Pan & Empanadas

Halfway through our time in Llapallapani and after another long 10-12 hour day, I reach the top of our climb from the work site to the community center. I’ve adjusted somewhat to the altitude, but I’m still slightly winded after the walk. From an exercise perspective, they say it takes 3-6 weeks to fully acclimate from sea level to high altitude and my fitness-driven ego takes comfort in that knowledge.

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Ishmael’s oven is out back, to the left

Adam is speaking with a community member outside when I reach the community center and they keep looking at me. Am I breathing that hard, I fret. “Ishmael wants you to bake bread with him. The kind we have for breakfast,” Adam translates. I awkwardly look around to see if he could be speaking to anyone else and blurt, “Me? Why me?” Adam shrugs and confirms Ishmael is specifically asking for me.

The wood-fired outdoor ovens towering outside many—if not all—the village homes have not gone unnoticed and I was certainly not going to pass up this opportunity. “Let me clean up, then I’ll be right there.” However Adam chose to translate my response, it gets the point across.

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Forming the patties

Showered and dressed in clean clothes (translation: 2 body wipes + deodorant + my
other, non-work, set of clothes), I make my way next door to Ishmael’s. He greets me and escorts me to where Señora Ishmael is preparing the bread dough. They have already portioned off into balls of dough so our task is to form the patties. I’m too late to help form the empanadas (the same dough + cheese in the middle), but not to pat my share of upwards of 100 patties. Next step: prepping the oven.

Like the pre-prepped dough balls, Ishmael has already seen to gathering firewood—long, spindly dried branches and twigs piled high outside. He demonstrates by picking off a handful, breaking it so it fits into the oven, and then tossing it through the opening into the blaze. Aha! Breaking firewood is something I know how to do. When the branches don’t make it back far enough into the oven we use a long stick, charred at the end, to push it back. The stick is quenched in a bucket of water, its sizzle sparking memories of soldering in high school jewelry-making class.

Time is ephemeral here, with the height of the woodpile and heat of the oven the only indicators of its passage. Eventually Ishmael signals me to stop stoking the fire and gestures to a seat. He has fresh (wet) greenery tied to the end of a stick like a broom and uses it to sweep the hot embers and ashes outside the oven through a side window. He then takes what appears to be a dried version of the greenery hanging next to the oven and “seasons” the oven with it before replacing it with the fresh greenery for next time. Even the oven “broom” is used in its entirety in the process.

Señora Ishmael arrives with the patties arranged on several trays that Ishmael deposits into the oven using what looks like a pizza peel. And then we wait.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to flip the patties quickly. One-by-one he pulls out the trays and we use our fingers to flip the (scalding) patties before they return for final baking. And then we wait.

It’s peaceful, sitting by Ishmael watching the flames flicker, relishing the utter silence of the moment. Time is easier to let go out here. I can release the constant nagging that I have something to do because here I need nothing more than to be.

After the right amount of time, Ishmael motions to me and indicates it’s time to pull the freshly-baked pan out and into the big basket sitting ready. The next batch goes in. And then we wait.

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Fresh empanadas are heavenly (especially after days of stale pan)

But waiting this time is filled with fresh pan to savor. At home, I’ve always said nothing is better than bread fresh out of the oven. Here, it’s a world above that experience—and not just because we’re up around 3,048 meters (10,000 feet) in elevation. I’ve been around made-from-scratch bread making at home, treasuring the process (and results). But those are gas or electric ovens. Here, building and seasoning the flames is just as integral to the experience as caring for a yeast culture or hand-forming loaves. And you can taste it.

Note: More photos of the journey can be found here.

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