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My final destination in Chile was Valparaíso. This port city, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is perched on a series of hills and is famous for its higgledy piggledy streets navigable by funicular railways, elevators, or precipitous stepped paths. The city was a major stopping point for trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans before the opening of the Panama canal, and you can see the influence of Spanish and British commerce in the architecture. Some streets are filled with heavily decorated mid-Victorian stone buildings that wouldn’t look out of place in Glasgow or London, while the main square has a more Spanish colonial feel. But it isn’t the European downtown that forms the soul of the city but the hillside neighbourhoods with their colourful houses clinging on precariously. Valparaíso has long been an artistic centre in Chile and the town continues to hold a raffish appeal. Once quite run down, it has started urban renewal projects and even in the few years since my last visit, there are more cafes and boutique shops aimed at tourists. This kind of gentrification isn’t always a good thing, of course, but it does seem at least to have led to some of the historic neighbourhoods getting an injection of cash. And, if the left-wing grafitti I saw is anything to go by, the city hasn’t lost its radical flavour en route.

But what of the food? Well, there are quite a few touristy places around that I suspect might be a bit mediocre, but luckily my host knew of a place that has been around for ages, is reliable, and has a good view. Sold! So off we went to Cafe Turri on Cerro Concepción, which is one of a few cafes around the top of the funicular railway on this centrally located hill. The location is splendid, with a shaded terrace looking out over the bay.

The menu was a mixture of traditional Chilean dishes and more modern inventions. And by modern I mean stuck in the 1980s. There were raspberry sauces on pork, mahi mahi with pineapple and coconut, and balsamic reductions as far as the eye could see.  I steered clear of these distressing innovations and chose the specialty of the house, pastel de jaiba or crab pie.

Now, you can see here the ‘modern’ plating: the squiggles underneath the pastel are balsamic vinegar, which truly did not harmonise with the flavours of the dish. I had to pick the crab out of the crepe it was served in and try my best to avoid the sharp and sticky stuff underneath. But once you got past that issue the pastel itself was delicious, a rich and generous concoction of crab, cream, cheese and wine. (Did I mention this was lunch? God, I need to go on some kind of kale diet when I get home…) And in a piece of luck, the restaurant gave us a little magazine on the neighbourhood’s culinary culture that included a recipe for the pastel de jaiba, so I finally have a recipe to share from my trip. Hurrah!

Pastel de Jaiba / Valpo Crab Pie

  • 1/2 kilo crabmeat
  • 1 garlic clove
  • 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red pepper, finely chopped
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup cream
  • a handful of cilantro
  • 150 grams parmesan
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/4 tsp merken* or smoked chili powder to taste
  • 4-6 slices bread
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • glass of white wine

*merken is a Mapuche Indian spice, made from red ají chilies, cilantro and salt. A good replacement would be ground dried chipotle, or plain chili powder if you’re stuck. It’s not used in large quantities in Chilean cooking so it won’t make a huge difference.

In a bowl, soak the bread in the milk and put aside. Fry the onion and garlic in two tbsp oil. When the onion is transparent, add the red pepper and cook for three minutes. Then add crabmeat, oregano, cumin, merken and white wine and cook for at least five minutes, allowing the alcohol to evaporate. In a separate bowl, mix eggs, cream, and the soaked bread, then add to the crabmeat mixture and cook for another three minutes, stirring constantly.

Turn off the heat and stir in half the cheese and cilantro leaves. Taste for salt and pepper. Finally, put the pastel into individual ramekins (or one big one), add the rest of the cheese and grill to brown the top.

The recipe doesn’t specify how many this amount of ingredients serves, but experience suggests this rich dish would work really well in small portions as an appetiser.

Cafe Turri, Templeman #147, Cerro Concepción, Valparaíso, Chile

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Santiago central market was, as they say in the UK, a game of two halves. We had planned to check out the market in the early afternoon so that we could wander the fresh fish and vegetable sections for a while and then eat lunch among the stalls. I had visions of little food vendors perched among the stalls, perhaps one specialising in empanadas, another in fish dishes, and so on. Anthony Bourdain had visited this market and he seemed to like it, so I was pretty optimistic about the kind of unpretentious food I’d find there. This fantasy was sadly not sustained by the reality.

The restaurant section of the market immediately felt like the worst kind of tourist trap, in which dozens of red-uniformed restaurant operatives descended on us and started in on a hard sell in both Spanish and English. We resisted for a while but eventually decided we may as well pick a place for lunch. As we foolishly hesitated among identical looking options, one operative told us we should come to his restaurant because Obama just ate there on his recent visit to Chile. Naked appeal to tourists he took to be North American? Definitely. True? Maybe, maybe not. But we laughed and figured it was as good a line as we were going to get at that point. The experience was what you might predict in these circumstances: decent, fresh seafood, hideously overpriced, with service so attentive as to feel unpleasantly like surveillance. I ordered large shrimp fried in garlic and got all of three shrimp for my £10. Three! Lucky I wasn’t too hungry. The waiter seemed annoyed that we didn’t order more but the whole thing was uncomfortable enough that we didn’t really care.

So, eating at the Santiago market is not recommended but the market itself was a whole other story. As the smiling woman in the picture above suggests, meandering among the fish stalls was a joy. Everything is laid out beautifully and you can get sucked into watching the workers expertly gut and fillet fish with amazing speed. Everyone who works in the market section is friendly; eager to sell you some fish, to be sure, but just as happy to chat about the produce or, like this guy, to pose for a few photos.

It’s also rather nice to see all the foods we’ve been eating for the last week or so in their raw form.

The stallholder in charge of these scallops tapped them repeatedly to show us they were alive and healthy. Not alive but still pretty fresh were the congrios of various colours along with lots of other fishes I didn’t recognise.

And finally comes the freakiest of seafoods: picorocos or giant edible barnacles. These creatures exert a queasy fascination, what with their giant claws (or are they – shudder – teeth?) peering out of their rocky shells and, worse, some kind of yellow tongue that emerges from between the pincers if they smell your proximity. They look a lot like the Alien, especially when the pincers open up and the tongue thing comes out. As you watch, they wave about, sniffing the air for prey.

They’re completely abject and I could have stared at them for hours. Apparently they are cooked in the shell/rock and you eat them by grabbing the claws/teeth and using them to pull the whole thing out. All I have to say is that I’m willing to bet you any money that Obama didn’t eat those when he was here.

I’m starting to feel a bit guilty that I’m not posting any recipes. New readers might imagine I spend my life swanning about the world eating in restaurants. I promise I’ll get back to cooking when I go home next week, but for now, it is all about the eating. And, at the risk of repetition, I have to say the eating is fabulous.

On our last night in Chiloé we wanted to have curanto, the regional specialty. Curanto properly made is a bit like a New England clam bake: shellfish, meat, potatoes and vegetables buried underground, lined in leaves, and cooked under hot stones. All over the island you see signs for “Curanto in hoyo”. We had seen signs for curanto in the restaurants behind the fish market and this seemed like an excellent bet for the evening. However, when we went back at night the whole area was deserted and frankly a bit sketchy looking, and the restaurants were all closed. Clearly, they catered to the market workers and closed after lunch.

Feeling a bit despondent, we made our way to the place the man in the hotel had suggested. We weren’t too optimistic, as he had steered us to the mediocre place the night before, plus he seemed to imagine hotel guests must want to eat at the swankiest places in town which wasn’t really the case for us. But as soon as we saw the exterior of Mary’s restaurant, we had an inkling that this might be a much different experience.

Doesn’t this just look like a place that will serve exciting food? When we went in, we were offered the front room (in the picture) or the cosier back room. We picked the back, only to realise that all the customers in back were men. Up front were couples having a nice night out, while in back were tables entirely of men. Hmm. Oh well, we were obviously gringos so we decided to tough it out as the men gave us Paddington Bear Hard Stares.

Sadly, they could only do curanto with a full day’s notice but they did offer us pulmay, which is curanto cooked in a pot. What arrived was the obscene looking dish above: a sizable wooden trough filled with giant mussels, regular mussels, clams, a longaniza sausage, and potatoes. On the side came a bowl of spectacular dipping gravy, a rich broth of fish bones and crustacean shells and given a welcome kick with red ají chilies and cilantro. It looks quite plain but it was one of the tastiest dishes I’ve had in Chile. Some of the lemurs pronounced it even better than the seafood-palooza from Puerto Varas. That’s fighting talk, but it gives an idea of the richness of the broth. It also came with home-made ají sauce, which was smoky and so delicious we asked Mary for the recipe. She insisted it was just ají, cilantro and vinegar, so the chilies must be really good in Chiloé. Mama Lemur had a sopa de mariscos that was equally wonderful, made from congrio, mussels and clams and with a less spicy but no less deeply flavoured broth.

And, lest it be suggested that all I did in Chiloé was eat, here’s a nice picture of a beach we went to on one of our drives around the island.

 

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.

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..

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