I ate a guinea pig on the shores of Lake Titicaca. In fact, by the time it had been clumsily split from top to tail with a cleaver, I scored slightly less then half a guinea pig, a chunk of rib-cage plus half the head, consisting of one eye socket, a crispy bit of broken jaw, a few small protruding teeth and a fang.
I didn’t know that guinea pigs had fangs until I was faced with my dish’s impressive denture, at a centimetre long, his was almost a tusk. and I was grateful to be tangling with the cooked version.
The Andean people are not great panderers to the squeamish. He was served not only with his little head still on but also with his little arms sticking out as if begging, post-crisping, to be turned back into a household pet in a cage with a piece of rubber piping to play with and a scrunched up newspaper to hide in. And to be called Giggles or Porky.
Was it a good meal? Frankly, no. It was barely a meal at all. Everywhere that I had seen Peruvians tucking into a succulent cuy (it’s local name, probably after the cute noises it makes) the plate had been covered completely by a hunk of animal the size of a Staffie. Mine was smaller than a (half a) Chihuahua and perched on a bed of frozen mixed veg.
In fact, I wondered whether this scrawny critter was maybe a battery guinea pig, raised mercilessly on bins of grass in a long shed, somewhere high up on an Ande, just for me. Or perhaps they had palmed me off with a gerbil.
Of course guinea pigs are not pigs and they do not come from Guinea. They are rodents, native to the Andes, or they were until the natives of the Andes took to eating them with such gusto that there are now none in the wild. They used to live up there in herds (really) of boars, sows and pups. Confusing isn’t it? Now they live only in captivity. Plenty of them.
Almost 100 million guinea pigs are eaten in Peru every year. Indeed, it is so much a part of local culture that a picture in the Cathedral in nearby Cusco depicts Christ and the disciples dining on one at the Last Supper. This would have given them less than a mouthful each, if mine was anything to go by, unless He did one of his Feeding-The-Five-Thousand numbers, multiplying it like the loaves and fishes and I am not sure that He was in the mood for miracles that evening. Anyway the meat would not have been kosher and I thought the whole point was that they broke bread, not rodent.
The waiter told me that the best way to eat cuy was to pick it up and bite bits off it and then to suck on the bones until there’s nothing left. Not very appealing and hardly the picture we have of our Lord’s last meal, Christ and the Twelve picking up fangy porcine ratty carcasses and chewing the flesh, washed down with a bottle or two of Inca-Kola, the Peruvians, unspeakably-yellow kids, cool drink.
It was like eating a dassie or a peeled porcupine. Maybe it was the awful pan pipes in the background or perhaps it was the upside-down llamas on the curtains but I was feeling slightly queasy.
The braying laughter at the table probably didn’t help either. Most of them had ordered fish, the Tomatada de Trucha which had been translated as ‘Potion of Trouch in Tomatto Sauce with Oinion made into Steam with Garnison of your Election’ and, having been too chicken to order one themselves (yes, yes; it tasted a bit like chicken) everybody wanted to try mine.
So, this time at least, I was the luckless guinea pig in the experiment. Cuy cuy.