For several weeks, in Peru the face does not wrinkle when sucking lemon but when seeing how its price has risen until it has become unattainable. An acid truth that can be verified with a question that is not stopped asking daily: how much does a kilo of lemon cost in Lima and provinces? A question that has as many searches as the exchange rate. Perhaps it is the new indicator of how the country is doing.
Can you prepare ceviche without lemon? It is the existential doubt of a land that inflates its chest for its food and that is alarmed because its flagship dish, Cultural Heritage of the Nation since 2004, is threatened. In its purest expression, a ceviche has five ingredients: raw fish, salt, chili, onion and lemon. Magic, in its most modern version, is the product of an instant maceration between all these inputs in a quick journey from bowl to table. Without the acidity level of Peruvian lemon, experts say, it's not possible to find the exact spot of ceviche. A balance between freshness, itching and citrus notes.
According to the National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (INEI), the price of lemon increased by 121.7% between June and August. However, the figures shoot up even more if you take into account that in the first quarter of the year the kilo of lemon cost three soles (0.8 cents) and at the beginning of September it was reported that in Chiclayo, the capital of the coastal region of Lambayeque, it had risen to 60 soles (16.2 dollars) per kilo. In Lima, the fruit has reached 20 soles (5.4 dollars) per kilo in supermarkets and food markets, but, although in recent days it has fallen to an average of 9.50 soles (2.5 dollars), the outlook is uncertain.
A precision is necessary: the Peruvian lemon is not Peruvian. It was brought from Southeast Asia, during the Spanish conquest, settling on the northern coast of Peru, mainly in the region of Piura. It was originally called limón ceutí – in allusion to Ceuta, a city in North Africa that belongs to Spain and that cultivated a variety of this lemon – but popular speech renamed it as subtle lemon. And as they say: its subtle flavor has very little. Its acidity is rather intense and unique, if not irreplaceable. Essential contributions not only for ceviche, but also to make pisco sour, the emblematic cocktail of Peru, and chicha morada, a typical export drink.
A peruvian ceviche called "Ceviche Nikei" in a coffee shop. J Pat Carter (AP)
Recognized as the best culinary destination in South America in the last edition of the World Travel Awards, in Peru food is a matter of State and, as such, its highest authorities were obliged to render accounts to the people. A couple of weeks ago, the Minister of Economy, Alex Contreras Miranda, suggested to the population that they replace ceviche with chicken saltado and cevicherías that they propose offers with other dishes such as rice with seafood or squid crackling. In the face of criticism, Contreras had to rectify: "I take this opportunity to recognize that I was not clear and assertive enough. I did not intend to interfere in the economic decisions of families. I recognize that a mistake has been made." The truth is that his first statements have been evident in the most recent Datum poll: his disapproval rose from 59% to 64%.
In spite of everything, Contreras was ratified by the President of the Republic, Dina Boluarte. Who did not suffer the same fate was Nelly Paredes del Castillo, who held the portfolio of Agrarian Development and Irrigation until last week. Paredes downplayed the crisis, implying that lemon has a minimal presence in the family basket. "It only occupies 2% of everything we Peruvians consume, so let's use substitutes. To the salads let's add a little more salt, vinegar and also cider. There is also Tahiti lemon in the market. It's sweeter, but I think it's time for all Peruvians to put their shoulders," he said. The consequences were bitter: on September 6, Jennifer Contreras Álvarez was appointed in his place.
According to the Association of Agricultural Producers of Peru, the reason for the rise in the price of subtle lemon is due to onslaughts of nature: the coastal El Niño phenomenon and the Yaku cyclone. The soils soaked by the rains seriously affected the lemon trees, the lemon plants. They were either filled with fungi and mites or bore very small fruit. The most affected region has been Piura, which concentrates 60% of citrus production (16,904 hectares cultivated). To this is added a fertilizer crisis dating from the Government of Pedro Castillo. "Many farmers reduced fertilization, leaving the plantations weak at any critical stage like this," says Rubén Carrasco, president of the Crop Protection Guild (Protec) of the Lima Chamber of Commerce.
Although August, September and October are the months in which the lemon harvest usually decreases, the complexity of the matter is that the harvest of the so-called green gold occurs four years after the planting period, so increasing the cultivation areas will not reverse the situation in a short time. In the case of being carried out, it will be more of a long-term measure. Is the Peruvian willing to accept that his ceviche will have another flavor and maybe another fragrance and texture? That is the detail. Javier Vargas, president of the Association of Marine and Related Restaurants of Peru (Armap), promotes that fewer lemons be used per dish so that the taste continues to be familiar and so costs do not rise and diners end up moving away from cevicherías. "Two lemons instead of four per plate are preferable to raising the price," he says.
More convenient options such as the Tahiti lemon that grows in the jungle are being offered in the markets. It is larger and greener than the subtle, but also less acidic and less juicy. Another alternative is lemon straw, yellow, which tends to be sweeter. As well as the lemon pavita, dark and wrinkled peel, whose main defect is its short duration: it should be consumed in less than a week. There is also the Colombian lemon, whose name is due to its origin, and which is as large as bitter. The latter is being smuggled into the country. Police recently seized eleven tons of Colombian lemon, valued at 160,000 soles ($43,243), in the Tumbes region on the border with Ecuador.
Another dangerous aspect is that organic chemical compounds such as acetic acid and citric acid are used as substitutes. To avoid poisoning due to adulterated ceviches, the National Institute of Health (INS) has highlighted the risks involved in the consumption of citric acid: it wears away the enamel of the teeth and, in addition, could irritate the digestive system causing gastritis.
What caused acidity in the citizenship was that on August 21, when the lemon was already through the roof, the presidential office acquired three tons of lemon for the next 12 months. And one of extra category, that is, of the best quality. While Palacio has made mutis about this journalistic unveiling, this Friday Julio Velarde, president of the Central Reserve Bank (BCR), has tried to calm people with a projection: in December the lemon will average 6.58 soles (1.7 dollars) per kilo. "We can be wrong," he said in his defense. Food is at stake.
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