“Peasant cooking is the basis of the entire culinary art. By this I mean it is composed of honest elements that la grande cuisine only embellishes.” – Alexandre Dumaine.
Chile is a
long, thin sliver of land squeezed in between the mighty Andes mountain range to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. It is both seriously long (more than 4 300 km – roughly the same distance as from Lisbon to Moscow) and seriously narrow (on
average 180 km – the same distance as the Autostrada from Rome to Naples). Its northernmost city, Arica, is a mere 18 degrees south of the equator, while Punta Arenas is at a whopping 52 degrees south. This makes for incredible variety of scenery; the
Atacama Desert in the north is reputed to be the driest on earth, while much of the south is covered in temperate rain forest. In between is the Central Valley, with scenery and climate reminiscent of Southern France. Throw in hundreds of crystal-clear lakes
feeding mighty rivers and dozens of active volcanoes, and you have the makings of a tourist paradise.
Somehow this potential has not yet translated into a tourism boom. Although Chile receives reasonable numbers of tourists, it still punches below its
true weight class. There are many reasons for this – distance, relative isolation, a strong currency and language barriers. Chileans themselves are partly to blame as well – many of them have a slightly parochial world view, and are clearly not
overly enamoured with Gringo (Anglo-Saxon) or Chino (Oriental) tourists. Another possible explanation for Chile’s lukewarm attitude to tourism is that they are not desperate for it; thanks to the Thatcherite economic policies
implemented by the Pinochet regime and strong commodity prices the country probably has Latin America’s healthiest economy.
The southern half of Chile is undoubtedly the main beneficiary of the existing tourism spend. The scenery is splendid,
and the terrain lends itself to adventure sports. Mountaineers, hikers, white water rafters, cyclists, sailors and anglers are all catered for in this part of the world. Add quality accommodation and great food and wine, and you have a winning combination.
The heartbeat of Chile’s tourism industry is the so-called “Lake District” situated between the Bio-Bio River and Puerto Montt.
Despite a magnificent amphitheatre-like setting overlooking Reloncaví Sound, Puerto
Montt is the ugly duckling of the Lake District. Whereas towns like Pucón, Liffén and Purto Varas are essentially tourist attractions (and therefore pleasing to the eye) Puerto Montt’s raison d’etre is first and foremost
its port. It also has a large industrial area, and it is the hub of Chile’s thriving aquaculture sector. In short, it is a gritty, slightly scruffy place with a blue-collar feel to it. The main reason tourists visit is that it is the gateway to the Chiloé
archipelago and the Carretera Austral (the Southern Highway) to the remote Aysén and Magallanes regions of Chilean Patagonia. Cruise ships depart from here to Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, and light aircraft fly hopeful fisherman to remote
lodges inaccessible by road.
An interesting ingredient in the mixture that makes up Puerto Montt’s population is a strong German influence. This is evident in the architecture, and in the locals’ fondness for tarts and cakes baked German-style.
The Chileans have a notoriously sweet teeth, and nowadays küchen, strudel and Black Forest cake adorn many a high tea table. The reason for this Teutonic infusion is that, after the Mapuche Indians had finally been subdued by the Chilean military, it
was decided to populate the Lake District with industrious Europeans. South German peasants were lured to the area by the prospect of owning 100-odd hectares of land, provided they cleared the forest from it first. Between 1852 and 1880 several thousand German
settlers landed at the nascent harbour of Puerto Montt, and by the turn of the century they had turned the woods into rich farmland.
Despite the German influence and an influx of paler Chileans from further north in recent years, many of Puerto Montt’s
people are of Chilote (natives of Chiloé) descent. This is reflected not just in the physical appearance of the people themselves, but also the clothes they wear, the handicrafts they sell and the food they like. As can be seen in Chapter 17,
the Chilotes are a unique amalgam of cultures, with a distinctive world view, life style and cuisine.
As Thor Heyerdahl attempted to prove with his Kon-Tiki expedition, there may well be a link between the indigenous peoples of South
America’s Pacific seaboard and the Polynesians. Apart from the physical resemblance, one of the key exhibits in this on-going debate is that the signature dish of the Chilotes, the world-famous Curanto, could be a derivative of a dish
known as “Umu” or “Imu” in Polynesia. There is plenty of prima facie evidence. The technique of cooking in a hole in the ground, the use of pre-heated volcanic rock, the wrapping of the food in large leaves, and the combination
of pork and chicken with seafood are all just too co-incidental.
Although there is debate over its exact origins, there is no doubt that Curanto (meaning literally “cooking with many stones” in the Mapuche language) has been absorbed
into mainstream Chilean cuisine. Further north it is typically prepared in a pot on a stove top, and called Curanto en olla (“olla” being Spanish for pot) or Pulmay. In its heartland, it is still mainly cooked al fresco
and en hoyo (in a hole in the ground). Red-hot stones are placed at the bottom of a 1 ½ m deep hole, and covered with pangues (the leaves of the Nalca plant). Nalca is an indigenous shrub with large, fan-like leaves
and a tart taste which led to it being called wild rhubarb in some areas. Layers of shellfish, smoked pork, chicken, sausages, potatoes and dumplings are then arranged on top of one another, with more Nalca leaves in between. The Curanto is then covered
with wet sackcloth and stones or soil, and literally left to stew in its own juices. It was originally a communal meal eaten on special occasions, but nowadays many restaurants also serve it more or less authentically.
One of the highlights of my military career was the year (1995 – 1996) I spent in Chile as an advisor to their Air Force, the Fuerza Aérea de Chile (FACH). During that time, my brother and his wife to visit us during the December holiday
season. Apart from showing them around Santiago, I had planned a 10-day expedition to the Lake District of Chile. We had more than our fair share of beginner’s luck. In an era where surfing the internet to plan one’s vacation and booking everything
online was still a fantasy, I had had to rely on tourist guide books and snail mail to put together our itinerary. With one exception, all the places we stayed in were well-run and had stunning views. The places we decided to visit turned out to be well worth
the effort, and we were also incredibly lucky in terms of the weather. One warm, sunny day followed another. Apart from one flat tire, we suffered no mishaps on the road, nor did we ever get seriously lost. Best of all, we had a number of really memorable
meals in the process.
At our first few stops, the atmosphere, architecture and cuisine were all very much Chilean. As we approached the turning point at Puerto Varas, there was a noticeable change. If it hadn’t been for the numerous volcanoes,
one could easily have imagined oneself being somewhere in Bavaria or Switzerland. The neat little farms, the Germanic architecture, the extensive use of shingles in buildings and the cuisine all had Central Europe written over them. In Osorno, the prosperous
centre of the Region’s agriculture, we had our first Kassler Rib and Eisbein of the trip at an authentic Kneipe (tavern).
Our last two stops were in Frutillar and Puerto Varas, both on the shore of Lake Llanquihue. This vast expanse of
water is Chile’s second largest after Lago General Carrera, and South America’s third largest after Lakes Titicaca and General Carrera (Lake Maracaibo is no longer a freshwater lake, as it is now connected to the sea). Because Llanquihue is so
big, different locations on its shore offer different attractions. Frutillar (where I would turn 34) is easily accessible from the Pan-American Highway, and offers the best view of the majestic Osorno volcano directly across the lake. Puerto Varas, on the
other hand, is prettier and closer to the volcano, the Petrohué waterfalls and the fabled Lake Todos los Santos with its emerald water. We were to spend one night in Frutillar in a guest house, and three in Puerto Varas in a hotel. We had another superb
dinner at Frutillar’s Club Alemán (German Club) and were pleased to discover that there was one in Puerto Varas as well!
On the morning of my birthday, I woke up to hear my sister-in-law chatting to someone in slightly halting
German. Our hostess, Señora Winkler, was the granddaughter of German settlers and still fluent in their mother tongue. When Tersia had gone down to the dining room her Spanish-speaking in-laws were still fast asleep, and (with a name like Hosteria
Winkler) she had assumed that the establishment’s staff would understand German. She decided to try and get by in her High School German, and succeeded!
After breakfast we took our leave from Señora/Frau Winkler and
set out for Puerto Varas. Since the two towns are not that far apart, and we could only book in at the hotel after 2 PM, we decided to make maximum use of the hot, sunny day. We therefore took a drive along the shore of the lake, past Petrohué falls
to Lake Todos Los Santos, and had lunch at a lakeside hotel. After lunch we stopped at the famous and much-photographed falls, and admired the scenery. The falls are situated in the Vincente Perez Rosales National Park, and surrounded by temperate rain forest.
Massive larches, birches and beeches line the roads and pathways, and provide shade on hot days. Less fun was discovering first hand why the place was named Petrohué (“place of many horseflies”) by the Mapuches. These infernal creatures,
the size of small helicopters, seemed to find the ladies’ perfume particularly attractive and eventually forced us to beat a hasty retreat,
We were delighted with our hotel, and enjoyed an extensive siesta before venturing out to explore Puerto
Varas. Even though my brother and I were tempted to head for the Club Alemán again, our wives vetoed our plan and we celebrated my birthday in style over a delightful seafood dinner. I was intrigued to see live almeja (clams) on the
menu, and decided to give them a try as a starter. They turned out to be firmer and meatier than oysters, and just as effective!
The next day we headed south to Puerto Montt. Apart from the obvious sightseeing, we had two other objectives in mind. The
ladies were keen for a spot of retail therapy at the famous craft market in Angelmo harbour, and their spouses were prepared to humour them, provided the shopping was over and done with before lunch. My brother had by then developed an infallible ability to
pick great restaurants, and had informed us over breakfast that an eatery called Pazo’son the outskirts of Puerto Montt was the best place to try authentic Curanto. He and I explored the fish market next door to where our wives were souvenir
shopping, had a few Kodak moments and then decided to admire the surroundings over a few small schopp (draft beers).
The women had a whale of a time in the craft market. With my two nieces back home both still toddlers, Jakki and Tersia
were spoilt for choice. There were cute woven Chilote hats, jerseys, backpacks and capes. Then there were the soft toys. Our wives reached consensus that toy Alpacas made out of real Alpaca wool were “must have” items, only to discover
that they were in rather short supply. Their dilemma was compounded when my brother announced that it was nearly lunchtime, and that we would not be waiting for stragglers. Determined to succeed, and despite her extremely limited Spanish vocabulary, my sister-in-law
dashed from stall to stall and somehow managed to obtain an Alpaca for each of our respective daughters before it was time to leave.
Being typical Gringos, we were the first customers to arrive at the restaurant when
it opened for lunch. The up side of getting there a good hour before the locals was that we got one of the best tables in the house. Since it would be a while before we got our food – everything was made fresh – we passed the time studying the
extensive wine list. Our waiter insisted, in his limited English, that if we were there for the seafood, we should have the “Devil’s wine”. Closer examination revealed that he was referring colloquially to Casillero del Diablo –
“The Devil’s Cellar”. We ordered a bottle of their Sauvignon Blanc, tried it and commended the man for his advice– it was superb.
Wine has been made in Chile since shortly after the arrival of Spanish missionaries in the mid-sixteenth
century. As the Holy Communion is an important sacrament, common sense dictated that wine needed to be made locally to satisfy the growing demand as more and more locals converted to Christianity. They soon discovered that the Central Valley provided near-perfect
terroir for viticulture. The hotter northern half better suited to the production of spirits and fortified wines, while the southern districts lent themselves to the making of good-quality natural wines. Chile’s real trump card, however, is
its location. Isolated by the Atacama desert in the north, the Andes in the east and the Pacific in the west, it is virtually sealed off from pests and diseases that wreak havoc in other wine-producing countries. This helped it escape the phylloxera
plague that ravaged first Europe, and later California. Even today, Chilean wine farmers use very little insecticide.
The wine industry was hamstrung by under-investment and antiquated techniques for many years, and its main claim to fame was that Chile
exported very cheap vin ordinaire. The opening up of world markets at the end of the Cold War changed the industry’s complexion forever. For the past two decades there has been a dramatic improvement in the quality of Chile’s wines, and
the “value for money” tag sits less snugly.
Concha y Toro is without doubt one of the success stories of the Chilean wine industry. The winery dates back to 1883, when millionaire businessman Don Melchor Concha y Toro established vineyards
at Pirque in the Maipú Valley near Santiago. He spared no expense in importing noble grape varieties from the Bordeaux region of France, and also employed a leading French oenologist, M Labouchère, to establish the cellars and processes required
to make premium wine. This investment has paid off handsomely over the past 128 years.
Don Melchor was initially faced with a serious problem: some of his most valuable reserve wines kept getting stolen from the cellar where they were maturing. Knowing
that the local campesinos (peasants) were notoriously superstitious, he started a rumour that the maturation cellar was haunted by the Devil. The word spread like wildfire via the grapevine (sic). In no time the larceny stopped, and the wines could
rest undisturbed. As a result, Concha y Toro’s best-known range of export wines have been called Casillero del Diablo ever since.
Just as the first bottle of Casillero made way for a fresh one, our starters arrived. After the sage advice
about the wine, we had all ordered our waiter’s pick, which was steamed Picorocos (giant barnacles). Despite their rather grisly appearance, the flesh of the barnacles turned out to be like the softest, most delicate crab meat any of us had
ever eaten. It was served simply; arranged on a plate along with lemon wedges, some mayonnaise and chopped parsley.
After a brief interlude it was time for the main attraction. The Curanto arrived with a suitable amount of ceremony, and was
certainly a sight to behold. It was served Bouillabaise-style, with the solid foods neatly arranged in one plate and the liquor in a separate soup bowl. In side plates were slices of lemon, mayonnaise and ensalada chilena (a simple but refreshing
salad of onions, tomato, chilli pepper, coriander leaves, olive oil and lemon juice). We were also issued with bibs, and reassured that using one’s hands was not just allowed but in fact encouraged.
The food was simply
superb. In a way, it was Chile on a plate. There were the clams, piure (red bait) and choro zapato (giant black mussels) that the indigenous hunter-gatherers would have eaten since time immemorial. There were potatoes; indigenous to the Chiloé
archipelago. There were chicken drumsticks and Longaniza sausages – food that the Spanish would have brought with them. Last but not least, there was smoked pork and dumplings, courtesy of the German settlers. It was also clearly a meal intended
for people who do hard manual labour in fresh air – it was a lot of food, and filling to boot.
Thanks to a combination of copious quantities of great wine and enough food to feed a suburb of Pretoria, a deeply satisfied silence
descended on our table as the meal drew to a close. We had come with great expectations, and they had been surpassed. We had been privileged to enjoy really special food and wine in an unpretentious setting that was clearly popular with locals in the know.
Although the concept behind Curanto is not fundamentally unique, its specific composition and the culture behind it most certainly is.
Gourmets might sniff at such a hodgepodge of flesh, fowl and seafood (some versions even include firm
fish as well), but I disagree. It is hearty people’s food, and – because no seasoning, herbs or spices are added – the various ingredients add flavour to one another. The “soup” is a wonderful synthesis of the whole dish and is
really a meal in itself. To me it is the original “Surf ‘n Turf” – a synthesis of the produce people in this fascinating region coax out of the land and the sea. This is encapsulated in an old Chilote saying: “Your life
is not complete until you’ve tasted a Curanto”.
Making it at home
Although Curanto en Hoyo is the classical version of this dish, a similar effect can be achieved (with much less PT) by cooking the
same ingredients – wrapped in cabbage leaves instead of Nalca leaves – in a large pot on the hob. It is not essential to follow the recipe religiously; just try and stick to the approximate proportions.
Preparation time: ¼ hour
Cooking time: 1 ½ hours
Serves 4 adults
Tastes best accompanied by a crisp, well-chilled Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc. For best effect, use a Chilean wine!
2 Large chopped onions
6 Large cloves of garlic
8 Black peppercorns (just cracked, not ground)
4 Sprigs of oregano
A medley of seafood - at least three of: black mussels, clams, barnacles, periwinkles,
squid heads and/or limpets
500 ml Dry white wine
500 ml Water
4 Kassler (smoked) pork chops
1 Chorizo sausage, sliced roughly
8 Partially cooked chicken drumsticks
12 Raw new potatoes
the bottom and sides of a large heavy-bottomed pot with the outer leaves of the cabbage.
- Place the flavouring ingredients – the onions, garlic, salt, peppercorns and oregano - on the bottom of the pot.
- Arrange the seafood on top.
- Cover the ingredients with the water and wine.
- Place a layer of Kassler chops, chorizo slices, partially cooked chicken drumsticks and new potatoes on top of the other ingredients.
- Cover with a thick cloth and cook over low heat until
the potatoes are done – prick with a fork to check.
This is a meal in one pot – no side dishes are required!
“The act of putting into our mouths what the land and the sea have grown is perhaps our most direct interaction
with the earth.” – Frances Moore Lappe.