esperanza (Good Hope). The land was divided up. I have a piece down there – where you see the cows – and up where my potatoes are planted, and waayyyyy up towards the mountains.”“Then, as often happens with people,” Lucindo said, “the members of the cooperative began to fight. Some were jealous, others wouldn’t do the communal work, and after some years we became the owners of our individual parcelas, which meant we could sell our land. Now, with that and migration, the cooperative is pretty much broken up, though some of us are still active and we have a fiesta every year.”
At that point we were passing another of his parcelas, and Lucindo gestured again to the beautiful valley below and talked about a present-day problem: “Down there I have a little trout pool,” he said, “but all the potable water projects for the towns around here are taking all the water. Now I don’t have enough flow to keep my fish healthy. Tayta Bueran is covered with natural springs, and we used to have plenty of water.”
Now we stopped near a steep hillside with a small planting of papas, and it was time to say goodbye. But not before Lucindo asked us if we were Catholics. Michael and I walked on…and on, and on. By now we’d dropped hundreds of feet in elevation. No way could we reach those mountains, but we took a road we thought we bring us to a village. No village, no cars, no taxis, hardly any people. Those few we came across tried to help. We offered to pay for a ride but no one had a car. One man said: “Maybe the teacher is still at the school – the red roof down the road. She’ll give you a ride.” But the school was closed up tight. Finally, tired and resigned, we started the long slog up the road to the PanAm. Then, a miracle, a small truck came behind us and we jumped out and flagged him down. Startled to come across two gringos far from anywhere, the young driver invited us to crowd into his tiny cab and tell him how we got to Ecuador, and to this remote valley between Cañar and Cuenca.