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Lima Evolving

Coliena Rentmeester Jewelry designer Ester Ventura, in her shop in the Chorrillos neighborhood

Photo: Coliena Rentmeester

Later, I visit Las Pallas. Mari Solari, the owner of this hard-to-find store, has for 40 years dedicated her life to the promotion of Peruvian folk art. She travels to the remotest parts of the country to add to her remarkable stock. Her personal collection in the republican-era house where she has her shop includes a huge array of traditional weavings, magic charms and amulets, and ceremonial drinking vessels. Mari is happy to show the various rooms where these objects reside, beautifully displayed and guarded by a rare Peruvian hairless dog whose pedigree goes back to before the time of the Incas. More often than not I go home with amulets, carved gourds, retablos from Ayacucho, and carved candles. I have given amulets to friends in New York, and some of them have worked wonders, producing boyfriends and odd kinds of favors.

A little farther on is the shop where Ester Ventura sells intriguing gold and silver jewelry that incorporates seeds, weavings, seashells, coral, and pre-Columbian fragments. Her tiny space inside a small red house seems a jewel in itself. Later, a friend introduces me to a young designer named Claudia Stern; she makes the most unusual necklaces, bracelets, and rings from velvet-covered wire twisted in strange shapes and dyed an amazing array of colors, which she sells at a nearby shop of her own.

The magnificent recently restored mansion of Don Pedro de Osma y Pardo is yet another place to see a rich variety of art and artifacts. Built around 1900, the house was once a stage for the grand lives of Peru's aristocrats. Don Pedro's family came here during the time of the Spanish viceroyalty in 1801 and, like so many others at the time, made a fortune in mining. Intellectually curious, Don Pedro assembled a collection of more than 5,000 objects, ranging from paintings from the Cuzco school to elaborate silver and furniture. One of my favorite pieces is an anonymous 17th-century Cuzco painting called Virgin Sewing; it depicts a child dressed as a nusta, an Incan princess, wearing earrings, bracelets, and a garland of roses. This small painting is an exquisite example of the blending of European and indigenous culture.

Don Pedro's home has been left very much the same as it was when he lived there. Endless corridors lead to large, somber rooms with stained-glass windows and inlaid floors. I envision the portly gentleman making his way from the drafty house and across the formal gardens to the dining pavilion and entertaining his guests with French wines and French cuisine. Only recently have affluent Peruvians decided that it is fashionable to serve Peruvian food. Indeed, in New York I long for the kind of food that can be prepared only in Peru. I cook it at home for my friends when I can find the right kind of peppers, very fresh fish, tender summer corn. My favorite dish is made from yellow potatoes puréed with lime juice, spicy peppers, and a touch of olive oil, layered like a cake with crabmeat, avocados, and mayonnaise—a sort of Peruvian version of shepherd's pie.

Peruvian gastronomy can trace its roots back 2,000 years. The Chimú and Paracas peoples were great gourmets. The importance of food to these cultures is evident in their pottery and weavings, which feature images of fruits and vegetables and the bounty of the Pacific Ocean. Peru's biodiversity makes for an impressive range of ingredients. When the conquistadores arrived in the 16th century, they brought their own cuisine, with its Moorish and Roman influences, as well as citrus, grapes, pork, almonds, and much more. Peru, in turn, introduced to the world potatoes, peppers, and tomatoes. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Peruvian cookery incorporated an influx of Japanese, French, Italian, and Chinese elements. Young chefs now train abroad and are taking their national cuisine to new heights. There are several restaurants in Lima that could easily hold their own among New York City's best.

One of these is Astrid y Gaston, in my opinion Lima's finest restaurant, set in an elegant house with polished wood floors and walls painted in a pleasing light palette. The tables are placed well apart, a welcome change from the confinement of New York's noisy dining rooms. Here, with my family, on the last night of my visit, I have a meal fit for the gods: sea urchins, taken from the Pacific the very same day, and chupe, a Peruvian chowder made with crab, yellow potatoes, and lima beans. My brother has a fish stew baked with herbs in a clay pot and accompanied by a purée of sweet potatoes. We also order duck, one of Peru's great delicacies, in a confit served over rice. As the grand resolution of our meal, we enjoy a cherimoya dessert that comes in three layers, each using the fruit in a different way.

When I arrive at the airport later that night, I find it bursting with people. Planes are going to unexpected places—a nonstop to Atlanta, three other flights to New York, Paris, Rio. I think of the first time I left Lima for New York, in 1960. The interamericano Panagra flight was the only one to the United States that day. Flying then was so exotic—when we landed I was given a certificate verifying that I had crossed the equator. Now, the world seems a smaller place, and Lima is closer than ever.

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