The Purple Potato Family of Huatata

When I arrive to Huatata, Peru, a village at 12,300 feet in the high Andean hills near Chinchero, in between Cusco and the Sacred Valley, I stop and asked the first person I encounter where the Choqque family lived.
“Choqque?” he asks. “Over there,” he points at an adobe house on the side of the highway painted with a political add for an upcoming election. I start to say thank you and he cut me off. “And over there. And over there,” he laughs. “Do you see that house over there?”

“Choqque?” I ask.

“Si, señor.”

After some back and forth about the proliferation of Choqque DNA in Huatata, I tell him I am looking specifically for the brothers Manuel and Élmer Choqque. He points down a dirt road and says they lived a few houses down on the left. In Huatata, almost everyone is a Choqque and almost everyone grows potatoes.

I find Manuel in the yard hovering over a table full of tubers. He’s holding a yellow flower close to his face, closing one eye and staring at the petals with the other. Potatoes have both male and female plants and are self-pollinating; however, he doesn’t want them to do the deed themselves. He’s creating hybrids through a completely artisan, almost jerry-rigged method of pollinating potatoes by hand. As Élmer joins us, he removes the pollen from one flower ever so gently with his fingertips and places them on a folded piece of paper. Then he taps it off the paper with a pencil, sprinkling it on to another flower. It’s such a delicate process that a gust of wind could destroy it.

While potatoes can be planted and can reproduce an exact genetic replica of their mother plant, they also produce small, green, highly toxic, berry-like fruit filled with hundreds of seeds, which are not clones. Each one is unique. The Choqques grow these seeds and find the ones that produce potatoes with the highest pigmentation, and then cross breed those. Sometimes they’re inbred too. Mothers with sons or grandchildren. Uncles with cousins. They have been doing this for ten years now and their work is starting to pay off.

He tells me that of the 3000 or so varieties of potatoes that exist in Peru, give or take a few thousand depending on who you ask, only about 50 or so have pigmentation. The rest are a dull white or yellow. Many are empty carbohydrates, but they don’t always have to be. The Choqques are trying to create potatoes, as well as ocas and mashuas, to be one hundred percent pigmented. Not just because they look pretty, but because they’re highly nutritious.

“It’s a lie that potatoes are poor in nutrients,” Manuel says as he sets the flower down and looks me directly in the eyes. “It’s a lie.”

The Andes have long been a laboratory of agricultural innovation, though the Spanish did whatever they could to swap Inca ideas and crops with their own. Many of the 70 or so different crops that the Incas cultivated were developed by cultures long before them, though their genius was being able to bring them to their highest states of development.

About 20 miles away at Moray, several circular depressions, the deepest almost 100 feet, are wrapped with agricultural terraces. Each one has its own micro-climate. From top to bottom the temperature can fluctuate drastically. No one knows for sure, but it’s believed that the Incas tested different crops within each micro-climate, finding the ones with the most yields at each level, and seeing how they could fare in the wild and often unreliable climatic conditions of the Andes, and then sending them throughout the length of the mountain chain.

They built terraces over steep mountainsides, which helped keep tubers warm and conserve water as they created more cultivable land, as well as raised fields surrounded by canals that could resist floods and droughts. They developed potatoes that could grow above 13,000 feet and survive frost, like the ajanhuiri or the rucki, and others, like the probably extinct Solanum hygrothermicum, that could grow in the high jungle. They could freeze dry potatoes and store them for years, ensuring a steady food supply even when unforgiving weather wiped out harvests. They produced more food than was needed for the 12 to 15 million people of the empire, all without a monetary system or plow animals.

Brothers Manuel and Élmer are part of that spirit of innovation. Fourth generation potato farmers, they grew up in the fields. Potatoes were their destiny. While Élmer is a field technician, Manuel studied agricultural engineering at the Universidad San Antonio Abad in Cusco. He took his studies there seriously. Much of what he learned confirmed what he already knew about farming from the traditions he grew up with, but he wanted something bigger. He wanted to create varieties of potatoes like the Inca did, but his objectives were different.

Manuel and Élmer cultivate more than 350 of potatoes, 30 varieties of mashuas, and 32 varieties of ocas on their five hectares of land, three of which are a commercial crop and two for the more specialized native tubers they have been experimenting with for the past ten years. They use direct pollination to produce potatoes with intense pigmentation. They want colors, bright ones. They want electric blues, neon purples, fiery reds, and even deepest, darkest blacks.

One by one Manuel cuts them open. First there’s the orange fleshed camotillo, rich in beta carotene. He cuts open five generations side by side and the difference is clear. Each has five times as much pigmentation as the generation before it. The first is a little bit orange, while the fifth is as bright as a carrot. The same goes for the blue leona, the purple qeqorani, and many others. The first ones are just speckled with faint colors, but the lasts have rich, beautiful hues.

There are also mashuas, like the black mashua, that the Incas gave to their armies because they thought it made them impotent, and ocas, that are sometimes blood red or banana yellow. Some tubers are sweeter, while some are more bitter. They try to breed for flavor too, though it doesn’t always match the intensity of the color. They also have anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-tumor, and anti-cancer properties too. They have had them tested in labs. The more pigmentation, the more beneficial they are for the body, and in a part of the world where diets are changing for the worse, that is important.

“Huatata has a special microclimate,” Manuel tells me as we walk to their field, about a couple of kilometers from where they live. “We have found an ecological niche.”

Their field sits across a road from a commercial one. The plants in that one had strong green stems and bright yellow flowers. They look like perfect specimens, but the farmers use all sorts of chemicals and pesticides, as has been done in the region for as long as Élmer can remember.

On the other side of the road at Élmer and Manuel’s plot the plants appear to be in different states of disarray. It’s not as pretty. They looks like a herd of alpacas trampled through. Yet, Élmer scoops his hands in the soil and it is alive. It’s rich and black and full of tiny organisms. Bees buzz in my ear and small frogs jump as I walk through the rows. A bird of prey hovers in the strong winds watching for critters they can pick off. This is the natural balance of a potato field. This is how farming was always done before chemicals arrived to the Andes. Instead of pesticides and fertilizers, they plant mashua to repel insects and tarwi to put nitrogen in the soil.

They pick a few tubers out of the dirt. They can tell just by looking at the stems and leaves what the interiors will look like. They still have a few weeks before they’ll be harvest, but they pick out a few and open them up. Varieties are all mixed, so each row reveals a rainbow of colors.

There are worms in a few of them, which is perfectly natural, but people can’t always understand that. Their mother, Victoria Bravo, still goes to the Feria de Huancaro every Saturday in Cusco to sell their oca and potatoes, but anything with a worm goes unsold.

“They see a worm in a potato in the Cusco market and they don’t want it,” Manuel tells me. “They think it’s contaminated. They don’t understand that the others are more contaminated.”

As we head back to the Choqque compound, we see smoke rising up from a field. It’s around lunchtime and it’s the start of the potato harvest, so someone has made a huatía.

“They’re Choqques,” says Élmer.

There are 9 brothers and sisters all together, plus nieces and nephews. The roughly thirty of them all help each other. We walk over to the huatía. One of their cousins is tending to it. She made the huatía, a dome like oven, out of the mud and clay pulled right the earth where the potatoes were planted. She looks to be in her thirties but has been building these everyday of a harvest since she was about nine. She keeps adding kindling, mostly stems from the same field, into the fire burning within the oven. When it’s about to collapse she’ll add in some potatoes and then bury them in the smoldering earth.

A hundred feet away everyone else sits in the field beside the pile of potatoes they just harvested. Surrounded by the apus – the snow-capped peaks of Verónica, Chicón, and Pitusiray, they chat in Quechua and drink chicha de jora from a plastic cup that gets passed around, pouring a little bit out for Pachamama before each sip. We each take a gulp and pass it on.

Back at the Choqque compound we sit down at a picnic table for lunch. Veronica brings out a bowl of roasted tubers of every color with a side of uchucuta, chile sauce made by grinding herbs and ají peppers in a mortar. They encourage me to taste them all, plus the chocolo con queso they bring out later. As we eat out comes something more unexpected.

One day when Manuel was thinking about how much natural sugar was in oca, especially after they soak up the sun’s rays for a month. He questioned why he couldn’t make a wine from it? He followed a process similar to making chicha, boiling with just yeast and water, and letting the liquid ferment for a couple of months.

Manuel cracks open three bottles of a distillate, each made from a different variety of oca or mashua, and a few wine glasses. The two made from oca are light and dark, with the darker being a fruitier and the lighter sweeter. The mashua distillate is almost pink, sweet, and has more floral notes to it. They have the texture more of a wine than a distillate and are all wonderfully strange. When he started to have something that resembled a legitimate product, which he now calls MISKIOCA, some local newspapers got wind of it and started calling it vino de oca. Oca wine. He showed the research crew of Mater Iniciativa that’s based at Mil, Virgilio Martinez’s restaurant near Moray, where he and Élmer have been helping produce their experimental crop of tubers. Everyone there was impressed with what Manuel had done. They gave him some advice and notes. Someone even offered to be a partner in the endeavor with him. They could help with the marketing of the distillate, further testing, and with other issues that might arise with launching a product, but he refused.

“I think I can do it myself,” he told them.

It’s now part of the drink pairings.