Friday, September 11, 2009

I'd Rather Wear It Than Eat It

Before I got to Peru I knew there were two kinds of meat I was going to try that I'd never had before--guinea pig (cuy) and alpaca.

After I settled into my hotel in Cusco I went down the block for lunch at Inka...Fe, a touristy little place but with a reputation for good food. I saw that the menu included sauteed loin of alpaca in a tomato and chile sauce, and I ordered that along with a chicha morada, a sweet soft drink made from blue corn.

Alpaca meat is prized in the Andes for its high protein content. According to one site, "Alpaca meat is not only rich in proteins, but also has the lowest level of cholesterol of any meat--only 0.16%." And therein lies the problem: not enough fat, not enough flavor. The chunks of alpaca loin had the texture of lean pork chops or lamb chops, but without nearly the flavor of either. There was nothing offensive about the flavor of the meat other than the relative lack thereof, and the sauce was very good. I decided that having checked alpaca off on life's culinary checklist I could move on to other meats for subsequent meals.

Alpaca is a cash cow for the region, not for its meat but for its fleece. Alpaca fiber (technically it's not wool) is prized for its high quality, softness and warmth, and unlike lambswool it's hypoallergenic. I knew that I'd be picking up some alpaca scarves in Peru, as I'd probably be paying 30-50% less than I would back home (though there are some online vendors with pretty good prices).

Alpacas, like llamas, are camelids, members of the camel family. While llamas are beasts of burden, alpacas are bred for their fiber. You'll see many children in Andean Peru holding baby alpacas and offering to be photographed for tips. Alpacas are very cute, but cuteness never stopped me from eating or wearing anything.

I bought two alpaca scarves, one in Cusco and one at the Lima airport, when I was trying to unload all the cash I had left over in Peruvian soles. I'm sure I'll get years of pleasure and warmth from my alpaca scarves long after my alpaca lunch is but a distant memory.


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