The sweeter side of Quito: Street Treats (Ponches & Helados)

14/Septiembre/2012 | 14:46

By Lance Brashear

[email protected]

It is said that nothing lasts forever.   But cities like Quito try very hard to preserve much of their heritage in hopes that some things will not disappear.

Many years ago Quito was designated a UNESCO cultural, heritage site because of its architectural treasures, namely the churches and convents in old town. But what makes Quito truly valuable is its intangible patrimony - the people and traditions that give life to the city and help to sustain its identity through the changing centuries.

Also called living heritage, intangible patrimony includes celebrations, oral histories, and even culinary traditions.  Two traditions in particular, which are in danger of disappearing, are also two of Quito’s sweetest.

Poncheros Magolitas

Manuel Mendoza is part of Quito´s living heritage.  He spends each day pushing a small cart around the historical center filled with “ponche margolita,” a foamy refreshment made of beer malt, egg whites, vanilla essence, and sugar.

His colleague, Rafael Pinta, pushes a similar cart, navigating the streets of Quito just south of old town. 

From a distance, Pinta and Mendoza appear to be identical.  As part of the Association of Poncheros Magolita, formally established in 1967 but operating since the 1930s, both dress in the same uniform: white shirt, dark pants, and a sailor-like cap – maintaining an impeccable image despite their demanding job.  

Poncheros start working before day break to prepare their day’s fresh batch of 15 liters.  They hit the streets around 10:00 a.m., peddling their ponche – a refreshment not found anywhere else in Quito - until it is sold out. 

The street ponche is unlike the ponche drink found in the traditional ice cream and coffee shops of Quito.  Squirted from a pressurized tank, ponche margolita – which leaves an interesting, early-morning, “beer-like” aftertaste in one’s mouth – is a meringue that clings, like shaving cream in the palm of one’s hand, to the plastic cup in which it is served.   It is topped off with a spoonful of blackberry sauce.

One recent morning as Pinta is stopped in front of the Santa Barbara Church, Margarita, a passerby, detours to buy a small cup for her son, Hazan. 

“When I was a kid they came by my school (in the Magdalena neighborhood) and I always bought one,” she explains, certifying that everything about them – the ponche and the ponchero - is the same now as it was during her school days.

Pinta says he began selling ponche only 12 years ago.  Mendoza, though, has been pushing his ponche cart for more than 50 years.  “I came as a youth to work.  I am from Riobamba,” says Mendoza.  

They say the Poncheros Magolitas once numbered more than 60, but over the years, illness, death, and retirement have reduced them to a mere two dozen.  And both men agree that there is little interest from the younger generations to continue this tradition. 

Because of their reduced numbers, finding a ponchero in Quito is sometimes a matter of luck. Each moves about their territories at their own volition, their crisp appearance and one-wheel cart always announcing their presence.

“We have always been peddlers,” says Pinta.

Heladeros Quito

Luiz Antonio Guayta is another street vendor, dressed in white and selling a special treat from a wooden cart in Quito’s historical district.  He has been working 40 years as part of the Heladeros Quito, an organized association of ice cream vendors. 

The heladeros are easier to locate than the poncheros, because they do not move about the city.  Each has an assigned place, so customers know where to find them when they have the taste for a small scoop of sweet, intangible heritage.

These traditional “helados” are made with dry ice, which also helps to keep them frozen throughout the day. “Everyone makes the same ice cream with the same dry ice,” explains Guayta.

Everyone also sells the same flavor: guanabana – a local fruit with a fleshy, pulp.  They have tried different flavors, but he insists, “The people prefer guanabana.”

Though Guayta starts selling at 8:00 a.m. each day in front of the Casa Gangotena Hotel at San Francisco Plaza, his day begins three hours earlier. 

“At 5:00 in the morning we prepare and then go down to get the dry ice,” says Guayta. “They give us ice at 6:00 a.m. here on Imbabura [Street]. I make the ice cream, come down here, and begin selling.”  He says he makes just enough to sell out each day - about 150 portions, sold in $.30 or $.50 cones. 

Like the poncheros, the traditional ice cream vendors are a dying breed.  “There are almost no young people,” Guayta says.  “The majority [of us] are older, many have died or their kids have made them stop working, they have gotten ill, and they retire…it is a sacrifice trying to make this ice cream each day.”

Guayta says there are now about 50 venders in Quito.  “We were 150 but some have died.”  Other estimates put then at more than 200 originally, saying less than 30 remain today.  

Across the San Francisco Plaza, on the opposite corner from Guayta, sits another vendor.  She identifies herself as “Charita”, though her real name is Rosario de Asto.  Her husband reportedly worked half a century selling ice cream before she took his place following his death. 

Charita requires a purchase before she agrees to talk. 

Like the other vendors, her prices are $.35 and $.50 for a small or large cone, but she doubles the price for “gringos.”  “This is a way to help the poor.  What is a dollar to you?” she snaps, scowling at the North American journalist who wishes to know her story.

But her sour demeanor quickly melts away as a local family approaches and she offers her product with a smile and announces her normal prices once again. 

Observing this sales technique, one wonders how many cones she sells each day in a place busy with tourists and locals, alike. 

Frowning she says, “Only God knows.  When it sells good, it sells…If God helps, we get enough to pay the light, the water…We come out each day so God allows us to live.”

Before more questions can be asked about a life spent selling ice cream, she snaps once again.  “That’s all. You get no more explanation because you only paid $1.”

Charita is proof that living heritage is not always sweet.


Ciudad Quito

Archivado en | Miami Herald  | Dining Out Quito 

Tags :

Actualizado por

lbrashear - en Diario HOY - Noticias de Ecuador.