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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.

 

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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.

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.)

 

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