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Anyone who’s been to Chile will have noticed the dogs. There are dogs everywhere: city dogs, country dogs, pampered dogs, guard dogs and most of all stray dogs. Apparently people just dump puppies on the street all the time and it breaks your heart to see all the homeless dogs begging for scraps or digging in garbage. This guy above was hanging out in Puerto Varas and like all his brothers and sisters, he was really friendly. You might imagine a country full of roaming stray dogs would be alarming, especially if, like me, you’re more of a cat person and mildly afraid of big dogs. But the weird thing is that these dogs all seem either uninterested in humans or, if interested, entirely unthreatening. I suppose they’ve figured out that humans are a source of food, but more than this, I think, they’re part of a community of dogs. Whereas a stray at home might be scared, alone, liable to lash out, strays here seem to join into a wider canine social sphere that keeps them on an even keel.

We came upon this guy at the market in Castro, curled up like a kitty in his box.

But the dog that really stole our hearts was in the tiny Chilote village of Dalcahue, where we stopped off en route to the ferry to Isla Quinchao. Dalcahue is nothing to write home about, just a little fishing port with one of Chiloé’s famous wooden churches, but its setting is astonishing. As you drive down from the hills around it into its little bay, views open out across the archipelago and, in the distance, the Chilean mainland and the Andes. It’s really breathtaking.

So there we were in Dalcahue, basically stopping off for a soda and a pee before getting on the ferry, when a street dog decided to follow us. We figured he followed all the tourists and soon enough he stopped when we passed beyond his stretch of sidewalk. On the way back, we saw him again sitting outside the same shop, but he wasn’t following the other passers-by. Odd, we thought. Then we came by him and he got up and followed us again. Hello doggie, we said. He kept following, and started looking up at us adoringly in that doggie way. Well, we thought, we’ve got some spare milcao in the car, maybe we could feed it to him.

Wait, you’re thinking, what’s milcao? Well, since this is a food blog, I’ll make a quick digression to explain this wonderful thing. Milcao is a traditional Chilote bread that is eaten in the morning and made from – wait for it – potatoes, roasted pork, butter, and lard. Mmmmm. It’s a bit like a much thicker Scottish potato scone, maybe the size of a substantial arepa, dripping with pork fat and stuffed with more pork. We were obviously highly excited to try these milcao from the moment we read about them, and we found the ideal source in a little pink wooden stand on a street corner. The woman working there sold apple empanadas in the early morning and milcao from 11am until they sold out. There was already a crowd gathering at about 10:30. We knew this was going to be good.

It was good. Hot porky potatoey goodness. But we really didn’t need three of them. We shared one among the three of us and felt, shall we say, sustained. Maybe you could eat a whole one if you were going off to work in the fields all day, but as lazy-ass tourists, we had a lot left over.

So, back to our dog. We thought we might feed him the leftover milcao, but our car was several blocks away, almost on the other side of town. Surely he wouldn’t follow us all that way? But he did. I don’t know how he knew we were any different from all the other people he saw and ignored that morning, but he adopted us on sight. He even herded Mama Lemur when she fell behind. We walked half way across Dalcahue with this one at our heels as if he’d been our dog forever. When we got to the car I was seriously developing thoughts of bundling him into the back seat and taking him home, except I really didn’t think our hotel, or Iberia airlines would approve, never mind our cat back home. So we just gave him a milcao, which he wolfed down like he hadn’t seen food in days. Which perhaps he hadn’t, though I hope he does ok between the fish on the docks and the soft-hearted tourists.

We took this last picture from the car. Look at his eyes. Just look at them! Leaving this one behind may explain why I watched the crappy Richard Gere dog movie Hachi on the bus back to Santiago – in Spanish – and then cried inconsolably at the end. Chile: this country will make you like dogs.

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Yesterday we drove down from Puerto Varas to Chiloé, where we’re staying for a couple of days. Chiloé is Chile’s biggest island, with a unique culture based heavily on Mapuche Indian traditions. You can see the native influence in the names of villages: Llau-llao, Pil-pil, Chonchi and Dalcahue don’t sound Spanish at all. The vernacular architecture is fascinating, with houses covered in intricately patterned shingles and churches based on Hispanic and Italian renaissance structures but made entirely from wood. They’re really stunning and I’ll post more about the island when I’m reunited with my laptop back in Santiago. For now, though, a little taste of Castro, the Chilote capital.

Down by the waterfront in Castro is a fish market where you can see businessmen in suits slurping down oysters and ceviche in the morning. It’s next door to th artisanal crafts market, which is where the tourists more likely congregate in high season. The knitwear and basketry stalls were all but deserted when we arrived, and instead we were drawn by the siren song of freshly caught seafood.

Here’s the woman who makes the ceviche the businessmen are enjoying. (We didn’t try it as we’d just eaten but it looked pretty good.)

And here’s the morning’s catch of erizo, or sea urchin. I have several foodie friends for whom this shot will be food porn, so think about having a sit down before you scroll down…

I know, right? Pretty exciting. For dinner we went to a restaurant called Sacho, supposedly the best in Castro. I didn’t think it was particularly special, although the staff were super friendly, but one thing it did have was a wonderfully excessive use of the erizos. Mr Lemur ate congrió, or conger eel, smothered in erizo sauce. And when I say smothered, I really mean smothered, pork chop style. It isn’t much to look at but the sea urchin flavour was pretty intense.

(This is where I have to admit, in a spirit of full disclosure, that I am not the world’s hugest fan of sea urchin. But Mr Lemur is and I was pretty excited to see them so fresh and in such enormous quantities.)

 

I’m never going to eat again. Ok, that’s a lie, I’m probably going to do much the same thing today as I did yesterday, but it feels like I ate more seafood than is entirely reasonable. But let’s backtrack a little. Yesterday morning we arrived in Puerto Varas after a twelve-hour bus journey south from Santiago. It sounds arduous but was actually very civilized – comfy seats that recline into beds, blankets, pillows and attentive staff made it feel more like a train than a bus.

Puerto Varas is a sleepy town on lake Llanquihue, with what is often an astonishing view of Volcan Osorno. Often, but not yesterday, as heavy clouds obscured the volcano for the entire day. Boo! Still, the town is pretty with colorful Germanic wooden houses and a lovely black sand beach on the lakeside. We spent the day tooling around the lakeside and exploring the national park that Osorno is in, which includes spectacular waterfalls and lakes of bright turquoise water. Up close, the volcano emerges from the clouds along with misty wooded peaks fit for a German Romantic painting. It was all suitably dramatic and of course helped us work up an appetite for the region’s other main attraction…

 
For dinner, we went to La Olla, which had been recommended by several sources including the nice lady in the hotel and Chowhound. We knew immediately we were in good hands as the parking lot smelled overwhelmingly of fresh seafood and garlic. The interior was what I’d characterize as rural fancy: yellow tablecloths, dessert display and a laid back atmosphere. We ordered what we thought was a regular amount of food – appetizers to share and two hot seafood platters among three for entrees. The prices suggested that this was fairly normal with mains costing under 10 GBP or $15 each.

And thus began the seafood-palooza. First up, the appetizers. A Caribbean ceviche arrived in a large soup bowl full of shredded conger eel, salmon and shrimp with a light mix of aji, cilantro and lime. The eel was unimaginable delicious and the whole thing was fresh and tasty. It was also kind of a bucket of ceviche.

Next came octopus in garlic sauce, which was warm and full of buttery, garlicky goodness. Also generously proportioned.

And just because you can’t be in Chile and not have empanadas at every opportunity, we had fried shrimp and cheese empanadas. (Chileans do not abide by the Italian rule of not having cheese with seafood, in fact they combine the two whenever possible.)

So, after all that, we were kind of full but we had no idea of the onslaught to come. Finally came the picada caliente x2. Now picada doesn’t sound like a lot of food but just look at what came to our groaning table!

We had machas with parmesan, clams in their shells, whole crab claws, squid, shrimp, crab meat au gratin, crab meat in little mini shepherd’s pies, abalone, octopus, crab claw pieces in butter, mussels, and a big pile of some kind of clam I didn’t recognize but which was deeply savoury and good. The whole thing was monstrous, decadent, and very very good. We didn’t come close to finishing it, which was tragic really, but now we come prepared. Next time, no lunch, no appetizers, just us against the seafood.

Pirque is right in the middle of wine country and driving about the area looks a lot like California. Driving around the big houses outside Santiago, you could believe you were in Santa Barbara, while the route out to the vineyards is supposedly reminiscent of Napa. I’ve never been to Napa, but the climate and combination of desert, vineyards, and amazing vegetables certainly looks a lot like the parts of California I have visited. One difference is the mixture of social classes – whereas American neighbourhoods tend to be more stratified and segregated, around here splendid estates rub shoulders with much more proletarian houses and you’re never far from really impoverished neighbourhoods. Whatever the history of real estate development out here, the traveller gets a broad picture of Chilean society just by driving around the vineyard trail.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to stop off at any of the villages en route to try the empanadas or pastel de choclo advertised on signs that seemed to point into people’s houses, as we had an appointment to tour the Santa Rita vineyard at 4pm. On arrival, we were met by a jovial employee and, along with a handful of other tourists, handed over to our tour guide, Soledad. I have to say that Soledad, while quite charming, was not the world’s most informative guide. She tended to rattle through her information and then hare off to the next point of the tour at a speed that was impressive given her 4-inch wedges.

But the winery itself was fascinating even without a lot of facts and figures. Chile’s third biggest wine producer, Santa Rita is a combination of traditional processes and modern mechanisation sufficient to satisfy the how-things-work geek in any of us. Here are the barrels used for the reserva aged wines. They’re made from French and American oak, and only used three times before being sold. Lemur-in-law has several that she uses for her plants.

Apparently after the earthquake last year, lots of these barrels fell down and the floor was swimming in wine. However, the vineyards plan for seismic activity in the way they stack the barrels and bottles, so much less was lost than you might expect. These are bottles of the same high end wine, dusty with age, stacked in some special way to prevent them from breaking in an earthquake.

After seeing how the reserva wines are nurtured in traditional ways, we went back to the twenty-first century to see the all-mechanised bottling facility. There’s something really compelling about watching an assembly line, following the bottles from washing to filling with wine to corking and labelling. It makes me think of Chaplin in Modern Times.

After watching the bottling, the next step was back to the main building for a tasting. We chatted to two American executives who had carved out a day off in their busy week of acquiring a major Chilean company to spend some time touristing, and a Brazilian tourist who seemed to be getting on very well with Soledad, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Sadly, I have no photos of this stage, as I was too busy actually drinking the wine to document it. Sorry! However, we did stop off on the way out to take a walk in among the vines themselves, loaded with grapes for this season’s reds.

Tonight, we’re heading down south to Puerto Varas and Chiloe. Blogging may be sporadic, but stay tuned as I’m sure there will be much culinary adventuring…

Another lazy day in Pirque and I’m beginning to settle into the rural lifestyle. Lemur-in-law has a gorgeous garden and even though Pirque is technically a suburb of Santiago, it feels like a million miles from the city. The surrounding area is full of vineyards and walnut trees, and the garden itself grows almonds, quinces, apricots and more.

I’m enough of a city mouse to be impressed by seeing recognisable fruits and vegetables growing on trees. A friend of mine was horrified as a child by the idea of eating a tomato that had grown in the ground (dirty!) rather than coming from the supermarket, and though this is the sort of alienation from the land that we all try to combat these days, I think those of us with an urban background can still carry a trace of amazement that things actually grow on trees. So, I wandered around the garden excited to see apples and avocados ripening all around me.

Lemur-in-law makes apricot jam, membrillo, and apple jelly from the fruits in her garden, although sitting out on the verandah, it’s hard to imagine doing anything more strenuous than mixing another batch of pisco sours and picking up something from the village for lunch. That’s pretty much what we did today, with another Chilean favourite – humitas – for lunch.

Chilean humitas are an Andean staple somewhat similar to Mexican tamales – they’re made from corn masa mixed with onion, herbs and milk and steamed in corn husks. But while tamales are often stuffed with pork or other fillings, humitas are served plain, with toppings to bring the sweet corn flavour alive. Traditional toppings in Chile include sugar, salt, chopped ají or pebre. I understand the concept of the sugar, as South American corn is not so sweet as the North American or European type, but it still seems a bit perverse to me to sprinkle sugar on one’s lunch. I don’t have quite the sweet tooth that Chileans have. So, I ate my humitas with salt, ají, pebre and a tomato salad.

Then, it was off to the vineyard to sample another of Chile’s main attractions. But that’s another post…

I tend to spend plane journeys drugged to my eyeballs, trying to forget my abject terror, but the final stages of the flight into Santiago were spectacular enough to enthuse even me. As we crossed the Andes, previously torpid passengers started moving to spare windows to take photos and video of the insanely beautiful views. Since the plane was half empty (hurrah for a whole row to sleep in!) I roamed up and down the aisles, taking pictures from both sides, and from the front and back of the plane. There are stunning mountains as far as the eye can see on all sides and you really get a sense of crossing into a whole other part of the world. Almost as soon as the mountains start to recede, we’re descending into Santiago.

We were met by Mr Lemur’s parents and driven to their beautiful house out in Pirque, just outside Santiago. It’s really the perfect transition from the rigours of travel into holiday head space: fresh air, vineyards all around, and a huge garden full of quince, apple and avocado trees. By the time we had downed a couple of pisco sours on the verandah, we were all feeling as relaxed as Maya here.

So, onto lunch! Lemur-in-law, knowing all the Chilean things we would be craving, had prepared a lunch made of up several of our favourites. We started with ostiones gratinado, which is local scallops grilled in a light lemon, butter and cheese sauce. The recipe was a bit of an experiment, she insisted, but it all tasted delicious and the scallops were tender.

Next up was empanadas, which are one of the key Chilean specialties. Chileans are very proud of their baked empanadas, which have a fine pastry and are filled with spiced beef, onions, black olives and hard-boiled egg. (I pick the eggs out.) These ones are made by a woman in Lemur-in-law’s village, who began making empanadas for friends and family and whose delicious pastries proved so popular that the business soon burgeoned into a full-time occupation. Behold the empanada in its full glory:

The empanadas are served with pebre, the Chilean version of salsa. It’s mild but the local tomatoes and ají chilies make it incredibly vibrant tasting. We also had a salad of lettuce, palta (avocado) and cucumber – very simple but everything is super local and the avocados in Chile are a whole other beast.

As the last crumbs of empanada pastry disappeared, we considered whether to spend the rest of the afternoon eating tea and cake on the verandah, or having a little nap..

Photo by Rlohaus, used under CC attribution share-alike 2.5 licence

I’m off on my travels again tomorrow, this time to Chile. Happily this trip is a Lemur family vacation rather than business, so I should have plenty of time for eating and exploring. We’re spending few days in the south of the country, visiting the Osorno Volcano (pictured above), lake Llanquihue and the island of Chiloé before returning for a week in the Santiago area. We’ll hopefully get to Valparaíso and Viña del Mar and check out some vineyards as well as exploring the city itself.

I’m not entirely sure what the wifi situation is going to be as we travel, but I’ll do my best to update frequently on the places we go and the food we eat. I’m expecting something of a seafood orgy, with machas, congrio and seabass, plus the joys of humitas, empanadas, and ají. Anthony Bourdain had a pretty good time in Santiago, Valparaíso and Puerto Varas, and we’re planning on doing the same.

Assuming I don’t die a fiery death on the plane (I know, I’m a surprisingly poor traveller), I’ll be reporting from South America soon…

 

So I’m back home in Brighton and Spring seems to have arrived, at least for today. This weekend marks the beginning of a couple of weeks off work (hurrah!) and I also have Mama Lemur visiting. Between preparing for a houseguest and catching up with all the work I missed while in New Orleans, there hasn’t been all that much time for cooking this week. But as today is my mum’s birthday, we had the perfect excuse to go out to eat instead, and we went for a celebratory lunch at the Chilli Pickle.

Brightonian foodies probably know about the Chilli Pickle already, as the restaurant has already garnered a string of awards and it’s always busy. It opened last year in a small space in the Lanes, but has recently moved to substantially bigger premises opposite the public library. The owners seem a bit frazzled from the process of moving, but the space looks chic and modern, and despite the large number of tables the service remains efficient and friendly. The concept is regional Indian food, modern in presentation and style but drawing from fairly traditional dishes. The focus is on small plates based on street food, but there are also thalis, dosa and kebabs. It’s thus ideal for lunch, and the small plate to thali range offers both light and hearty meals. There are also several creative and tasty vegetarian dishes on the menu at any time.

Mama Lemur went the small plate route, including this Indian-style kedgeree of smoked haddock, rice and dal with a poached duck egg on top. Regular readers will know that I have an irrational phobia of eggs, so I didn’t taste it, but it looks delicious. Mama Lemur felt the haddock was less fishy than the Scottish version, but otherwise the dish was a hit.

Mr Lemur and I had thalis: he his standard order of keema muttar (minced lamb with peas) and I a new dish of Rajasthani laal maas, or mutton in a fiery red sauce. He always has the keema muttar; I don’t think he even looks at the menu any more, and I can see why. It’s reliably delicious with a rich flavour of lamb, a mild but well-spiced sauce and lots of peas. It came with a lightly sweet cabbage thoran, a bright pink beet raita, potatoes cooked with curry leaf and mustard seeds, a mixed lentil dal, and a chilli pickle, as well as breads and rice.

My thali centred on shoulder of Sussex mutton braised in a dark red chili-infused curry. Laal maas is a well-known Rajasthani dish that is made with either lamb or goat and that gets its red colour and fiery character from the number of red chilies that are used in the sauce. This version wasn’t incredibly hot (by my standards, YMMV) but had a lovely depth of flavour and a good chili kick. It came with a simple cucumber raitha that balanced the heat nicely, a fresh and sour lime pickle, plus the same thoran, potato and dals as the other thali.

If you’re down in Brighton for the day from London, or if you’re a local on the lookout for a good Indian lunch in the centre of town, I don’t think you can do better than The Chilli Pickle.

The Chilli Pickle, 17 Jubilee St, Brighton BN1 1GE

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JapanCinema and CinemaFanatic are hosting a Japanese cinema blogathon to raise money for tsunami relief. If you want to see all the participating blogs, click here.

I don’t usually write about cinema here but I have spent a goodly amount of time thinking about the intersections of food and film, thanks to the wonderful K. Once upon a time, K and I undertook a project called Cinemeat, in which we spent an entire semester exploring the global interstices of filmmaking and foodmaking, to say nothing of film and food consumption. Every week we watched a food-related film and cooked food it inspired. Sometimes K made films: on one memorable occasion she filmed as a local friend killed and plucked one of his chickens, then we watched her footage before roasting and eating the same chicken. I appreciated that bird more than any other I’ve eaten, and it helped us to think about how food and film can be sewn into our everyday lives. What do we document in film, what do we eat, and how do these choices preserve and reproduce cultures? One film we watched which asks precisely these questions comes to mind in these difficult days for Japan: Ogawa Shinsuke’s Manzan benigaki / Red Persimmons (2001).

Ogawa is one of Japan’s most important documentarians, with a committment to social justice aligned to a deep engagement with Japanese rural life and the practices and politics of farming. He began making Red Persimmons in the late 1980s but died before he could finish it, and it was completed by his disciple Peng Xiaolian. The film documents in minute detail the harvesting and drying of persimmons, as well as how that process has changed over the twentieth century. It’s an incredibly beautiful film, focusing on the colours and patterns of the persimmons as well as asking us to look closely at the details of everyday life in rural Japan. We might connect its careful attention to the weight of how things are done both to the slow food movement and to contemporary slow cinema. Both refuse fast and cheap culture, and Red Persimmons argues for the value of creating both food and images with care.

Persimmons are a traditional crop in Yamagata prefecture, and the process of picking, peeling, hanging, and drying the fruit has moved from an entirely artisanal system to a more and more modern one over the decades. A machine cobbled together from old bicycle parts allows for rapid peeling, while a special knife makes exactly the right cut in the fruit’s stem. Today, power equipment is used to process the persimmons more rapidly. The film doesn’t condemn this modernisation outright, but it does trace the fading of a traditional way of life. Backbreaking labour is not necessarily something to be protected, and farmers have good reason to welcome technological advances, but they also seek to protect the knowledge and attention to detail that traditional methods demand. The film connects a way of eating that is specifically Japanese – the love of dried persimmons and the culture of quality that looks for white “bloom” on the surface of a well-dried fruit – to the rural economy and culture that sustain it.

Red Persimmons comes to mind these days in part because it is set in the northeast of Japan, not far from the areas so devastated by the earthquake and tsunami. The village of Kaminoyama is in Yamagata prefecture, just across the mountains from the badly affected city of Sendai. People from the Fukushima power plant are being evacuated to Yamagata and radiation may affect the region. What then for the rural areas whose entire culture and livelihoods are built on traditional fruit farming? Ogawa’s film captured a culture already in the 1980s in danger of being lost to social change. I don’t know how the communities it depicts are faring today, but the film’s impetus to document something before it is lost may be all the more important in the wake of this disaster.

If you are connected to an institution, you can buy Red Persimmons here. You can also find it on Mubi here. And don’t forget to click the link at the top (or here) to donate to a range of charities who are working in Japan right now.

It’s the end of my New Orleans trip, but not before one final blow-out meal. For our last night, a small group of us snagged reservations for John Besh’s restaurant August. You might have seen Besh on Top Chef, where he’s been on TC Masters as well as guest judging on the most recent season of all-stars. Both chef and restaurant have won a slew of awards, so I was excited to end with an haute cuisine version of Louisiana food. The restaurant space is lovely: in a nineteenth-century downtown building, the main dining room has high ceilings, dark wood fittings, and gorgeous beaux-arts chandeliers. We were seated in a smaller room, which was equally elegant but with slightly challenging acoustics.

Given that this was our last hurrah in New Orleans, we opted for the six-course dégustation menu. I never usually have tasting menus in fancy restaurants but I was easily persuaded to push the boat out this time. However, none of us wanted to drink as much as the wine pairing would demand, so we asked the sommelier to help us find a white that would provide a reasonable background to all the dishes. She was wonderful, just what you want from a fine dining experience. She opened bottles and told us not to worry if we didn’t like them. In the end, we found a wine we all approved, although you can tell I’m not the group’s expert in this area, as I have no idea what it actually was. Let’s be honest, they could have opened a bottle of Bulgarian country white and I’d have been just as happy. Read the rest of this entry »

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