The Gastronomic scene in Colombia
In recent years Peru and in particular Lima, have grabbed the limelight when it comes to new and exciting cuisine in South America. However, Colombia’s climate and topography has much in common with Peru and therefore they share many common ingredients, but with the added influences of coffee and the Caribbean coast. Indeed, it is often said that with Colombia you get five countries for the price of one: the Pacific Coast, the Andes, the Amazon, the eastern plains and the Caribbean.
One of the best places to showcase the bewildering variety of ingredients native to Colombia is the Paloquemao market in Bogota, where you will see not only a vast array of fruit and vegetables from all over the country (many un-recogniseable to overseas visitors), but also stalls selling prepared dishes such as maize tamales stuffed with pork, chicken, rice and garlic. We recommend that you visit the market with a guide and an empty stomach to sample some of these at one of the many open-fronted market eateries.
Prior to the peace agreement, transporting these ingredients across the country was problematic and the restaurant scene in the major cities tended to be on the European themes of French and Italian cuisine. This has all changed and with the availability of exciting indigenous produce, coupled with a growing and relatively affluent middle class, it should come as little surprise that Colombia offers not only intriguing and unique gastronomy, but also a huge number of very good restaurants which can be found all around Bogota, Medellin and Cartagena.
In Bogota, chef Leonor Espinosa’s ‘Restaurante Leo’ has had much recent international press coverage and Leo herself has just been nominated best female chef in South America. She is a pioneer in working with local communities and researching rare fruits and vegetables, with a renowned 10 course tasting menu. Leo’s signature dish remains top of the menu – sea bass steamed in a plantain leaf with coconut rice titote and a sauce of sea snails. Indeed, it was when Marc dined with friends at Leo’s in May 2017 that he decided to approach journalist Paul Richardson with a view to bringing the gastronomic scene in Colombia to a wider audience, leading to the article in The Sunday Telegraph by Paul Richardson.
One of the things which we believe sets Colombia apart from the other major cities in South America, including Lima and Buenos Aires, is that distinctive styles of restaurant can be found in the different barrios of Bogota. For example, in the Barrio Chapinero (locally known as the Zona G, gastronomic zone) you will find a large number of excellent restaurants in small low rise buildings with charming outside seating areas on side streets. Examples are Bistro El Bandido which offers interesting French cuisine such as Truffled Hare Terrine in a lively atmosphere, or Mesa Franca where you can try prawn, avocado and crunchy rice in a coconut soup or yucca doughnuts with smoked trout. Nearby Mini-mal also sets the bar high where chef Eduardo Martinez serves raw pumpkins in multicoloured dice with pole mint and the juice of pickled tubers – an innovative Colombian creation. So where better to base yourself when staying in Bogota than Casa Medina.
La Macarena is Bogota’s hippest and most bohemian barrio. Ten years ago it was off limits, now it is a trailblazer for Colombia’s independent foodie scene. The first of these and culinary mainstay is El Patio, with fine red wines and very classic Italian dishes. Agave Azul has just five tables and no menu – diners engage in a discussion with chef Tatiana Navarro!
More mainstream, in the recently restored and charming district of Usaquen close to the new W Hotel, we visited Bistronomy, feeling that we almost came across this restaurant by chance, to discover that it is another outpost of the famous Rausch brothers.
In Medellin top of the list is El Cielo, where the dining experience takes diners on a journey through Colombia’s regions. The 8 step fusion menu is created by a team of chefs all under 30. Read more about how owner of El Cielo, Juan Manuel Barrientos, has trained more than 600 ex-FARC and ELN guerrillas to work in his kitchen in Financial Times Postcard from Medellin.
Elsewhere in Colombia it goes without saying that Cartagena offers a similar variety of very high quality restaurants; as you would expect, the cuisine in Cartagena is orientated towards sea food. For another take on food in Cartagena go to the end of Emma Duncan’s article in Economist 1843 magazine and read about Cartagena on a Plate. But this significant uptick in Colombian Cuisine has not come out of the blue; back in 2005 Popayan was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy where top notch restaurants are supplemented by street food.
So the saying goes, when you plan a visit to Colombia, prepare to loosen your belt!