17. In Vino Veritas

“A bottle of wine contains more philosophy than all the books in the world.” – Louis Pasteur.

The place

The charming city of Mendoza is full of pleasant surprises. It offers stunning views towards the Andes mountain range to the West, lots of beautiful plazas and parks, and a unique architecture. It is an airy, low-rise town with wide, tree-lined avenues. Many of these pleasing features are ironically due to a massive earthquake that completely flattened the city at Eastertide in 1861 and killed a third of its population. When reconstruction commenced, the city fathers were determined to prevent such a catastrophe from re-occurring by spreading its buildings wider apart.

Mendoza is without doubt Argentina’s wine capital. While wine is nowadays being produced in more and more parts of the country, more than 75% of its total output is still produced in Mendoza province. The towns of Maipú and Luján de Cuyo, with their irrigation schemes, are particularly prominent. The quantity and quality of the wines produced in the area are testimony to the perseverance and ingenuity of its wine farmers. Compared to the traditional wine-producing areas of Europe, Mendoza’s climate is all wrong. It is hot and dry, with very little rainfall and frequent frosts in winter, and heavy hailstorms that batter the area in spring.

The locals have devised a number of strategies to deal with the poor cards fate dealt them. Irrigation canals (known locally as acequias) utilise the melting ice and snow of the nearby Andes, and provide vineyards with water during the hot summer months. Smoke and wind machines keep the frost at bay, and early warning systems and extensive nets protect the crop against hail. Having largely overcome their climatic handicaps, the Mendocinos produce excellent wines, and some experts reckon that Argentina could one day surpass Chile as South America’s leading producer of premier wines. A big advantage enjoyed by the Argentine winelands is that they are mostly high above sea level, with low humidity, which means that they are much less susceptible to aphids, fungi and insect plagues than the damper vineyards in other countries.  

Argentines are not the least bit embarrassed that, despite their country being the world’s fifth-largest producer, Chile has been South America’s leading wine exporter for yonks. On the contrary, they say, their wines are too good to sell to foreigners! They have a point; the country’s annual wine production and consumption are almost perfectly matched. The depreciating Peso has changed this state of affairs dramatically. Not only has it made Argentine wines very affordable to foreigners; it has also attracted major foreign investment. Large Chilean and European producers (like Moët et Chandon and Mumm) have bought up extensive vineyards around Mendoza, and spent heavily on state of the art cellars and equipment. This has caused a virtuous cycle – the investment in noble cultivars and modern techniques has led to growing revenue and wider profit margins; attracting even more investment.     

Because of its unique terroir, Mendoza offers an interesting range of wines. It is certainly best known for its soft, fruity Malbec – a cultivar which, in its native France, is mainly used as one of the five constituents of a classic Bordeaux blend. In Argentina it has achieved fame as a varietal, and the perfect accompaniment to a succulent steak. The usual suspects like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah are also produced there, but in recent years the Spanish Tempranillo cultivar has taken off in a big way.

The thing I like best about Argentine wine is that their cellarmasters, rather than ponytailed advertising gurus from the marketing world, still seem to call the shots. Although they are situated in the New World, and follow the preference for varietals prevalent in it, they still make serious wines with classical labels. Although Argentina’s red wines are generally regarded as better than its whites, the establishment of vineyards either at higher altitude (around Mendoza) or higher latitude (in Río Negro province) has lifted the quality of the Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc being produced. 

I suppose I am just old-fashioned, but I struggle to take wines with funny names and children’s art on the labels seriously. My pet hate is the current South African obsession with red wines fermented hot, with plenty of oak chips to give them an over-ripe taste. The wines thus produced reek of coffee, chocolate and strawberry jam and are then given corny names like "Chocolate Block", "Jam Jar" and "Cappuccino". While they probably make lots of money for their producers, to me they are the oenological equivalent of tart fuel.

The Greater Mendoza area is not just a one-trick pony. Apart from its winelands, it has become a major hub for adventure sports revolving around the Cordillera to the West. In winter, skiers are drawn to a number of world-class ski resorts, and in summer the mountaineers, kayakers, hikers and mountain bikers arrive in their thousands. Mendoza is within striking distance of MountAconcagua, which at 6959m is not only the highest peak in the Americas, but also the highest in the world outside of the Himalayas.

 

Getting there

We arrived in Mendoza by air from Santiago in Chile just after New Year. Fortunately it was a lovely sunny day, and I spent the short flight (about half an hour) taking photos and video of the mighty Andes. On approach for Mendoza we actually passed quite close to MountAconcagua, which was another bonus. Looking at the rugged mountains below us, we couldn’t help but think of the awful plight of the Uruguayan rugby players whose struggle to survive after a plane crash was so dramatically depicted in the movie Alive!

In the taxi that took us into town from the airport, we realised that Mendoza looked unlike any city we had ever been to. We had not yet seen any vineyards, and the vegetation looked vaguely subtropical, with sycamore figs and jacarandas the only trees we could identify. The intense heat and low humidity hinted at something more arid. Many of the buildings we saw en route to the city centre looked like they could have been made of adobe clay, rather than bricks. And then there were the cars and pickup trucks, many of them harking back to the 1960s and 70s. All in all, it had a touch of Mexican outlaw town about it.

Downtown Mendoza turned out to be modern and vibrant, and packed with restaurants that spilled over onto the pavements. Our hotel was situated in the restaurant district, a block or so from the city’s casino. It was stylish and very Old World; complete with an ancient, cramped Parisian-style elevator. Our room was spacious and well-appointed, but while moving in the bellboy brought some bad news: due to an energy-saving campaign, air conditioning was only available intermittently. This meant that the only alternative way of avoiding heat stroke would be to open the windows, which we initially thought would not be a problem. That night, we soon realised that we had been sadly mistaken. Our room overlooked a busy avenue, and Mendocinos are night owls of note! As a result, we had two choices – open the windows and be kept awake by the noise outside, or close them and be kept awake by the stifling heat. We finally settled into a pattern of fitful sleep, whereby we would close the windows the moment the air condition started up and open them when it stopped.

Apart from the heat and sleep deprivation, we had a whale of a time in Mendoza. The locals were incredibly welcoming, the architecture interesting and the steaks just as tasty as in Buenos Aires. The place seemed to be made for dining al fresco, for we met several really interesting fellow travellers while coming to grips with impossibly large steaks and ribs that seemed to have been cut from elephants. Jakki was initially shocked to hear that a ladies’ steak was 350 g and 500 g of ribs was the smallest portion on offer. Rather than offend our hosts, she adopted a stoic, "if you can’t beat them…" attitude and vowed to go on diet when we got home.   

Of course the main reason we included Mendoza in our itinerary was its wine. We gave ourselves a day to settle in, and arranged to go on a guided tour in the Maipú area the next day. The particular operator came highly recommended, and the outing was designed to first expose us to a traditional Mendocino winery, followed by a cellar tour and lunch at a new, state-of-the-art one. The contrast was indeed striking. The first winery turned out to be the oldest in the area, and run by monks who produced both wine and olive oil. We were shown how both products are bottled using old-fashioned equipment. The arcane techniques notwithstanding, the wines we sampled were generally excellent.

After the obligatory visit to the wine shop, we were off to our second and final stop. The contrast could not have been greater – the new winery would not have looked out of place in Stellenbosch or the NapaValley. The buildings and facilities were modern and functional, and the guides young and multilingual. After parallel cellar tours conducted in Spanish, English and German, we all joined up again for an extended wine appreciation session. Our hosts were knowledgeable and generous in allowing us to taste even some of their rarer, more expensive wines. Another bit of retail therapy concluded the morning’s proceedings.  

 

The meal

After a long, hot morning we were all looking forward to a good meal and a few glasses of Maipú’s best. The estate’s restaurant was situated across the road from the cellar complex, and a brisk walk in the hot sun made this need even more pressing. Our reaction to the setting that greeted us on our arrival was akin to the proverbial lost legionnaire stumbling across an oasis in the desert. We were served aperitifs in the shade of a vine-covered courtyard, and thereafter led into an air-conditioned private dining room where lunch was served.

Up until that point there had been very little interaction between members of the group, apart from a crowd of Colombians who seemed determined to buy up all the wine they could fit into the tour bus. Two older couples, in particular, seemed particularly reluctant to engage in conversation. The first pair were black and spoke French to each other. Pair number two spoke softly in a language that we couldn’t place, and had clearly been miffed that the entire programme at our first stop had been presented in Spanish, which they obviously didn’t understand all that well. Jakki and I were understandably not ecstatic when we ended up seated between the two seemingly grumpy old couples.

It could indeed have turned into a long afternoon had it not been for Bacchus. As Zorba the Greek remarked, “Wine is a wonderful thing. You have one sip and there are birds in all the trees!” We were served a superb five-course meal, each accompanied by one of the estate’s wines. In no time introductions had been made, and by the time we tucked into some succulent barbecued chicken and Chardonnay we had learnt that the Francophone couple hailed from the Central African Republic (he) and Louisiana (she) and had met while studying at the Sorbonne. Having both grown up in parochial, Apartheid South Africa, we feared that they would somehow hold that against us. Instead they congratulated us on our country’s miraculous transition to democracy, and – after another glass of crisp white wine – the distinguished-looking old gentleman expressed the hope that (then) Deputy President Zuma would stop womanising and accepting lunch money from shady characters! He had even more drastic suggestions as to what should be done about a certain Mr RG Mugabe further north…

Between courses I stepped outside to photograph the caterers, who were busy barbecuing the rest of our meal on fire made from dry vine stumps. There was still a lot of work to be done – lamb loin chops, sirloin steak and beef ribs!  By the time I arrived back at the table with the news, Jakki had struck up a conversation with the paler of the two couples. They turned out to be her kith and kin from the Netherlands, but the dialect they used was unlike the High Dutch her late grandparents had spoken. They were seriously well-travelled people: being comfortably retired, they spent six months per year visiting destinations on their (rather long) bucket list! Over the steak course they lamented how their country’s liberal constitution and human rights culture was beginning to be self-defeating, and how its Dutchness was being swept away by a tide of Muslim immigrants who refused to assimilate.

The more we conversed, the more I realised how relative culture was. There we were, three couples from entirely different societies, age groups and professional backgrounds who spoke different languages and – apart from travelling and wine – had different interests and tastes. Despite our many and obvious differences the one thing we had in common trumped everything else – we were middle class. In the final analysis we all wanted the same things and feared the same things. As the last plates were cleared and the bloated group trudged unsteadily off to the waiting bus, I thanked St Christopher for instilling wanderlust in some of us. This allows us to experience people and ideas different to our own, and – quite frequently – to see how similar we are in many respects. Marcel Proust summed it up perfectly: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Making it at home

Although I have to confess that Argentine beef is in a league of its own, more and more South African butcheries are offering perfectly respectable steaks. Argentina’s flagship lomo chorizo is known as Sirloin or Porterhouse in various parts of the Gringo world, and – while not as tender as fillet – has amazing flavour. I like to barbecue a suitably-sized sirloin roast whole, and to slice it into individual portions thereafter. Depending on the capacity of your guests, allow about 250 – 350g per person.

 

Preparation time: 2 hours.

Cooking time: 30 – 40 minutes.

Serves 4 persons.

Tastes best accompanied by a Malbec, Syrah or Rhône blend.

 

1 Whole sirloin roast; about 1.2 kg.

Ground coriander, black pepper and paprika.

1 Tablespoon Chopped dry sage leaves.

2 Tablespoon Olive oil.

1 Tablespoon Dark soy sauce.

Salt for seasoning.

 

  • Lightly score the fatty side of the roast with a sharp knife; first to mark where you intend to slice it, and then crosswise.
  • Baste all over with a mixture of olive oil and dark soy sauce. Sprinkle generously with a mixture of ground coriander, black pepper, paprika and dried sage.
  • Allow to rest in a cool place for at least 2 hours.
  • Start a charcoal fire about 40 minutes before you intend cooking the meat.
  • When the coals are ready, spread them evenly across the bottom of the barbecue. Allow to settle down.
  • Set the braai grid about 20 cm above the coals, and allow to heat up.
  • Sear for 3 minutes on each side to seal in the juices.
  • Raise the grid to about 30 cm above the coals for the remainder of the cooking process.   
  • Cook on the slower heat for another 20 minutes, turning the meat frequently.
  • When nicely browned, allow to rest for about 10 minutes before carving.
  • Carve into the predetermined number of slices.
  • The meat should be about medium rare by now; guests who like their meat more fully cooked can always pop their slices onto the grill for a while longer.
  • Serve with Dauphinoise potatoes or garlic bread and beetroot or curry bean salad.

“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” – Julia Child.

18. Los Ladrones de la Plaza de Mayo

“Fish is … one of the greatest luxuries of the table, and not only necessary, but indispensable at all dinners where there is any pretence of excellence .” – Izabella Beeton.

The place

Buenos Aires, in the words of the musical Evita is without doubt the Big Apple of South America. There may be more prosperous and/or faster-growing metropoles on the continent, but for lovers of culture (and in particular, architecture) this is without doubt the Paris of South America. Porteňos (as the people of "BA" call themselves) take great and justifiable pride in their tolerant, cosmopolitan city, with its wonderful museums, opera houses and art galleries. There is also a degree of snobbishness vis-á–vis upstart cities like Saõ Paolo, which – although vibrant – are regarded as frontier towns by the Old Money gentry of BA. 

The city’s full name was originally "Ciudad de Nuestra Seňora Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires". St Mary was regarded as the patron saint of the trade ("good") winds. It was founded in 1536 by a Spanish expedition led by one Pedro de Mendoza on the Southern shore of the Río de la Plata (river of silver). The La Plata is actually a massive estuary, fed principally by the Paraná river as well as numerous smaller ones. The belief that the area was rich in silver reserves also contributed to the name of the whole country – "Argentina" literally means "the place of silver". Ironically, vast precious metal deposits were discovered in other Spanish possessions like Peru and Chile, but Argentina turned out to be poor in mineral resources. Due to its strategic location, Buenos Aires did however become an important trade port; so much so that its inhabitants still refer to themselves as "porteňos" ("people of the port"). 

With a population of around 4 million, this vibrant city is the second largest in South America after Saõ Paolo, and the eponymous federal province (with more than 13 million inhabitants) is the third largest after Saõ Paolo and Río de Janeiro. I am of the view that it is the most interesting of the three from a socio-cultural perspective, because of its cosmopolitan make-up. It is interesting to note that more porteňos are of Italian descent than Spanish. There is also a huge Germanic element, as well as the largest Jewish community in South America. While pure Anglo-Saxons are relatively rare, the city’s roots as a trading terminus has endowed it with a small but significant English-speaking community as well. This diversity is reflected in the staggering array of cuisines served in its restaurants.

Another attraction is the city’s lovely public buildings, many built during the first half of the previous century when Argentina was one of the world’s most affluent countries. The wide avenues and belle époque architecture are reminiscent of Paris. Some of the most striking buildings include the Teatro Colón opera house, the parliament building and the famous Casa Rosada (Pink House) or presidential residence. Some of the ornate tombs in Recoleta cemetery are well worth a visit in their own right. Both the Casa Rosada and the cemetery are of course inextricably linked to the late Eva Peron, and hence are very popular with tourists. Another fairly recent addition to the city’s places of interest is Puerto Madero, the original colonial-era port, which has been re-developed along the same lines as the docklands of London or Cape Town. It now boasts dozens of excellent restaurants, swanky shops and the chrome-and-glass offices of numerous multi-national companies.

Buenos Aires is not just beautiful and cosmopolitan. Thanks to the wobbly Peso it is also a very cheap city to visit (except maybe for Zimbabweans outside the ZANU-PF inner circle). As a consequence, tourism has taken off in a big way. Apart from Evita-mania, other drawcards are top-quality, dirt cheap leather goods, its famous tango shows and the size and quality of the steaks and ribs served in its excellent restaurants. But spend some time there and you will soon realise that there are two sides to Buenos Aires. Apart from traditionally poor neighbourhoods like La Boca, new shanty towns have sprung up in other parts of the city since the country’s economy hit the wall shortly after the start of the new millennium.

With economic hardship came crime. As one of my economics professors once remarked, "the problem with the poor is that they refuse to starve quietly”. Fortunately for the haves, Argentine have-nots do not seem to have the stomach for the violence and brutality that plague societies like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. While violent crime is not a major problem, petty crimes like housebreaking, confidence tricks and pickpocketing are rife, and tourists make soft targets.  

One of the most touching scenes we experienced in Buenos Aires was a smallish demonstration by the "Madres de Plaza de Mayo", an association of Argentine mothers whose children "disappeared" during the brutal oppression of all opposition by the military dictatorship of 1976-1983. During that time, an estimated 30 000 pro-democracy activists were abducted by counter-intelligence operatives in plainclothes – the majority of whom were never seen again. It is now clear that these unfortunate souls were generally tortured and killed, the bodies cremated, ditched at sea or buried in unmarked graves. In response, a dozen or so brave mothers whose children were snatched by government agents started demonstrating in front of the Casa Rosada (which fronts on the Plaza de Mayo) in 1977. They demanded that the governing junta release their children, or at least explain what had happened to them.

To this day, more than three decades later, a group of mothers still gathers on the Plaza de Mayo every Friday afternoon. They still don white head scarves, embroidered with the names of their lost children. Although they have partly achieved their goal (the democratic government that replaced the junta acknowledged that thousands of people had been kidnapped and killed) the protests continue as a means of pressurising government to continue investigating and searching for mortal remains of the victims.  

Getting there

Buenos Aires was our last stop on a three-week long trip to South America, and we arrived in a foul mood. I had booked us on a flight from Mendoza early that morning so that we could have nearly three full days to explore and shop before our return to South Africa, as our two previous visits had both been very short. Unbeknown to us, the airline had unilaterally cancelled the flight because it wasn’t full enough for their liking. The next flight to Buenos Aires would (hopefully) leave that evening. After some enquiries I discovered that the quickest way of getting to the capital was actually to fly back to Santiago, whence we had come to Mendoza, and catch a direct flight to Buenos Aires from there. By to-ing and fro-ing across the Andes we managed to get to our destination three hours earlier, but still with most of the day wasted.

We consoled ourselves with a few quick Pisco Sours in our hotel, and two large sirloins and a bottle of superb Malbec in a nearby steak house called "Palacio de la Papa Frita" ("Palace of the Potato Chip"). Over one of the best value-for-money dinners we have ever had, we reviewed our plans for the next two days. Fortunately our flight home was only scheduled for the evening of the last day, so we decided to leave our luggage with the hotel’s concierge and go on a guided excursion. The next day, however, we intended doing our own thing and exploring the city centre on foot and by Metro.

I decided to plan a route that would take us to all the main attractions in the "Microcentro", starting with the Colón theatre near our hotel, past the government precinct and culminating in the Puerto Madero waterfront. The next day being a Friday, I planned our route in such a way that we would be likely to see the "Mothers of the Plaza" demonstrating. I also set aside some time to look for a few bottles of the Malbec we had enjoyed so much with our steak dinner.

It was in the process of reading up on the CBD that my eye caught a paragraph in the travel guide that dealt with some of the stratagems employed by pickpockets in downtown Buenos Aires. Apparently a hot favourite was to have one perpetrator accidentally spill ketchup or cold drink on the unsuspecting victim, usually a woman. Another person would then approach her and offer to help mop up the spillage with a cloth or handkerchief. During the ensuing confusion a third party would then surreptitiously relieve the victim of her valuables – and often rob her companion(s) as well.

After a hearty breakfast in our hotel we set out on our walking tour. From where we were, in the shopping district around Avenida Córdoba, we intended following an almost-circular route through the government precinct on our way to Puerto Madero. Right from the start we couldn’t help but be impressed by what we saw. On our way to the Colón theatre, we had to cross Avenida 9 de Julio, named after Argentina’s independence day. The avenue, rumoured to be the widest in the world, is as wide as an entire city block and consists of seven lanes in either direction. In addition there are a further four lanes each way, contained in parallel service roads. It took us the better part of 10 minutes to get across! 

After our visit to the theatre, we braved 9 de Julio again. We took one of the city’s many diagonal streets to get to the Plaza de Mayo, and as we approached the square we popped into a large liquor store to try and get hold of some of the Martins Malbec that we were so keen on. They didn’t have any in stock, so we hit the road again. As we stepped out of the store, we had to pass under some scaffolding. Almost immediately both of us were showered by what felt and looked like wet cement. Initially we were not surprised, as – so we thought - this was not unusual on a construction site. Jakki was obviously upset by the mess in her hair and on her clothes, and trying desperately (and unsuccessfully) to wipe herself clean. Something about the train of events started bothering me when, out of nowhere, a young couple rushed up to us with handfuls of tissues and offered to help us clean up. Then the penny dropped: we were about to be robbed! This was obviously a variation on the ketchup technique I had read about the night before.

As Jakki was clearly happy to accept any help on offer, I realised that I had to get her to focus on the real threat. I therefore shouted loudly in Afrikaans that these Samaritans were actually robbers, and that we had to get away as quickly as possible. When she stared at me in disbelief, I grabbed her by the hand and dragged her away into the street. I reasoned that our assailants would be less likely to harm us out in the open. Fortunately I was right. They disappeared into an alley just as suddenly as they had appeared.  

Shaken but relieved at our narrow escape, we cleaned ourselves up as best we could and continued on our way. We were in for a disappointment – when we got to the Plaza de Mayo we discovered that the Casa Rosada was undergoing extensive renovations. Its famous façade was covered in scaffolding and swarming with workmen. Undaunted, we killed some time over cups of mate herbal tea in a café and waited for the headscarved mothers to start their demonstration. Argentines love their mate and ascribe many benefits to its regular consumption, including reducing cholesterol, relieving stress and heightened libido. It is an infusion of an indigenous herb (Ilex paraguariensis) served in ornate gourd-like cups, and sipped through a silver or tin straw.

Fortified by the mate, we started scanning the Plaza for signs of the protestors. As had been the case on several previous occasions, our Gringo routine was our undoing. Latinos seem to do everything a few hours later than us, and the demonstration was no exception. We were early (as usual!) and would have to wait at least another hour. We spent the time on another fruitless search for the elusive Malbec, and finally got a glimpse of a few of the old ladies doggedly staging another desultory demonstration. As we made our way from the Plaza to Puerto Madero, we reflected on the day’s events. We had not only seen the Madres (mothers) of the Plaza in action, but experienced its Ladrones (thieves) first hand!

The meal

After all the day’s excitement it was nice to sit down on a comfortable chair and sip a cold Quilmes lager (me) and a G & T (Jakki). Since the day was scalding hot we decided to pass on the steak and red wine routine we had slipped into, and try some Argentine sea food and white wine. When we enquired about our options, our waiter immediately recommended the "Merluza Negra". After three weeks in South America my Spanish was rapidly getting back to speed, so I asked him to explain how the "Negra" (black) hake differed from the well-known common hake (Merluccius spp.) and in particular why it was so expensive. He explained that the "black" hake was a rare species, caught in deep water off Patagonia.

This caused the penny to drop. There had recently been a lot of media attention in South Africa devoted to the plundering of the Patagonian Toothfish, which I knew to be a member of the same family as cod and hake. The Toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is a large fish, measuring up to 2 m long and reaching weights of up to 200 kg. It is an extremely tasty fish, and much in demand on the US West Coast and Japan. It occurs mainly along the continental shelf of South America, but also around sea mounts and sub-Antarctic islands. Because nations like Argentina, Chile and South Africa have limited naval resources to protect their fish stocks in the area, illegal trawling and long lining have become rampant. The Spanish seem to be the main culprits in this regard, which is not surprising given their obsession with hake. The fish is one of the foundations of both the Basque and Catalan cuisines.

All hake varieties are essentially elongated, silver-grey fish with flesh that is very soft to the touch when raw, but becomes white, firm and flaky once cooked. The flavour is subtle, and it combines well with robust flavours like garlic, tomato and cheese. I should, however, mention that all these desirable attributes are largely negated by freezing the fish. Frozen hake is a very popular in many parts of the world because it is affordable and easy to cook, but in terms of both texture and taste it is a bland shadow of the fish in its fresh form. For best effect, hake should be kept on ice and eaten within a few days if at all possible.    

As the Toothfish served at the restaurant had Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) endorsement, we knew it had been caught in accordance with its guidelines and we therefore decided to go ahead and try it. Although the waiter had some pretty scathing things to say about the Basque fishermen who plundered his country’s fish stocks, he generously conceded that they knew how to cook fish! He recommended that we try the fish with baby clams and salsa verde (green sauce). I still owe the man a debt of gratitude. It was a meal to remember.

The fish was absolutely on the point, its texture slightly firmer and flavour slightly more pronounced than any of the hake I had previously eaten. The clams were firm and (in Rick Stein-speak) "ozoney", and the sauce complemented it perfectly, and after finishing the fish I scooped up every last drop with a bread roll. Our food was not the only pleasant surprise we got that day: we discovered that the Argentines know a thing or two about making white wine as well! The unwooded Chardonnay from Río Negro province in Northern Patagonia could easily have passed for a Petit Chablis in a blind tasting.

The restaurant afforded a lovely view of Puerto Madero and its ever-changing skyline. It was decorated Parisian style, with understated furnishings, soft background music and starched linen. The service was attentive and knowledgeable, and even converted into our emerging-market currency the cost of the meal was not exorbitant. By the time two very satisfied gringos caught a taxi to their hotel for a long siesta, they had all but forgiven and forgotten the Ladrones de la Plaza de Mayo…

Making it at home

Since Patagonian Toothfish is a) becoming ever rarer, and b) there is growing pressure on suppliers and restaurants not to market it, very few people are likely to experience it in years to come. The recipe below can, however, be used to good effect with good quality fresh hake. Nowadays it is relatively easy to find, and the taste and texture is far superior to that of thawed frozen hake.  

 

Preparation time: ½ Hour.

Cooking time: 20 minutes.

Serves 4 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay (or a good Vinho Verde).

 

4 Skinless hake fillets; each about 250 g.

Coarse sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

150 g Cake flour.

5 Medium-sized garlic cloves, roughly chopped.

6 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley, chopped.

½ Cup of dry white wine.

1 Cup of fish stock.

2 Dozen baby clams (preferably live and in their shells; alternatively thawed frozen ones).

1 Cup frozen baby peas, thawed.

Crusty bread for dredging the sauce.

¼ Cup of olive oil for frying.

 

  • Rub the fish with the salt and pepper and leave in a cool place for ½  hour.
  • Heat the oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan. It must just be hot enough to sizzle when the fish is introduced.
  • Dust the fish lightly with the flour and cook for 1 minute on each side.
  • Transfer the fish to a warm plate.
  • Place the garlic and half the parsley in the pan. Cook, stirring all the while for a minute or so.
  • When the garlic becomes fragrant, add 2 tsp of flour and stir for another ½ minute.
  • Turn up the heat to moderate.
  • Add the wine and stock, and stir until the sauce starts thickening a little.
  • Return the fish to the pan. Reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes.
  • Turn the fish over with a spatula.
  • Add the clams and peas and cover the pan.
  • Allow the dish to simmer for 5 minutes, shaking it occasionally.
  • After 5 minutes, check the state of play. The fish should flake easily, and the clams (if using live ones in shells) should have opened. If not cook for another minute or two.
  • Stir in the remaining parsley.
  • Taste the sauce and season to taste.

Serve in deepish plates or bowls, and use the bread to sop up the sauce.

“Agassiz does recommend that authors eat fish, because the phosphorous in it makes brains. But I cannot help you to a decision as to how much you should eat. Perhaps a couple of whales would be enough?” – Mark Twain.

 

Avenida 9 de Julio

Colourful La Boca

The super-sensual Tango

The few surviving original "Madres"

Puerto Madero by night

19. Red Rum under a Rubber Tree

“There are three species of creatures who, when they seem coming are going, and when they seem going they come: diplomats, women and crabs.” – John Hay.

The place

Maputo (formerly known as Lourenço Marques, or just LM) is the political and economic capital of Mozambique. The island of Inhaca is situated at the mouth of Maputo bay. It acts like a giant breakwater, which means that the bay resembles a massive estuary. Its placid waters caused the early Portuguese seafarers to refer to it as "Bahía de Lagoa", or "Bay of the Lake". At nearly 90 km long and 30 km wide, it is one of the largest natural harbours in the world. Its shipping lane (marked by huge buoys) passes through a fairly wide gap between the mainland and the north point of Inhaca, while a narrow channel (known as "Hell’s Gate") passes between the island’s south point and Santa Maria on the mainland.

Inhaca Island has been a popular holiday destination among both South Africans and the Mozambican elite for many years. It is easily accessible, and offers calm warm water and white sand to bathers and excellent fishing and diving to the more adventurous. Apart from the eponymous town of Inhaca and a few small traditional villages, much of the island is uninhabited. It has a total population of a mere 6 000-odd, while the adjacent Portuguese Island is uninhabited. A ferry service provides the only public transport link to Maputo, while a short airstrip enables visitors to cross the bay quickly and comfortably. Nervous fliers should note, however, that crosswinds and the length (or rather the lack thereof) of the runway can make landings rather hair-raising affairs!

A number of coral reefs provide safe diving to snorkel and scuba divers alike, and another draw card is a shallow expanse of rock known as Baixo Danae, which is barely under water at low tide. Fishermen of all stripes love the place; both shore-based and offshore game fishing can be excellent at times. In shallower water the "GT" (Giant Trevally or Kingfish) reigns supreme, while sailfish, marlin and dorado entertain boat fishermen with their aerobatics. An added bonus for those with access to a seaworthy boat is that humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are abundant during late winter (July – October). It is not unusual to see a dozen or more of these 35-tonne cetaceans jumping and carousing about during a morning’s fishing.      

To us, one of Inhaca’s most appealing characteristics is that it is part of the "real" Mozambique. We have been to more exclusive island resorts further north, where large numbers of poor black people serve a handful of rich white people in a throwback to colonial times. The resorts are hermetically sealed off from any signs of poverty and deprivation, and all activities are designed to reinforce the "island paradise" theme.

Inhaca is different. It is not isolated, and the resorts on it are surrounded by a bustling African shanty town. The landmark Inhaca Lodge is an affordable, old-fashioned family hotel. As a consequence, the guests are much more demographically diverse. Apart from the inevitable South Africans and a sprinkling of sun-burnt Europeans, lots of bourgeois Mozambicans frequent the place, making it far more interesting for people-watchers like us than the "Sandton-by-the-sea" establishments.    

The lodge is wedged in between Inhaca town and a long, white beach. The path leading out of the entrance gate immediately becomes the main street of the town, which is lined with barracas ("taverns") housed in shacks as well as a few more upmarket restaurants. It is a real African town, with plenty of informal traders hustling for business and chickens and dogs searching its dusty streets for a bite to eat. About 400 m down the road is a place that has warmed the cockles of my heart on numerous occasions – Restorante Lucas.

Purely judging by appearances, it is easy to underestimate this eatery. It consists of a thatched boma built around a huge rubber tree. The "floor" consists of the island’s sandy soil, and the "rest rooms" are basic, to say the least. Cooking takes place in a small, hot shack adjacent to the dining area, and the service can be rather slow on busy days. And yet, despite all these apparent drawbacks the place attracts hordes of well-to-do, discerning customers because of the friendly, relaxed ambience and – more importantly -  its food is so damned good. Lucas, the owner, is rumoured to be a local who worked himself up to sous-chef level at Maputo’s landmark Polana Hotel. After many years in the rat race he apparently called it a day and came back to Inhaca to pursue his own dream. Despite the rustic setting, one quickly discerns the owner’s professional touch in the food that emanates from his kitchen.

While all the old Mozambican favourites like prawns, crayfish, flatties and grilled line fish are served, to us the signature dish is undoubtedly the crab salad. This consists of a fairly straight-forward green salad on which steamed crab portions are arranged. No salad dressing is used, and ramekins of peri-peri sauce, mayonnaise and vinaigrette on the platter allow the patron to try different flavours with each mouthful.

While mud or mangrove crab (Scylla serrata) are among the tastiest of seafoods, there is nothing charming about a live specimen. Aptly named after one of the two deadly sea monsters mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey, an adult mud crab is truly a bit of a monster. Its formidable claws can remove human fingers in a flash, and it is highly aggressive. Like Homer’s monster, it is territorial and will defend its domain against intruders. Specimens of up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg) have been reported, and these giants lumber around mangrove swamps and estuaries like latter-day Tiger tanks. Because Inhaca island is surrounded by both mud flats and mangrove-lined creeks, mud crabs are still reasonably common and therefore economically important to local fishermen.

Getting there

Being a Lowveld Boy, I had been to Mozambique several times as a child. While our annual vacation was usually reserved for either Cape Town or Durban, we often spent long weekends or short breaks in LM. Since it was just a couple of hours’ drive away, we could literally go there on a whim. Portugal’s April Revolution in 1974 changed all that. Pretty soon Samora Machel’s Frelimo leftists were in de facto control, and they made it clear that they would be less welcoming towards tourists from Apartheid South Africa. An abortive coup d’etat in LM by Portuguese right-wingers exacerbated the situation. After its failure, about half-a-million white settlers fled across the border to avoid the expected retribution from Frelimo. Their blood-curdling accounts of their experiences ruined our collective appetite for visiting the nascent People’s Republic.

It would be twenty years before significant numbers of South Africans started visiting Mozambique again. Since the hinterland was still unsafe due to unmarked land mines and armed bandits, and difficult to reach because of potholed roads and blown-up bridges, Maputo and surrounding resorts were initially the main beneficiaries. It didn’t take long for Inhaca to start thriving again, as it was easy to reach and had not been touched by the civil war. I lost no time getting there, first as a detour from a conference I attended in Maputo, and subsequently while on ski-boat fishing trips. I loved the Inhaca Lodge, because it reminded me of care-free childhood holidays in LM. I discovered Lucas’ restaurant, and loved it as well because of the authenticity of its cuisine.

It wasn’t long before Jakki and I decided that it was time for her to experience the place as well. In planning a week-long break on the island, we had a number of factors to consider. Firstly, the timing. The area becomes very hot and humid in summer, and the lodge does not have air conditioning. We therefore decided to go in September, when it is still relatively cool and dry. An added bonus was that early spring is also peak whale-watching season. Then there was the issue of transportation. Although the ferry from Maputo is cheap, the 40-odd kilometre trip can feel a lot longer when the sea is choppy. We didn’t want to risk starting our excursion by getting seasick, so we opted for the quicker, more comfortable 15-minute air taxi flight instead. 

We arrived at Maputo’s international airport on the afternoon of Day One with time to spare before our transfer was due to leave, only to be told that the flight had been cancelled. This was really bad news, since there was no other way of getting to the island! The daily ferry had already come and gone, as had the other light aircraft services to the island. Barring a small miracle, an unscheduled night stop in Maputo loomed.

Fortunately we were not the only passengers facing this predicament, and pretty soon the management of the airline was confronted by several irate holidaymakers all demanding that something be done. Privately, I was expecting the worst. Mozambique is not known as "Amanháland" (Tomorrowland) for nothing! The owner of the company must have realised that he was facing a public relations disaster, because after a tense half-hour standoff we were informed that alternative arrangements had been made, and that we would all be flown across to the island before nightfall. 

He had managed to charter two smaller planes from another company. This meant that, instead of all at once, we would be flown to Inhaca in four groups – two per plane. Jakki and I ended up on our designated plane’s second sortie, and therefore had to wait an extra fourty-five minutes for our plane to drop off its first batch of passengers and return to Maputo. As the minutes dragged on, the weather was starting to take a turn for the worse. Dark cumulus clouds were approaching from the southwest, and I knew that it would be nip and tuck to make it across before the storm hit us. As Jakki was already rather anxious at the prospect of flying in a small plane, I bit my tongue and kept my concerns to myself.

After what seemed like an eternity, our plane got back and we were waved on board by the ground staff. I was comforted by the fact that a) the plane was a sturdy little Britten-Norman Islander, and b) the pilot was a young Afrikaans chap from Pretoria who also supported the Blue Bulls. The only complaint I had about the flight to Inhaca was that he insisted, despite my protestations, on calling me "Oom" (uncle)!

Once we were ensconced in our room at the lodge, things took a turn for the better. We had breakfast and dinner there as part of our accommodation package, but lunch became a daily pilgrimage to Lucas’. We had a number of dishes to sample, and wanted a couple of lunches spare to re-visit dishes we particularly enjoyed. There was only one day on which we had lunch at the lodge – the Saturday when the sea was finally calm enough for us to go game fishing. I managed to boat a King Mackerel (Scomberomorus commerson), colloquially (and erroneously) known as a Couta among South African anglers, because it is not related to the Barracuda at all.

I had often brought frozen game fish home from fishing excursions, but always found them disappointing. Although a Couta or Kingfish would still be tender and palatable when eaten back home, the flavour would be a shadow of that of a freshly caught fish. The secret lay in the aromatic oils contained in the body tissue of the fish. While the flesh freezes at 00 Centigrade, the oils only freeze at - 400.  This means that, unless the fish is frozen at Minus Forty, almost all the flavour will be gone within a day or two.

I wanted desperately to demonstrate the difference between fresh and frozen game fish to Jakki, so when I caught the Couta I ordered our skipper to get us back to the lodge without further ado. In order to minimise the delay between catching and eating the fish, we had the lodge’s kitchen prepare it for our lunch.  They simply cut the fish into steaks, grilled it and served it with lemon butter and chips. It took Jakki one mouthful to agree with me that this was indeed one of the best fish dishes she had ever tasted. I just love it when a plan comes together…

The meal

But I digress. While we had a number of excellent meals at Lucas’ restaurant, the first day’s lunch will always stand out. I had been a little concerned that I had raised Jakki’s expectations too high with all my raving about my previous experiences there, and that the place my have gone to seed – I had, after all, not been there in three years. Fortunately my fears soon proved unfounded. The place looked the same as always, the welcome was friendly and the menu hadn’t changed. We were even served by the same gentleman who had looked after me on two previous occasions!

As I had expected, he recommended that we wet our whistles with a nice aperitivo. The standard aperitif at Lucas’ is red rum. This consists of several tots of locally-produced, cinnamon-flavoured rum and a raspberry soda known as Sparletta. I didn’t need any persuasion, and my wife (as the neophyte) had no say in the matter. Although a red rum packs a serious punch, it is quite pleasant-tasting, and we let ourselves be talked into a second round while we perused the menu. We had decided beforehand that – provided it was on the menu – we would have crab salad as a main course. We were in luck, and so the only other decisions concerned wine and starters.

We have both been Vinho Verde lovers for many years. These quintessential Portuguese wines originate in the Minho region in the north of Portugal, and are characterised by a natural pétillance (mild fizziness), tart taste and lowish alcohol content. These qualities result from the grapes being harvested while not yet fully ripe, hence the name that means "green wine". Although South Africans generally associate the term with dry white wine, there are in fact many examples of red and rosé Vinhos Verdes. On this occasion we were, however, in need of the white variety and we settled for a Casal Garcia. 

For starters we opted for moelas (chicken gizzards stewed in a spicy white wine and garlic sauce) for yours truly, and Risois de camaraõ (prawn rissoles) for Jakki. While moelas (like salted codfish) is not universally enjoyed by non-Portuguese, I love the stuff but have thus far been unable to make it successfully at home. Needless to say, the good people employed in Lucas’ kitchen don’t have that problem! Jakki’s rissoles were to her satisfaction as well, but we both knew that these were merely the overture to the day’s main event…

The service at Lucas’ can be a tad slow, and we had already ordered a second bottle of wine by the time our waiter emerged from the kitchen with a huge platter containing the piece de resistance. On top of a bed of lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, cucumber and olives lay the mortal remains of several crabs neatly partitioned and expertly cracked. To aid us in our work, we were each given a bib, a tool resembling a tiny screw driver to extract as much of the sweet crab meat as possible, and a bowl for the shells. To me, the flavour and texture of steamed fresh crab has to rank among the most delicate of seafoods. While good-quality frozen or tinned crab are not to be sneezed at, they are not in the same league as the real McCoy. We ate greedily at first, and as we approached the finishing straight more slowly in order to extend our enjoyment.

Apart from it being a really toothsome dish, a crab salad is also very light on one’s digestion. Even after polishing off a generous serving, there is none of the bloating and discomfort that meat or fried foods often cause. We left the unassuming little eatery with a spring in our step, already pondering what to have during our next meal there. Once again substance had triumphed over style – when you have been around the block a few times, seriously good food prepared with passion and served with pride will always trump the flavour of the month. 

Making it at home

Although, living more than 500 km from the nearest sea, fresh crab is quite hard to find, many supermarkets and speciality seafood stores near us have frozen crab for sale. These are normally blue swimming crabs, which – while substantially smaller than mud crabs – taste great, and are well worth the considerable trouble of cooking and cleaning them. Those fortunate enough to have access to Atlantic Spider Crab (not to mention King Crab) will certainly be able to put this recipe to good use as well.

 

Preparation time: ½ hour.

A starter or light lunch for 2 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled, Sauvignon Blanc or unwooded Chardonnay.

 

1 kg Crab, cooked in sea water or strongly salted fresh water (either 1-2 mud crabs or swimming crab portions of the same weight).

100 g Mixed salad leaves (lettuce, rocket, cress etc.)

10 Cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves.

2 Hard-boiled eggs, cut into wedges.

2 Teaspoonfuls of capers.

2 Teaspoonfuls of halved black olives.

2 Teaspoonfuls of finely chopped gherkins.

6 Small spring onions, chopped.

A few small cubes of Danish-style feta cheese.

Salt and black pepper for seasoning.

4 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley.

4 Sprigs of chervil.

4 Nasturtium flowers (optional).

French salad dressing.

2 Tablespoons mayonnaise.

 

  • Crack the crabs (or crab portions) carefully with a mallet. If you are fortunate enough to use mud crab, try to keep the shell and pincers more or less intact.
  • Scoop out all the crab meat you can with a small cake fork.
  • Line a see-through glass bowl with the shredded salad leaves.
  • Lightly combine the mayonnaise with the crab meat, using a spatula. Don’t mix too vigorously.
  • Arrange the crab meat and all the other ingredients (except the parsley, chervil, nasturtiums and mayonnaise) neatly on top of the leaves. Season well with the salt and pepper.
  • Sprinkle with the salad dressing, and garnish with chopped parsley, chervil and nasturtiums.

 

 “The crab that walks too far falls into the pot.” – Haitian proverb.

Final approach

Inhaca Lodge and the Pier

Poolside cocktails

Catch of the Day

The best restaurant in town

20. Curanto and the Devil's Cellar

“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.

The place

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. 

Getting there

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.

The meal

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!

 

½ Cabbage

2 Large chopped onions

6 Large cloves of garlic

2 Tbsp.salt

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 

 

  • Line 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.

Traditional "Curanto en Hollo"

Puerto Varas, with Mt Osorno as backdrop

Petrohue Rapids

Pazos - home of authentic Curanto

Ready, Steady, Eat!