Cuenca’s position in the foothills makes it a city of layers. We climbed a long stairwell, past graffiti, and cafes, to the Plazoleta Cruz del Vado. The charming plaza is circled by museums, shops, multi-level houses, and craftsmen’s studios. A prominent statue depicts Ecuador’s version of a greasy pole contest and a large cross sits sheltered in a gazebo of sorts, providing protection to travelers. However, its real draw is a balcony offering panoramic views of the new city and the towering peaks of the Andes Mountains behind it. Our plans for staying in Cuenca were undetermined. We gazed out onto the red tile rooftops and allowed the city to make a case for itself.
Much like our old home, Pittsburgh, Cuenca has just over 300,000 residents, 3 rivers, and a surplus of bridges. Most of the similarities are what you would expect from any city of comparable size, and most of the differences are negligible. We can work on the language issue, and we’re pretty okay with being taller than most people. Our best stories happen when we’re off the map, and getting lost continues to be part of the fun. After a few months in Cuenca, we’ve created a list of some of the more notable differences between here and your average US city.
Due in large part to the cocktail renaissance of the last few years, shrubs have come screaming into the present from an era when the United States were but a gleam in the Founders’ eyes. Shrubs are an old method of preservation, and when done properly, you can enjoy the fruits of summer’s labors in the dead of winter. They’re used in cocktails in a similar fashion to syrups. The component parts are a subject, a sweetener and vinegar. We’ll break down how to do a basic shrub and what the rules are, so that you can break them when you make your own. There’s a bit of science involved behind the scenes, and the whole process is based in fermentation, but don’t let that shake you. Making a shrub is as easy as discovering penicillin, when you get down to it.
The biggest market in town is just down the street, and while it took some time, we’ve got a decent handle on which are our favorite stalls and who doesn’t rip off the gringos. We still stick out like sore thumbs because we’re 4 inches above the average height, but we’re getting better at being confident and nondescript. All the same, we do get rolled from time to time. A dollar for 3 pears? Fuck you, Abuelita, I don’t give a shit if yours are the best in the market.
Once you’ve mastered basic drinks, you’re ready to riff on them. Learning the rules allows you to break them. Since our options at the liquor store are scant, we’ll mostly be doing this with different infusions and different house-made syrups. We’ll take a trip to the market with the next few posts and play around in the kitchen.
Infusions are an ancient trick bartenders began using in earnest in the 1980s, and they’ve now become de riguer for cocktail programs and home cocktail enthusiasts alike. It’s an amazing and incredibly easy way to clean up some cheap alcohol (as some of the heavier oils and compounds will be absorbed by your infusion subject), or to simply elevate your favorite spirit or cocktail. I happen to love cane-based spirits, and Cristal is a solid product. It’s also well within our budget at 8 dollars a bottle.
The bar was empty except for two middle-aged white bros, wearing the ubiquitous indoor fucking ballcap, high-fiving to an election we were both trying to avoid paying attention to, at least for the evening. The world started to feel a little more dangerous, and we hopped a car back to my place in Polish Hill, and kicked on NPR’s election coverage. My roommate Sam, Y and I drank heavily, listening to the commentators become increasingly frantic before I turned it off and walked a skewed line into the kitchen for another drink.