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Norwich man unites Colombian and Vermont foodways

  • Nando Jaramillo, of Norwich, Vt., grinds an Abenaki corn for making empanadas in Quechee, Vt. on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Abenaki flint corn grown at UVM is ready to be ground after it goes through nixtamalazation, a process where the corn is soaked and cooked in wood ash. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nando Jaramillo, of Norwich, Vt., makes empanadas in his food truck on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019 in Quechee, Vt. Jaramillo had an upcoming event where he would be selling his arepas and empanadas. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Nando Jaramillo's empanadas, filled with potato, tomato, onion and spices. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2019 9:58:47 PM
Modified: 10/23/2019 6:46:23 PM

The way Nando Jaramillo sees it, overcoming the world’s biggest environmental dilemmas requires creative problem solving, and creative problem solving starts with a well-nourished brain.

As he makes and sells traditional arepas and empanadas around the state from his Moon and Stars food truck, Jaramillo, 55, is trying to set in motion an ambitious plan to bring heirloom corn back to the region, link local food growers with urban consumers and educate people about sustainable food systems. But he’s also just trying to feed people well.

“I want to bring something wholesome and ethical back to the people,” said Jaramillo, who lives in Norwich with his two children, ages 8 and 10.

A native of Colombia, Jaramillo moved with his family to the United States when he was 10, then followed a love interest back to Colombia in his late teens. That’s when he began to appreciate the foods he’d grown up eating, including the iconic arepa: a grilled corn cake served with a variety of fillings.

“I really fell in love with traditional Colombian food,” he said.

Unfortunately, even in Colombia, the kind of food Jaramillo watched his grandmother make as a child was becoming harder to come by. For the past 30 years, Colombia has been growing less native corn and importing more cheap, genetically modified corn from the United States.

The hunger for traditional, nourishing foods stayed with Jaramillo over the years, even as his career making props and sets for the film industry kept him occupied with other concerns. He had an awakening of sorts after attending Burning Man about 15 years ago, and spent the next 10 years traveling the country by bus, working odd jobs and trying to educate people about environmental issues using the arts, through his nonprofit organization, Art of Cultural Evolution.

He landed here about three years ago, after bringing his then wife to Hartford, Conn., for grad school. “I just saw Vermont and fell in love with it,” Jaramillo said.

With its agricultural landscape and strong local foods movement, Vermont seemed like the right place for Jaramillo to pursue his dream of making traditional Colombian foods with locally grown ingredients.

It’s a dream that has many components.

For starters, Jaramillo wants to develop an heirloom, open-pollinated corn crop he can use to make his food and share with other farmers, perhaps as an alternative to feed corn for dairy cattle. He’s been experimenting growing a couple of varieties at High Fields Farm in Randolph, and recently made some arepas from his harvest.

“They came out really good,” he said.

Jaramillo has also connected with seed savers in Maine and consulted with a restaurateur with a similar mission in Burlington, as well as meeting with specialists in different disciplines at the University of Vermont.

The type of corn Jaramillo wants to cultivate seems similar to what a group of African immigrants in the Burlington area have begun developing — and not so different from what grew here hundreds of years ago, said Eric Bishop von Wettberg, an associate professor in the college of agricultural and life sciences at the University of Vermont.

“I see sort of a big circle here, where the corn of many people coming into Vermont, what they’re looking for is not that far away from what the Abenakis’ was like. There’s sort of a return to root,” said von Wettberg, who has been helping Jaramillo identify potential heirloom corn varieties to grow here.

In addition to providing the kind of flavor and texture associated with authentic South American cuisine, open-pollinated, heirloom corn may be easier on the soil than hybrid varieties, although it’s too soon to say so definitively, von Wettberg said.

“There is likely a nutritional difference too, but we can only speculate at this point,” he said.

Growing such a corn comes with challenges, too. The climate here is inhospitable to many varieties, and open-pollinated crops have lower yields than those of hybrids, von Wettberg said.

While he works on developing a crop for his arepas, Jaramillo is already stoking an appetite for his food and his mission at events around the state. Throughout the summer and fall, he traveled to festivals and farmers’ markets with his food truck, selling several types of arepas and empanadas for $6 to $8 apiece. He’ll be selling at Abracadabra Coffee’s Saturday brunches in Woodstock in the coming weeks. 

Making the tortillas for arepas is a tedious but rewarding process that involves pounding or grinding the corn, then preparing the dough using a process called nixtamalization: cooking the corn in a wood ash or lime solution, soaking it overnight and rinsing it. Until he can grow enough heirloom corn for his products, Jaramillo is purchasing most of his arepas from All Souls Tortilleria in Burlington and making his own empanadas using organic, open-pollinated corn from a grower in New York.

Along with heirloom corn, he likes to use fresh local ingredients that celebrate Vermont, like salsa made from locally grown rhubarb and freshly picked greens for garnishes. “My idea is to create this fusion between the New England culture and the Colombian culture,” he said.

As he peddles his favorite childhood foods, Jaramillo and his business partner, Karen Ganey, are designing a business model rooted in the idea of food culture. He wants to work with area farmers and food producers to design events and programs that focus on sustainable food systems. He’s also researching the prospect of creating food hubs along the railroad corridor, equipped with commercial kitchens and resources such as marketing assistance.” The whole idea is to connect with communities in culturally dense areas,” he said.

Jaramillo has secured a $2,000 grant from the Byrne Foundation and built a social network of local farmers and like-minded people by attending as many environmentally themed events as he can find and spending a lot of time at the local co-op.

“When you tell your story, you connect with people in a real, personal way,” he said.

It’s a story without an ending, yet. “How do we create this whole agricultural system that brings back quality of life?” Jaramillo said. “How do we get there?”

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.

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