Restaurants serving high-quality, organic ingredients in Quito are not always easy to come by. Casa Gangotena may be one of the few available options for fine dining with ingredients that are sourced from national and local producers, like Doctor Cecilia.
From Hacienda Santa Cecilia, there’s almost nothing of the region you can’t see. The whole of Quito, both Old Town and New, rolls out below, the Virgin of the Panecillo, Cumbaya, even the town of Nono etched out in miniature. Then there are the volcanoes, seven visible from the farm, including snow-capped Cotopaxi and Cayambe, plus Ruminahui, Chimborazo, Ilalo…
You get the impression that the view from up here is wasted on the residents, who are more interested in eating than in marvelling at their surroundings. Then again, they are a 370-strong herd of sheep.
It’s also possible that they are concentrating on keeping warm, as the chill from 3,800 metres above sea level (that’s 1,000 metres higher than Quito, one of the world’s highest capital cities) is something to behold. In fact, says the farm’s owner, Doctor Cecilia Alcocer, on winter nights the temperature here on the páramo can plummet to -13°C.
“The only shepherds who can handle it are from Riobamba – those guys know what it means to be cold. The rest have packed their bags after the first night!”
Doctor Cecilia is one of only two artisanal lamb producers in Ecuador, and provides Casa Gangotena with its top quality organic meat, around 50 to 60 kilograms each month. The relationship between hotel and producer began some four years ago, when her brother took some of her meat to a barbeque attended by Metropolitan Touring’s (Casa Gangotena’s parent company) Gastronomic Coordinator, Eduardo Chonota, who recognised that he was tasting something special. At that point she was selling some five animals a month. Now it’s around 30 a week.
After graduating in 2006 and receiving her degree as a doctor in Veterinary Medicine from the Universidad Central, Doctor Ceci soon knew that she wanted to specialise in sheep, spending time in Uruguay learning how to raise them. Upon returning to Ecuador she set about buying stock and a hacienda, gradually building up her farm year-by-year. She’s never lost sheep to wolves, mountain lions or pumas, but narrowly escaped catastrophe a few years ago when locals prevented thieves from stealing the herd.
Among livestock circles, Doctor Cecilia is known as La Mayor Oveja (The Elder Sheep).
“I love sheep. It’s an animal that has taught me patience and peace. They are so calm and they don’t demand anything. I get on really well with this animal,” she explains.
Her little plastic sheep earrings jiggle as she recounts how when she was pregnant a few years ago, she would skip doctors’ appointments to be with the sheep, straining to bend over with her rounded belly.
“That’s how passionate I am! Every day of the year I want to be here. I don’t take vacations,” she says.
Cecilia knows each of the herd of 370 by sight, and some of them even by name. Not easy when they all look like, well, sheep. But among this mass, she tells me, are four breeds, one of which is the Suffolk Sheep, the first breed she ever bought and the first breed she fell in love with. When I tell her that I’m from the British region of Suffolk, she cries out in delight: “Sending a person from Suffolk is like sending the Virgin Mary to me!”
But her commitment to sheep makes Doctor Cecilia something of a rare breed in Ecuador. Very little lamb is eaten in the country, aside from in a few stews and soups, and numbers of sheep have fallen to below 750,000, when 10 years ago they were closer to 5.3 million.
“I’ve been in this business for 11 years and have seen maybe 500 people take it up. About 1% have stayed in it. So it’s become a luxury product,” she says.
Yet for its rarity, it’s also a highly versatile meat. Cecilia does 22 cuts, all of which she has taught herself.
“You can use absolutely everything, even the feet and the head. The hide and the feet go to Ambato and the head goes to Guayaquil, where they make caldo de mondongo,” she says.
Cecilia thinks that if people knew how healthy lamb meat is, it might gain more popularity. It contains vitamin B, iron, zinc, selenium and vitamin B12: “Nutritionally speaking it’s one of the best meats.”
But of course it’s not just her love of sheep, or even the health benefits of lamb that keep Cecilia in the business. It’s also because her product tastes extremely good. And for Metropolitan Touring’s Gastronomic Director, Byron Rivera, Doctor Ceci is an obvious choice of producer.
“At Casa Gangotena, we define ourselves by working with national and local products. Doctor Cecilia’s lamb is 100 percent organic and always guarantees that we put top quality lamb on the table,” he says.
Looking around the hacienda, you can get an idea of why that may be. Here, the sheep are allowed to run free, wherever they want. There are no fences around the 400-hectare farm, and the only signs of life that can be seen aside from the herd and the occasional tractor are the shepherd, the achingly lovely little San Miguel chapel and a gaggle of 30 or 40 alpacas and llamas (they have better eyesight than sheep and can spot predators and warn the other animals).
The sheep have their routine and don’t need much herding. Between 7.30 and 8 in the morning, they leave their pen for lower lands, spreading out to graze. Between 3 and 4, unprompted, they walk back up the hill, single file, bleating as they go, just as the mist rolls in, blotting out the view and leaving you none-the-wiser as to your whereabouts.
As well as being what you might call “free range”, these sheep are all natural. Doctor Ceci doesn’t even use anti-parasites – the naturally-growing chicory sees to that. Her only expenses, in fact, are mineral salts and the shepherd.
“I don’t trust new technology; I don’t trust artificial things. I like to keep using the practices of the last century,” she explains.
With her emissions and environmental impact low (sheep don’t contribute nearly the greenhouse gases that cows do, and her weekly trip to the abattoir is only a few kilometres away), could she say that these are ecological sheep?
“Ecological and organic. If you took them to a laboratory you wouldn’t find any trace of antibiotics or chemicals,” she explains. “When I was a kid, you would raise a chicken for about six weeks. Now it’s two or three. It’s not right. It’s just hormones.”
Her other concern in the livestock field is that young people entering it lack experience of getting their hands dirty. She was shocked once when, on asking a young man in a fair in Ibarra to help her lift a 35-kilo sheep back into its enclosure that had jumped out, he refused, scared that it would “bite him.” An older man, in his seventies, was the one to oblige.
“I was a teacher at San Francisco University for six months and I couldn’t handle it anymore,” she says. “I wanted to teach my students how to do a necropsy (like an autopsy) and I was told it was too bloody for them! They can’t tell the difference between a goat and a sheep.”
Her enthusiasm for animals began at an early age, surrounded by animals at home. However, as the youngest of six, she was the only one to stay in the countryside, the rest choosing “city jobs” like doctors, psychologists and tech-entrepreneurs. And on top of the sheep, her home is filled with rescued animals, including four cats and a dog called Charlie.
But the one thing that comes before all is family, especially her daughter, now nearly three. Ceci is delighted her two passions have now started to mix, as her daughter is a fan of lamb meat – “she even chews on the bones!” – and says that one of the best moments of her life was when she accompanied her to the farm and used a crook to catch the sheep.
Doctor Ceci cares just as much about the quality of life of her stock as about the quality of the end product. It’s that what makes her truly special, and to Casa Gangotena, which values the lives and stories of its producers, it makes La Mayor Oveja worth her weight in gold.
By: Isobel Finbow