From my terrace three stories above the narrow street, I see a man below on the corner. His green jacket and blue cart add a splash of color to the white-washed and cobblestone-grey cityscape.
Chop chip chop. Even up here, I can hear the ice cracking and splitting beneath his pick. The glacial block glistens in this morning sun.
On the sidewalk beside him are several other blocks of ice covered with towels, a yellow pail of rock salt and a large paila (bronze bowl).
Ah – he is making helado de paila! Several times I have indulged in this Andean version of ice cream, and I have seen it stirred into a creamy mass and spooned into a cone. But I have never seen the intricate preparation of the ice bed.
I go down to the corner to ask him about how helado de paila is made. But my first question falls on deaf ears. He is concentrated on his task. As the music nears, he anxiously looks to where the Virgin’s procession will be passing a few blocks below.
I watch him as he works, preparing a solid ice wall around the inside of the plastic tub. He then throws a handful or two of salt on the bed of chips ice, and nestles in the paila. In that bronze vessel, he throws a fistful of salt and with two split lemons, rubs until the metal gleams.
He takes the bowl back out. He glances down the street to see if the procession has yet arrived. With a wooden stick, he mixes another handful of rock salt into the crushed ice which, under this equatorial sun, is beginning to turn to slush. The entire bucket, then, goes in. He stirs and glances and stirs.
More people gather around to watch. One man holds his daughter’s small hand.
The bronze bowl again is placed in the frigid cradle. The señor adds several ladles of guayaba juice from a large bucket stored in the bottom of his cart. He spins the bowl fast. The juice begins to freeze. With a large wooden paddle, he stirs the mixture with one hand, turning the bowl with the other.
Within minutes, he spoons up the first cone, drizzles it with blackberry sauce and hands it to that man’s daughter. I trade my coin for a serving of that delicacy.
Hurriedly the ice cream maker pushes his cart downhill, to where the Virgin Mary procession is already passing.
Where did helado de paila originate? Was it one of the culinary traditions the Spaniards brought with them in the 16th century?
Helado de paila is a mid-Andes specialty. According to food historians María Martínez and Ismael Iglesias, its origin traces back to the Inca occupation of what is today named Ibarra. The indigenous of this area created the frosty dessert, using ice brought down from Imbabura Volcano. Today, helado de paila is found throughout Andean Ecuador and southern Colombia.
The base is fruit juice, mixed with sugar and perhaps milk or water. The juice is often soursop (guanábana), though it can be blackberry (mora), passionfruit (maracuyá), mango, strawberry (fresa, frutilla) or native fruits like feijoa or lulo. Non-fruit bases like coconut (coco), vanilla (vainilla), chocolate or soft caramel (dulce de leche, arequipe) may also be used.
In English, this frozen treat is called sorbet. If the ice cream contains dairy, it is sherbet.
When you’re travelling through this part of South America, order up a cone. It’ll cool down the strong, high-altitude sun and make your taste buds tingle.
In 2010, I went to Cumbal, just outside of Ipiales in southern Colombia. I had heard it had a traditional indigenous market on Sundays and thought it would be interesting to include in the guidebook I was writing.
Outside the tent-covered mercado, doña Yolanda was spooning up servings of helado de paila. The ice, she told me, came from Cumbal, one of the two volcanoes that shadow the village.
This small town is the perfect base for summiting those two volcanoes, Cumbal and Chiles, on the Colombia-Ecuador border. How to get there? Catch a ride with a townsperson going up to bring down the ice.
About a month ago, I met up with a friend from Pasto. He is an expert on emergency preparedness in the case of volcanic eruptions. Our conversation wended from Chiles’ recent increased activity to Cumbal’s delightful helado de paila.
He told me the ice no longer comes from those heights. There is no longer any glacier pack on the volcanoes.
Global warming is the reason, he testified.
text and photos © Lorraine Caputo