Tasting menu CENTRAL, LIMA: 2015/23

I flew across an ocean and a hemisphere to eat at Central in the Lima district of Barranco and to meet the world-famous chef Virgilio Martínez. That was in 2016, some seven years before it was named the World’s Best Restaurant in 2023

Travelling with a purpose enriches rather than just relaxes. In my case I booked the restaurant first and then the flight, as well as tagging on a trek along the Salkantay Trail in the Peruvian Andes. 

To eat at Central is also to travel. Virgilio takes diners on a gastronomic tour of the diverse ecosystems of Peru, from Pacific coastal shores to the high Andes and the depths of the Amazon jungle, climbing over 4,000 metres or 13,000 feet in all. 

The Alturas Mater Tasting Menu that I sampled in 2016 was made up of 16 courses representing 16 different ecosystems found at 16 different altitudes in Peru, from 20 metres below sea level to 4,100 metres above. Like the Incas, Virgilio perceives land on a vertical rather than a horizontal plane

My meal set me back S/398 or £94/US$118. Roll on to 2021, and the equivalent Mundo Mater Menu comprises 14 course from 14 different altitudes at S/1480 or £316/US$396. A more than tripling of the price, but still not an experience to miss. 

Kjolle & Mil Immersion 

Central is since added more destinations: 

  •  Restaurant Kjolle, named after the high-altitude plant, Buddleja coriacea, with its bright orange flower. Head chef Pía León has made her mark, with Kjolle now ranked among the top 50 best restaurants in the world. It’s also in the upmarket Barranco district of Lima. 
  • The Mil Immersion: a day trip at an altitude of 3,500 metres in the Andes, northwest of Cusco. The immersion includes a visit to Central’s Mil Centre, the nearby Moray Inca ruins, local communities and a gastronomic experience of eight courses.  

My visit to Central

The day I visited Central in October 2016, Virgilio himself was at there. He came to greet me at my table. I turned into a blithering mess, hardly able to talk Spanish.  

Never have I met a chef so approachable, so open… and with so many projects and initiatives to create an ever expanding network based on our understanding of food, nature, cultures, environment. 

Central also acts as a place of pilgrimage for other great chefs from around the world. That day it was the turn of Zaiyu Hasegawa of Den in Tokyo, another restaurant among the world’s top 50 best places to eat.  

So let’s get tucked in…

Alturas Mater Tasting Menu

My experience: 

I started with a Pisco Italia cocktail, with basil and tumbo, otherwise known as banana passion fruit. When I arrived at the Andean Plateau, I switched to Cumbres quinoa beer:

  • River Cotton… with pacay (from the Inga feuillei or ice-cream bean tree), shrimp, nut, huito (or Genipa americana, a type of fruit from the rainforest) … all produce from 140 metres below sea level  THE LOWEST!
  • Desert Plantshuarango (American carob), yellow chili, onion, mamey (fruit) 230 metres 
  • Spiders on a Rock… sargassum (seaweed), mussels, crab, limpet 5 metres below sea level
  • Diversity of Corn… corn, ginger, honey, tumbo (banana passion fruit) 2,010 metres 
  • Jungle Scales... river snails, gamitana (freshwater fish), turmeric, sangre de arból (a red latex from the bark of a tree – often used for medicinal purposes) 230 metres 
  • Andean Plateautunta (type of freeze-dried potato), tarwi (a type of lupin), coca leaves & cancha corn 3,800 metres 

The coca bread, which came as part of the Andean Plateau, lay on a bed of coca leaves. Cocaine may come from coca leaves, but in the Andes chewing coca leaves are an everyday remedy against altitude sickness. I had coca leaf tea in the morning at my hotel, and I chewed lots of leaves as I climbed Mount Salkantay. Just don’t put them in your luggage when you fly back home. 

  • Marine Soil… pepino, sweet lemon, razor clams, starflower 20 metres below sea level 
  • Tree Skins… avocado, huacatay (Tagetes minuta in Latin, and sometimes called Peruvian black mint), kiwicha (otherwise known as Love-Lies-Bleeding and seen in gardens in the UK, and an ancient superfood in Peru), macre (a type of squash) 2,300 metres
  •  Extreme Stemsoca (also known as New Zealand yam), olluco (a root vegetable), mashwa (another tuber), elderberry 4,100 metres  THE HIGHEST!
  • Colors of Amazoniapaiche (type of Amazonian fish), sachapapa (a type of yam), pijuayo and ungurahui (both types of palm trees) 450 metres 
  • Harvest and Collection… lettuce, scallops, sweet potato leaf, stevia (usually used as a sugar substitute) 50 metres
  • Close Fishing… octopus, yuyo (a type of seaweed), barquillo (a type of wafer), squid 10 metres below sea level 

Here I switched from my cocktail to a glass of Quebrada de Ihaunco, a red wine made from the Quebrada grape, brought over by the Spaniards and now hardly heard of in Europe.  In Peru, they use it to make pisco, also first made by Spanish settlers in the 16th century.

  • Low Andes Mountains... quinoas, beef, airampo (prickly purple pear), muña (often used to make tea in Peru, and with a wide array of medicinal properties) 1,800 metres 

Then came a chirimoya (custard apple) & maize drink. It tasted divine, and perfect for the food. By this time I had stopped asking questions… I just enjoyed. 

Sweet heights at Central

  • Amazonian Rainforest... cocona (an Amazonian fruit), pitahaya (another fruit), lemongrass, rose apple 650 metres 
  • Green Highlands… cushuro (a type of bacteria!), cacao, Chaco clay, maca (the superfood of the moment) 3,800 metres
  • Medicinals & Plant Dyescongona (I never found out what that was), matico (spiked pepper), malva (mallow), pilipili (a pepper) 3,050 metres
  • A dessert Riesling from Austria

The Mater Iniciativa

Feeding into the soul of Central is Virgilio’s Mater Initiative. The numerous projects – from research into the Moray Inca ruins to setting up a women’s alpaca wool dying cooperative – are led by chefsscientistsartistsanthropologistsenvironmentalistsnutritionists

As the Mater Initiative says: it’s about working together to “integrate”, to ”create an expandable network based on the deep understanding of food, nature, cultures, environment”. 

Need for integration

I then took a taxi back to where I was staying, in Miraflores, and retreated to my bed at 4.30 in the afternoon, not to resurface until eight the next morning. 

My body, and mind, needed to ‘integrate’, and to relish … an experience that I still relish seven years on.   

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