13. Abalone on the island of floating houses

“Scallops are expensive, and so they should be treated with respect. But then I suppose that any creature who gives his life for our table should be treated with respect.” – Jeff Smith.

The place

Tourist guidebooks on the South of Chile all warn visitors that the Chiloé archipelago, with its high latitude and maritime environs, is not the sunniest place on earth. Most agree that the island enjoys an average of 60 sunny days per year, and receives a whopping 3 800+ mm of rain. That makes London look like a tropical island by comparison!  Chiloé is actually not one island, but rather an archipelago of 41 islands – some so adjacent that their inhabitants communicate by shouting to one another. The island referred to by outsiders as "Chiloé" is actually known as Isla Grande de Chiloé (Great Island of Chiloé) in Chilean nomenclature. It is actually South America’s second largest island after Tierra del Fuego. Another fact equally unknown to most foreigners is that the ubiquitous potato actually originated in these islands. The original cultivar is still popular in Chile, and is rather small with purple skin and yellowish flesh.

Potato farming, along with fishing and aquaculture, is the mainstay of the Chilote economy. The farmland resembles Normandy in that it is neatly subdivided by miles and miles of hedgerows. Much of the farmland seems to be uninhabited, but this is because the farmers tend to live close to the sea and only visit their plots at specific times for specific purposes. The main island’s countless bays and inlets are dotted with the floats of fish, mussel, scallop and oyster farms which have become important sources of revenue and employment. For many years, fish farming was derided as folly, because of its harmful external impacts. To produce a kilo of (say) salmon required many kilos of sardine or anchovy pellets, so much so that these species were nearly fished to extinction. Now Chilean fisheries scientists have come up with a novel solution: pellets made out of lupine beans (Lupinus spp. – members of the Legume family or Fabaceae) and flavoured with krill (tiny marine crustaceans of the Euphausia family.)

A less economically important, but still highly visible industry is weaving. Woollen sweaters and ponchos from Chiloé are ubiquitous in Chilean craft markets, and generally of excellent quality. Many of them depict the archipelago’s most infamous folkloric character, the trauco. The trauco is roughly the Chilean equivalent of Africa’s tokoloshe, the English gremlin, or the Scottish bogeyman. Normally depicted as a small, potbellied man with an abnormally large penis, he is blamed whenever things go wrong in Chiloé – including single girls falling pregnant!

Chiloé has a special feel to it; not only because of the landscape but also because of how it evolved socio-culturally. It was first colonised by the Spaniards in 1567, at a time when the nearest other settlement was Santiago – a thousand kilometres to the North. The warlike Mapuche people continued resisting Chilean encroachment until more than three centuries later. The islanders were therefore mainly left to their own devices and a unique culture developed over the years. Its main pillars were the customs of the native Chilote people and the Catholicism introduced by Jesuit missionaries, who first arrived in 1612. The Jesuits relied more on persuasion than the coercion favoured by their peers further North, and as a consequence racial relations were far more harmonious than on the mainland. There was also much more mingling of the races; so much so that the 130 000-odd islanders of today are nearly all mestizos (a mixture of Spanish, Chono and Mapuche ancestry).

Apart from spreading the Gospel, the missionaries left another striking legacy – they taught converts how to build shingled (clapboard) churches in the Nordic style. Today there are more than 150 of these beautiful wooden buildings, many of them painted in bright colours. It is interesting to note that the churches do not just provide spiritual guidance – their high steeples are visible from the sea and (because the shapes and colours differ) they serve as navigational aids for traditional Chilote vessels. Apart from the churches, many other buildings are shingled. The shingles are usually made from the wood of a large local conifer tree called the alerce (larch). Another architectural novelty which epitomises the islands is the so-called Palafito, or pole house. Because the tidal range in Chiloé can be as much as 7.5 m, conventional homes on the coast will either be very far from the sea at low tide or swamped by it at high tide. The locals in coastal areas overcame this challenge by building their homes on stilts which are just high enough to keep the floor above water at high tide.

A uniquely Chilote tradition is the Amish-style co-operative efforts known as the Minga. Its main manifestation involves building a wooden house in a convenient location and then transporting it by sea to its intended site. Because of the massive variance between high and low tide, the pre-fabricated structure just has to be moved on rollers (drawn by oxen or bullocks) to the inter-tidal zone at low tide for the process to begin. This should ideally happen just before spring high tide, when the sea is at its highest. Once the house is afloat, it is towed by a motorised vessel to a point near to its ultimate destination where the crew deposits it near the shore at high tide. At the next low tide the previous procedure is repeated in reverse, with the structure hauled to its site on rollers. The grateful homeowner then lays on a celebration to thank his helpers and treat his new neighbours, consisting of a large Curanto seafood stew and copious quantities of wine.

Apart from the potato and Curanto, Chiloé’s other claim to culinary fame is the Loco. This tasty gastropod is a member of the abalone (Haliotis spp.) family, and its firm white flesh is equally popular among Westerners (for its taste) and Orientals (for its alleged aphrodisiacal properties). This has led to the Loco being over-exploited to the edge of extinction. Nowadays, the Chilean authorities only allow small-scale harvesting by traditional fisherman. The best way to savour this rare delicacy is the way it is served in Chiloé: steamed and eaten with a bit of creamy mayonnaise and a side salad.

The Loco’s South African cousin, known locally as the "perlemoen" (Haliotis midae) is in even more dire straits. Heavily armed gangs control the poaching and exporting of the remaining population, and the under-resourced conservation authorities are fighting a losing battle against them. A small aquaculture industry is trying gamely to satisfy the demand for perlemoen, but because they grow so slowly (only reaching sexual maturity after 8 – 10 years) marketing adult molluscs would be prohibitively expensive. We have therefore had to get used to eating much tinier ones than in days gone by.

Getting there

After our experiences over the preceding few days, the prospect of rain was less daunting than it would have been before. We had crossed the Andes from Bariloche in Argentina to Puerto Montt in Chile via a combination of lake cruises and bus rides. The first half of the trip had been windy but dry – Argentine Patagonia is in the rain shadow of the Andes – but after we had crested the Cordillera the rain set in and never let up for the next 48 hours. This did nothing to inspire confidence in our chances of having a fair day in Chiloé, which by all accounts was far wetter than the mainland. 

We spent our time in Puerto Montt watching weather forecasts and praying for a break in the weather. A number of the outings we had planned were simply no longer possible because of the continual rain. Then, as if to compensate as for our hardship, it emerged that our last full day in Puerto Montt was going to be sunny – and that the fair weather was going to extend south to Chiloé! We immediately set about planning  a day trip, and came to the conclusion that if we left early enough and suffered no delays in getting across to the island we could have lunch in Castro, the administrative capital. We could then return to Chacao via a more scenic route (if the weather held) or the main road (if it didn’t).

The only link between the mainland and La Isla Grande de Chiloé, apart from by air, is by ferry. Roll-on, roll-off ferries transport passenger, cars and trucks between Pargua on the continent to Chacao on the island at 20-minute intervals. This added an element of adventure to our plans, as South Africa boasts exactly one ferry – which crosses a modest river at Malgas in the Southern Cape. Sailing across the rip tides of the Chacao Channel would be a major expedition by comparison!

When the big day finally dawned, we set off warily. The weather looked changeable, and after our recent run of bad luck we were determined to keep our expectations on a short leash. I decided to leave the final stop-go decision until we got to the embarkation point. If we were still doubtful when we got there, we could always explore the coastline around Calbuco, and have lunch there before returning to Puerto Montt. Fortunately the weather improved steadily as the day progressed, and we pressed on. The crossing was quite an experience, as tidal movements cause raging currents to roar through the relatively narrow channel. Notwithstanding the ferry’s powerful engines, it was still impossible to sail directly across, and the skipper had to tack crab-like across the channel.

The island and its scenery was a pleasant surprise. After some of our experiences on the mainland, we were expecting this isolated backwater to be rather primitive and run-down. Instead we discovered a charming place with neat villages and small farms where crops were clearly intensively cultivated. The shingled churches were as abundant and pretty as we expected, and Jakki had me stop to take photos of each one! We finally reached Castro slightly early for lunch, and used the time to do some sightseeing and souvenir shopping.

The meal

Chiloé is not known for its haute cuisine. There are nevertheless numerous restaurants that serve tasty food made from fresh ingredients. Many tourists obviously flock to eateries that serve Curanto to savour the archipelago’s flagship dish. As we were under some time pressure, we opted to have a lighter, quicker lunch at a charming little family-run restaurant next to Castro’s arts and crafts market. Fittingly, it was housed in a Palafito.

The meal was all we had hoped for. The service was friendly, the Chardonnay was ice cold, and we were served fresh seafood sourced from local fisherman. For starters I opted for steamed Loco with mayonnaise, and Jakki had scallops in a pil-pil (spicy garlic) sauce. The Loco literally melted in my mouth, and I was once again reminded of why I enjoy eating seafood in Chile. Many of the popular seafood dishes I grew up with are made with frozen ingredients, and rely heavily on spices, garlic, batter and strongly-flavoured sauces to perk them up. The Chileans, on the other hand, are blessed with readily available fresh seafood and give pride of place to the basic foodstuff and its own taste.

For the main course we both opted for grilled Congrio Dorado. Literally translated, the name means "golden conger eel", which is a bit of a misnomer. It is actually a cusk eel (Ophidiidae family) and closely related to the highly prized South African Kingklip (Genypterus capensis). Three species of Congrio occur off the Chilean coast – black, red and golden. All cusk eels are elongated fish of up to 1.5 m long, and live in very deep water (typically 200 – 500 m) where they forage for molluscs, crustaceans and invertebrates on the bottom. Their flesh is white, firm and flaky, and because of their eel-like bone structure their fillets are completely boneless. The black variety is not nearly as tasty as the other two, and usually ends up in seafood soups and stews. Of the other two the Dorado is without doubt the tastier, and therefore also the more expensive. Despite us being loyal South Africans, we have long agreed that it is also superior to our beloved Kingklip in that it has just as much flavour, but a finer, more juicy texture.

The Congrio was grilled on the bone, and had just been dusted with some flour, with some melted butter   providing a lovely golden brown colour. It was served simply, with chips and some lemon wedges. If it hadn’t been for the Loco, the fish course would have stood out as one of my best ever in its own right. Perhaps it was the novelty of the abalone, or its association with the magical, mystical archipelago that is its last redoubt, but the Loco will always be the stand-out memory of that rare sunny day in Castro. 

Making it at home

One of the best ways to enjoy any type of abalone is to simply flash-fry thin strips in a mixture of butter and oil. Because abalone is such a critically endangered species, the only legal way of eating it in South Africa is in a restaurant that serves farmed perlemoen. There is, however, a readily available and tasty substitute. Many years ago, when I was living in Saldanha on South Africa’s West Coast, a neighbour introduced me to the "rondavel" limpet (Patella argenvillei) – a large, conical gastropod that is abundant in the inter-tidal zone of temperate seas. Just like the abalone, it is tasty but tough when handled incorrectly. The trick is to kill them surreptitiously by immersing them in fresh water for a couple of hours. The "foot" muscle then relaxes, and - if fried quickly over high heat - will stay tender.  

Preparation time: 1 ¼ hours.

Cooking time: 8 minutes.

A starter for 2 adults.

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

 

12 Large (10 cm+ diameter) “rondavel” limpets, cleaned and scrubbed.

100 g Cake flour.

1 Tablespoon salt.

Black pepper.

4 Sprigs of broad leaf (Italian) parsley.

1 Lemon, sliced.

Butter and sunflower oil for frying.

  • Bash the cleaned limpets all over with a light mallet. Don’t overdo it, or they will break.
  • Place the limpets in the freezer for an hour to firm them up.
  • Slice each limpet horizontally into 2-4 disks, depending on their thickness. If the limpets are too slippery to handle safely, sprinkle some coarse salt over them. Remember to rinse the salt off after slicing the limpet.
  • Give each slice a firm whack or two with a mallet.
  • Pre-heat a half-and-half mixture of butter and oil in a large frying pan until piping hot.
  • Roll the limpet slices in the flour.
  • Fry them in the mixture of oil and butter until golden brown.
  • Drain the slices on kitchen paper and keep them warm.
  • Season with salt and pepper, garnish with the parsley and lemon slices and use toothpicks to eat them.

“With the earth’s burgeoning human population to feed we must turn to the sea with understanding and new technology. We need to farm it as we farm the land.” - Jacques Cousteau.

 

The ferry that got us across the strait to Chiloe

Picturesque Castro

A breather outside the Palafito restaurant

Lunch: Locos for me, and spicy scallops for Jakki

Chiloe's "Clifton" - palafito homes with a view

14. The Rich Village Regatta

“Our tradition is that of the first man who sneaked away to the creek when the tribe did not really need fish.” – Roderick Haig-Brown.

The place

Chile is a country blessed with many potential holiday destinations. Because it is a long, narrow country most of its people live near the sea and can go to the beach on a whim. As a result, they often prefer spending their summer holidays at inland, rather than coastal, resorts. A perennial favourite is the lake district, situated around seven hours’ drive south of Santiago.

Lago Villarica is the first of the major lakes on the way south. As a consequence, the lakeside towns of Villarica and Pucón are popular summer holiday destinations. The latter is by far the more upmarket, and has the added attraction of proximity to the active Villarica volcano (which towers 2 700 m above the lake). Adventurous souls can hike up to the crater lip (in summer) and ski down its slopes (in winter). Although Villarica is Pucón’s poor relation in many respects, it has one trump card – its stunning view of the volcano across the lake. Whereas most of Pucón faces away from the volcano and towards the lake, Villarica faces towards it across 20 km of water. From an artistic perspective, Villarica town has a further advantage. It is situated almost exactly due west of the great mountain, and therefore offers the best possible vista at both sunrise and sunset. 

Villarica forms part of the Seven Lakes chain. The chain actually starts with Lake Lacar across the border in Argentina, and apart from Villarica also includes Lakes Calafquén, Pellaifa, Neltume, Pirehueico, Pangipulli and Riňihue in Chile. All seven are interconnected; each draining into the next with Riňihue ultimately feeding the San Pedro river. Since the San Pedro is the main tributary of the Rio Calle Calle, which reaches the sea at Valdivia, Lake Lacar is the northernmost Argentine lake with an outlet to the Pacific.

The town of Villarica dates back to 1552, when a party led by one Gerónimo de Alderete settled here to exploit the area’s gold-bearing sand (hence the name, which literally means "rich town"). In 1598 the Mapuche Indians rose up against European rule, and outposts like Villarica stood no chance. The last of the beleaguered settlers were killed in 1602. It took nearly three centuries before Europeans again established a permanent settlement along the lake. In January 1882, a military party led by Leopoldo Urrutia finally coerced the natives into accepting Chilean sovereignty. Urrutia thereupon re-established the town of Villarica on the ruins of De Alderete’s original settlement.

The town grew slowly at first, and served mainly as a commercial and services centre for the farming community that developed post-1882. It got a much-needed boost after World War II, when sports anglers became aware of the fantastic trout and salmon fishing available in the lake and the Toltén river, which drains it. Guest houses and hotels followed, and the area’s popularity as a holiday destination grew steadily. Eventually the more affluent holidaymakers developed a need for greater exclusivity, and this lead to Pucón (which was farther away and thus less accessible) becoming the playground of the rich. Today Pucón is almost entirely focused on the tourism industry, while Villarica has mostly reverted to its commercial roots.

Getting there

Our acquaintance with the area goes back to December 1995, when – as described in Chapter 3 - my brother and sister-in-law visited us in Chile, and we took them to the Lake District. After studying maps and guide books at length, I had decided that Villarica would be the ideal place to spend the first night as it was about 800 km by road and would offer us our first view of a lakeside volcano. I also discovered a lodge right on the water’s edge, which looked positively charming.  

After a long, hard day’s travel we approached Villarica at about 7 PM with the southern sun still shining brightly. We had seen a few volcanoes on the way south, but all of them were quite far from the road. Having seen lots of pictures of Volcan Villarica, we were seriously excited about getting up close and personal. To get to Villarica from the Pan-American Highway, one turns off at the village of Freire with about 50 km to go. About halfway from the turnoff I spotted the soot-stained tip of the great mountain emerging behind the crest of a hill. I hit the brakes and promptly pulled off the road for an impromptu photo session. We were finally entering the home straight!

With each passing kilometre the volcano grew larger, so much so that we could eventually see a wisp of smoke coming out of its crater. Although we knew from our research that Villarica was still active, it was awe-inspiring to actually see it in the act. More photo opportunities followed, until we finally crossed the bridge over the Toltén river and entered the town. We arrived at our destination hungry and tired, but delighted - Hosteria Kiel was a pretty Alpine-style log building, the view was stunning and (best of all) the volcano was reflected in the windows of the lobby.

Our plans for an early dinner were dashed when we discovered that a wedding reception was still in full swing in the dining room. The maitre de hotel apologetically asked us for an hour’s grace and offered us complimentary Pisco Sours while we waited. We decided to grin and bear it; the ladies adjourned to go and freshen up for dinner and the men got stuck into the Sours. My brother made it his mission to rate the quality of Chile’s signature aperitif wherever we went, and – with nothing else to do – we did some in-depth empirical research. Our waiter was a perceptive sort, and soon realised that it was hard work making and serving individual drinks to the two thirsty gringos. He came up with a labour-saving idea: make one large jug of the stuff and leave it with them to serve themselves.

By the time our better halves re-appeared, the wedding party had moved on and the two Pisco drinkers were starting to show the effects of one or two too many on an empty stomach. We nevertheless did our best to put our best feet forward, and joined the ladies for dinner. Our meal consisted of grilled trout, fresh from Lake Villarica, with a tangy cheese and shrimp sauce and papas duquesas (duchess potatoes) and went down a treat. 

The highlight of the evening occurred as we were having dessert. Suddenly the icy cone of the volcano was momentarily lit up by a flash of light. Pierre and I initially blamed the jug of Pisco Sour for what we thought were hallucinations. Then Jakki confirmed that she, too, had seen the eruption. We sat in awe and watched as the natural fireworks display continued intermittently for another half an hour. Eventually we reluctantly got up to go to bed, as we still had another long day ahead of us. The memory of that special evening will however remain with us forever.

When Jakki and I started planning our trip to South America in 2006, that magical evening, the hospitality and good food we had experienced previously had a major influence on our itinerary. Whenever we are away from home over the Festive Season we try to recreate a bit of the family Christmas spirit by either linking up with family or friends, or by staying in familiar, quiet surroundings. We were unanimous that, out of all the places we were planning to visit, Hostería Kiel would best serve that purpose. And so it was that we made our way from Puerto Montt to Villarica on Christmas Eve. Having previously driven the more direct route from Los Lago to Villarica along the western shores of Lakes Panguipulli and Calafquén, we opted for a change of scenery and drove around the lakes to the east, where the Andes towers high above the road and the mighty condor can be seen riding the thermals.   

We were not exactly thrilled at what we saw as we approached the lodge. The outside was run-down and the garden unkempt. Since our visit 11 years ago, its management had clearly shifted its focus to the restaurant and didn’t seem too bothered with providing accommodation. In fact, the lovely annexe we stayed in had been turned into staff quarters. There were still four suites left on the first floor of the main building, and when given a choice we promptly opted for the one right at the end of the passage (which also had a fridge and a superb view of the volcano). Fortunately the restaurant had, if anything, improved even further as we experienced over dinner that evening.

Christmas day dawned sunny and windless, and we decided to make the most of the conditions. Since we had had a sumptuous dinner in the lodge the night before, and were keen to explore the mountainous hinterland east of Pucón, we decided to have a picnic lunch in a suitable spot. We stocked up on fruit, bread, cheese, cold cuts and wine at a nearby supermarket, and hit the road. After sightseeing for most of the morning, we came across a picnic spot next to the gin-clear Liucura river. Before, during and after our meal I fished hard with both spinning and fly tackle but only caught one small brown trout. 

Not satisfied with the meagre result of my efforts at lunchtime, I persuaded Jakki to join me for sundowners on a rented row boat after our siesta. I had a hidden agenda, and suggested matter-of-factly that we take two fishing rods in case we came across fish rising. As there was a stiff offshore breeze blowing, I planned to drift with it for a while and then to row back to the jetty. At first my strategy seemed to work – we were drifting fast enough to impart a tantalising action to the crankbait (on spinning tackle) and booby fly (on a sinking fly line) we were trolling. I was positively beaming when, within 10 minutes or so, Jakki caught a sleek rainbow trout of just over a kilo on the fly rod. That was the last time I smiled that afternoon…

By the time the high fives, hugs and photo session ended several minutes later, we noticed that the wind had picked up considerably and blown us a good mile or so further away from where we needed to return the boat. Having rowed two-handed perhaps ten times in my entire life, the prospect of 5 -6 km against the wind was a daunting prospect. Cheered on by my deeply concerned wife, I knuckled down and gave it my all. After 15 minutes I was afraid I was going to die; after another 15 I was afraid that I wasn’t going to! Jakki tactfully waited until we finally got back to shore before she informed me that she had been afraid I was going to suffer a heart attack…

Thus ended our first (and last) DIY boat excursion. We agreed enthusiastically that we would henceforth use the services of a professional botero (boatman) on our fishing expeditions. Two days later we descended down the Toltén river in a boat skippered by a local pro, and although we only caught a few small trout our bodies (and nerves) were in far better shape than after our previous outing.

The meal

On our return from the Great Rowing Regatta, Jakki’s trout was promptly left in the care of the lodge kitchen staff. The restaurant was closed for lunch and dinner on Christmas Day, so we arranged to have it served as our main course the next evening. I told the chef about our wonderful meal 11 years before, and he assured me that they still served trucha a la plancha con salsa de gambas. We therefore sat down for dinner with eager anticipation.  

As a snack while we waited for the fish, I ordered a lomo liso (rump steak) starter to share. Chileans like to barbecue their steaks whole, and only slice it up into individual portions afterwards. This seals in the meat juices and makes for succulent, tasty meat. Our starter proved the merit of this approach once again, and went down a treat paired with a spicy, complex Chilean Carmenère. The downside was that an entreé consisting of a hefty piece of steak and a bottle of red wine tends to play havoc with your appetite, and we were both keen to do justice to Jakki’s trout!

We need not have worried. The fish smelled great, and looked positively mouth-watering. Its stint under the grill had caramelised the cheese in the sauce without burning the shrimps, and the trout was absolutely on the point. Fittingly, the best part of the meal was the trout itself. It was juicy without being oily, and full of flavour without being overpowering. As with wine, terroir (or rather its hydrographic equivalent) matters hugely when it comes to fish, and I would rather have wild-caught carp from a clear lake than farmed trout from a murky pond. The role played by LakeVillarica’s crystal-clear, cold water in the enjoyment we got from that dinner can not be over-emphasised, and the additional enjoyment derived from eating a wild animal we had caught ourselves.

Another factor that contributed hugely to the success of that meal was undoubtedly the setting. While it is common cause that food’s visual appeal matters just as much as its taste, I would argue that the environment in which you have it matters almost as much as the other two considerations. On this occasion we had struck the jackpot: not only was our meal tasty and beautifully presented, but the moon started to rise over the volcano half way through our main course. Pretty soon it lit up the tranquil waters of the lake and turned our view into a large impressionist painting. Speechless, we silently toasted this special place and the Almighty who had granted us the privilege of getting to know it.

Making it at home

To do justice to this dish, I prefer using "wild" trout that we catch ourselves, since pellet-fed farmed trout tends to be quite fatty and often exudes a whiff of anchovy. Although not common in South Africa, we are very fond of brown trout because they have slightly firmer flesh than the rainbow trout. If you are unable to obtain wild fish, an excellent substitute is "salmon trout" which has been partially reared in sea water. 

Preparation time: 30 minutes.

Cooking time: 20 minutes.

Serves 2 adults.

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

 

2 Trout fillets of about 400 g each, or 4 smaller ones.

250 g Coarse sea salt.

1 Cup untoasted white bread crumbs.

100 g Butter.

½ Cup of grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese.

1 Cup of medium-sized shrimps (lightly simmered in court bouillon for 5 minutes).

1 Tablespoon Dry white wine.

2 Cups of hot Bechamel (white) sauce

  •  Fillet or butterfly the trout. Sprinkle the skin with coarse salt and leave for 10 minutes. Rinse and dry with paper towel. Season the fleshy side with salt, black pepper and fish spice.
  • Place the fish, skin side down, on a pre-heated baking tray. Sprinkle lightly with the bread crumbs and place small knobs of butter, 5 cm apart, down the length of each fillet.
  • Grill in a very hot oven until the crumbs are golden brown.
  • Remove the fish and turn off the oven.
  • Make the topping by slowly stirring the cheese, shrimps and wine into the hot Bechamel sauce in a saucepan. Heat to boiling point, stirring continuously, then turn off the heat.
  • Turn the grill back on, and cover the fillets with the topping. Lightly sprinkle with paprika and nutmeg.
  • Return the fish to the oven, and grill until the topping starts turning brown.
  • Serve with lemon wedges, mashed potato (or Basmati rice) and a garden salad.

 “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” – Jean-Paul Sartre.

Hosteria Kiel, Dec 1995

Pucon seen from Lake Villarica

Under the Volcano

My brown tiddler

Jakki's rainbow from the lake

15. Alto del Crimen to the rescue

“There are two reasons for drinking: one is, when you are thirsty, to cure it; the other, when you are not thirsty, to prevent it… Prevention is better than cure.”  – Thomas Love Peacock.

The place  

By and large, people go to eat in restaurants because of the food. Jakki and I have been privileged to discover a few restaurants where the setting is just as much of a draw card. Donde Augusto in Santiago, the capital of Chile, is definitely one of them. It is situated in the Mercado Central (the main fresh food market) in the heart of Old Santiago. The market building, built between 1868-1872, was prefabricated in England and assembled on its present site as an exhibition centre for Chilean artists. It features intricate wrought-iron work and plenty of glazing that floods the interior with natural light. Sadly (or perhaps not), the locals’ appetite for fresh produce clearly exceeded their aesthetic needs, and the building was soon converted into an indoor market. The market’s look and feel is not dissimilar to London's Covent Garden, but bigger and more stylish.

Because Chileans prefer fresh produce from real markets to frozen food from supermarkets, it is a bustling place. Housewives, nanas (housekeepers) and restaurateurs haggle with vendors while sightseers look on. As can be expected in a country that prides itself on its farm produce and seafood (and where no major city is far from the sea) the fare on offer is fresh and of good quality. Being seafood lovers, we  gravitated to the fish and seafood stalls to check out the fruits of ocean and lake – cusk eels (known as Congrio in Chile), salmon, drum fish, mussels, clams, prawns, shrimps, oysters and the star of the show, the spidery Centolla (king crab) from the far south. Another eye-catching item was the magnificent Lenguado (Paralichthys olivaceus) or Chilean Flounder, a member of the flatfish family that also includes Plaice, Sole, Turbot and Halibut. The Spanish name literally means "tongue", as does the Afrikaans Tongvis.

A number of restaurants operate in the market; some in designated spaces between the stalls and others on balconies offering a panoramic view. Enterprising mozos (waiters) compete for the custom of would-be diners – no question of having to beg for a table here! The food served by the restaurants is not quite the stuff Michelin Stars are made of, but it is made with fresh ingredients and is served professionally by charming waiters in a setting that makes you want to return again and again. Donde Augusto is undoubtedly the first among equals; it is not just the biggest, but also the most highly rated of the market’s restaurants. Over the years it has boasted a number of famous patrons, of whom the best-known is undoubtedly the great tenor Placido Domingo.

There is an understandable focus on seafood; meat-and-potato-loving Gringos will not appreciate the place at all. Favourites among local aficionados include Caldo de Mariscos (a hearty seafood soup made from shell fish, with barnacles as key ingredient), Pejerrey (a delicate, smelt-like fish) and Pastel de Jaiba (a crab soufflé made using the less expensive Jaiba or Chilean blue crab, rather than Centolla).

Perhaps because of their geographic isolation and cultural homogeneity, Chileans are not fond of spicy food or exotic combinations. They prefer plain dishes, made with fresh ingredients and flavoured with salt, pepper, cilantro (coriander leaves) and Ají Chileno (a local chilli sauce). What they lack in enterprise on the seasoning front, they compensate for by their willingness to eat just about any sea creature alive, though! Apart from the usual oysters and scallops, they also consume clams, mussels, sea urchins and red bait raw when given half a chance – accompanied only by olive oil and lemon juice. When quizzed on why they are so keen on raw seafood, the average Chilean macho will give subtle (or sometimes not-so-subtle) hints that their effects are more marked than those of rhino horn…  

Donde Augusto and its peers on the Mercado Central are also magnets for night owls who have been partying the night away at Santiago’s night spots. After a long night involving plenty of Pisco Sours and Whiskycitos (like Afrikaners, Chileans are fond of diminutives – their whiskies are actually gargantuan) those not fortunate enough to end up being served breakfast in bed, flock to early-bird restaurants for a pick-me-up breakfast. Runny scrambled eggs, scooped up with chunks of the ubiquitous maraqueta (a bun with texture and taste similar to baguette) are firm favourites, as are strong black cafecitos

Fun-loving Chilenos get away with this routine because of the Iberian custom of siesta – most people only start work at around 10 AM; knock off at around 2 PM for two hours’ worth of siesta and then work again until 8 PM. Consequently, most restaurants only start serving meals around nine-thirty in the evening. Gringo tourists are often bewildered when they arrive at 9 PM, and are told to wait in the ladies’ bar until service commences! Thank God for the pisco sour

Getting there

Two iconic Chilean treats loom large in this episode; ceviche and pisco. My first experience of both occurred in 1995, during the year I spent in Chile as a military advisor. Being a fanatical fisherman – to me, fishing is somewhere between a sport and a religion - I had been researching the angling potential of the host country for some time before arrival. I had heard a lot about Chile’s wonderful salmon and trout fisheries, but the quarry that fascinated me most was undoubtedly the Lenguado.

South African seafood lovers are gaga for a local relative, the Sole, which has East and West Coast varieties. Compared to the mighty Lenguado, our fish are puny (albeit tasty) "rats and mice" generally weighing less than half-a-kilogram apiece and are basically scavengers, the Lenguado is the apex predator of its domain, which happens to be the surf zone in sandy areas. Weighing up to 25 kg and armed with a large mouth full of gripping teeth, it ambushes unsuspecting prey fish by lying motionless on the bottom until a suitably tempting target presents itself. In a flash the camouflaged assassin dashes upwards, grabs it prey and returns to its lair.

After a couple of (fishless) months in Santiago mastering Spanish, Chilean style, and familiarising myself with the FACH modus operandi, we headed north to Iquique and Arica in July. Situated in the Atacama desert, the driest in the world, sea fishing is the only outlet for the serious angler’s passion. What got me all excited was being told that the Great North is the home of Lenguado fishing! On arrival in Iquique one of my first excursions was to a local tackle shop to buy the equipment needed to take on these tasty flat fish. The most interesting (and to me, pleasing) aspect of the advice I was given was that Lenguado are suckers for large crank baits (commonly referred to as Rapalas). Having grown up as a fly and lure fisherman, I was chuffed to learn that I could pursue my dream fish using one of my favourite techniques.

Success was far from instantaneous; as Michael Palin famously (and only partly in jest) put it, successful fishing is a matter of timing – you have to get there yesterday! Although we stayed within walking distance of a long stretch of beach and I fished hard at every opportunity, it took me several weeks before I finally landed my first fish – weighing in at a modest 1.5 kg. It was promptly converted into battered goujons and devoured. Many hours of fishing later, our final tally for our two-month sojourn in the North came to three fish – the last of which was caught by an elated Jakki during an outing to the remote Loa river mouth.

But all was not lost. A month after our return to Santiago, I was sent to the air base near Antofagasta for a three-week stint. Jakki opted to stay at home, and I became a temporary “single, living in” officer. While living in a mess allowed me to interact much more with my FACH colleagues, it also obliged me to participate in their after-hour activities – most of which involved pisco!  This is not to say that South African Air Force (SAAF) air crew are wilting wall flowers when it comes to knocking a few back… My main weakness during daily choir practice was that our concept of hard tack involved two shots of 43%-strength liquor, ice and a mixer. Chileans (the FACH officer corps at least) do not seem to feel constrained by such Gringo prissiness. Their whiskies are served straight up, with a cube or two of ice if you’re lucky. Tot measures do not really enter into the equation, as they cramp a man’s style!

Way more lethal than neat whisky, however, is the piscola; a potent combination of pisco (a local aquavit distilled from Muscat grapes) and Coca-Cola – again usually poured without the benefit of tot measures. To add insult to injury, Chilean law at the time allowed for alcoholic beverages to be sold with a bewildering variety of alcohol levels – pisco could contain anywhere from 30% alcohol to 54%! Among my brother officers in the FACH, the firm favourite was a pisco called Alto Del Carmen. It was sold in two formats; a 40% version (with a green label) and a 54% "Reserve" version (with a blue label) capable of powering a space shuttle. No doubt because of the unruly behaviour it caused among consumers, the blue label variant was dubbed “Alto Del Crimen” by the FACH officers’ corps. (Note: since our stay in Chile, things have changed. The most potent ADC, the blue label, now has an alcohol content of 40%).

My sojourn in Antofagasta was memorable for two reasons – I finally caught a "proper" Lenguado and got to know ceviche (see the description in due course) in the process. Shortly after my arrival a fishing-mad FACH Commandant took me under his wing. He whisked me off to a tackle shop in the city, where I was kitted out properly with lures which, he assured me, were deadly in local waters. He also bullied me into buying a rather expensive knife used for filleting lenguado. This, he said, would motivate me while I was fishing – my wife would kill me if she heard that I had spent so much money without ever using the knife to clean a fish!

That weekend Commandante Moreno took me to Hornitos, a small beach resort some 90 km north of Antofagasta. Here we fished long and hard for the elusive flatfish, and after landing a few tiddlers we were each rewarded with a decent fish of around 4.5 kg ("double figures" in Imperial terms). My host promptly announced that he and I would host a Sunday lunch for fellow officers with Lenguado as the main attraction. Since he was not only my host, but also outranked me (I was a Major, or Squadron Leader in FACH terms) I naturally acquiesced.  While cleaning and filleting our catches, I enquired in my still-limited Spanish as to how the Commandante planned to cook the fish. He said that it was going to be done with lemon juice, which made sense to me – after all, who has fried or grilled fish without lemon in some shape or form?

I should have sensed that something was amiss when he proceeded to chop the fillets of Lenguado into small chunks and tossed them into a large bowl. On top went finely sliced onion, salt and pepper, chopped cilantro and a few cups of lemon juice. In my blissful ignorance, (exacerbated by a few stiff celebratory piscolas) I assumed that this was obviously a special marinade to add to the flavour of the cooked dish. I slept like a log that night, and dreamt of stir-fried sweet and sour Lenguado.

The new day brought with it a number of surprises, not all of them pleasant. The first involved my well-being. Despite eight hours of sleep, my head throbbed and my throat had acquired a sand paper coating. A few pain killers and gallons of water later, I was off to the Morenos’ for lunch. After the mandatory Pisco Sours had been sipped and our fishing exploits relived, I started making discreet enquiries as to when we were going to cook the fish. To my shock and dismay my host matter-of-factly informed me that this had already been done! 

With the intervention of a FACH pilot who had spent time in South Africa, and consequently spoke a smattering of English, the mystery was solved – the dish had "cooked" in the lemon juice overnight! Ceviche (as I then discovered it was called) turned out to be fish marinated in lemon juice, flavoured by the addition of salt, pepper, grated onion and cilantro.

I tucked into the fish, which turned out to be delicious. The flesh had turned completely white as a consequence of cooking in the lemon juice, so this was not simply sashimi by another name. It has since become a regular feature in the Rossouws’ diet, and it is hard to imagine anything healthier and more refreshing on a hot summer’s day. Because it is obviously quite tart, we prefer serving it accompanied by a bone-dry unwooded Chardonnay.

For both ceviche and Pisco Sour, patriotic Chileans insist on using only Limón de Pica, a tiny lime-like lemon grown around Pica, an oasis in the Atacama desert. Although any firm fresh white fish can be turned into ceviche, Chileans seem to favour Corvina (drum fish). We have subsequently experimented successfully with a variety of other species, and while Jakki concurs with the Chileans, I prefer Lenguado.

The meal

Ten years after our return to South Africa we decided that it was time to head West again, this time on vacation and therefore at own expense. Near the top of our list of places to visit – needless to say - was Donde Augusto. We arrived in the capital city hot and bothered on the 30th of December 2006 after a long drive from Concepción. New Year’s Eve found us well rested and keen to resume our love affair with Mercado Central and its delicacies. The journey there was a very pleasant surprise, since Chile in general – but Santiago in particular – had become a much more prosperous and modern place since we had last been there. This was especially true of the public transport system; the two Metro (underground) lines of old had been supplemented by three new ones. This allowed us to ride the Metro all the way to the market, which had not previously been possible.

After numerous Kodak Moments in and around the market, we headed for one of Donde Augusto’s upstairs alcoves, which afforded us a bird’s eye view of the market’s hustle and bustle. The waiter who assumed responsibility for us (and will remain nameless to protect innocent relatives and friends) was a charming, Thirty-something professional. He served us efficiently, and was knowledgeable about both the menu and the wine list.

What a feast our lunch turned out to be! We had considered feasting on steamed Centolla, but a discreet enquiry regarding prices reminded us once again of the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility. I could not imagine the King of Crabs giving me sufficiently greater pleasure than the other starters to justify paying ten times more! The (inevitable) Pisco Sour aperitifswere therefore followed by live scallops for me, and Ceviche de Corvina for Jakki. To reward ourselves for our fiscal restraint in not ordering Centolla, we did not pull any punches when it came to ordering wine…

Being a bit of a tourist trap, the market attracts its share of itinerant entertainers. Halfway through our starters, a mariachi band appeared. With an attitude of "if you can’t beat them, join them" we sat back and enjoyed their renditions of the likes of – you guessed it – Cielito Lindo and La Paloma

The entreés were followed by deep-fried Lenguado with chips and salad for both of us. Chilean chefs are often guilty of mummifying fish in a too-thick batter, and our main courses were no exception. At least the protected the fish itself against over-cooking, and – once we had gotten rid of the egg-batter carapace – the Lenguado itself was succulent and full of flavour. The tart Chardonnay took care of any grime on the palate, and our waiter had us in stitches with yarns about some of the weird Gringos and Chinos (Orientals) he had served over the years. All too soon it was time to retire for a siesta, and after strong black cafecitos and camomile liqueur (known in Chile as Licor de Manzanilla) we bid him good-bye.   

Already contemplating the taste of the dishes we had deferred, I reserved the same table for lunch on New Year’s Day and asked the waiter for confirmation that he would be serving us again. Influenced no doubt by the handsome tip, he was only too glad to volunteer his services. He did however make it clear that he and a colleague, who will also remain nameless, were intent on painting the Greater Santiago bright red in the interim. They take their New Year’s celebrations seriously in Santiago…

And so they did. When we got to our table at around 12H30, both men were there, but they were shadows of their former selves. Gone was the light-hearted banter of the previous day; replaced by bleary eyes and trembling hands. They soldiered on gamely, but the joie de vivre of Day One was gone. I could sense that they were both on the tipping point between being afraid that they were going to die and being afraid that they were not going to die!

I needed at least one of them to survive until we had finished our lunch. I therefore explained to them that there was only one solution; introducing them to the old South African remedy called the regmaker (loosely translated, the hair of the dog). Its premise is simple: in order to avoid (or treat) a hangover, keep drinking! By quaffing an alcoholic beverage – back home a beer is the antidote of choice – the patient quickly regains his/her mellow glow.  Since they were both deeply patriotic Chilenos, I felt that it would be appropriate to use something typical Chilean for this purpose, and ordered three triple Piscolas. When I asked them to join me in a toast to the New Year, I got a bear hug from one and my hand kissed by the other. The medicine had hit the spot!

Having been there and done it myself, I knew that the improvement in their condition would be ephemeral. I didn’t want to be there when their wheels finally fell off, so we made good our escape soon thereafter. As we glanced back one last time on our way home, I could have sworn I saw our waiter hustling another regmaker from one of his patrons… 

Making it at home

Ceviche is a very simple dish to prepare, provided one has access to firm, fresh fish. For those of us not blessed with access to Lenguado or Corvina, Cod, grouper, sea bass, turbot or kingfish (a.k.a. trevally) will do the trick almost as well. Salmon is also suitable, and I quite enjoy the combination of the rich fish and the sharpness of the lemon juice.

 

Preparation time: 30 mintes.

"Cooking" time: 4 hours

Serves 4 adults.

Tastes best accompanied by a well-chilled Portuguese vinho verde or an unwooded Chardonnay.

 

800 g Fish – any of the species listed above.

4 Cups of lemon juice.

1 Large, chopped onion.

½ Cup of cilantro (coriander leaf)

1 Tablespoon of chopped parsley.

Salt and black pepper for seasoning.

  • Prepare the marinade by mixing the lemon juice, onion, cilantro and parsley.   
  • Fillet and skin the fish, and slice finely.
  • Season quite heavily with salt, pepper and fish spice.
  • Place the fish in a deep, non-metallic bowl and immerse in the marinade.
  • Allow to rest in a refrigerator for at least 4 hours (maximum 8 hours).
  • When cooked serve the ceviche on its own as a starter, or as a main course with potato salad and/or curried bean salad.

 “He was in such a state that a fly treading lightly on the carpet made him feel like one of the extras in All Quiet on the Western Front.” – P.G. Wodehouse.

Mercado Central

The building's Intricate wrought iron frame

Fish and seafood in abundance

A brace of Hornitos' feisty Lenguados

A satisfied customer

16. Swiss Hospitality: NOT an oxymoron!

“Hospitality consists in a little fire, a little food and an immense quiet.” – Ralph Waldo Emmerson.

The place

Whenever Switzerland is mentioned, caricatures abound. There are the secretive “trolls” who run numbered bank accounts for crooked foreigners. Next you have the yodelling village idiot who builds cuckoo clocks and plays the Alpine horn in his spare time. To me the most misplaced stereotype has to be the sullen hotelier in a spotless (and soulless) hotel. Whoever created this myth in the first place was probably some masochist who enjoyed schlepping luggage up narrow, creaking stairways and would describe a run-down hotel on the Left Bank as “charming”. He or she probably didn’t have much of a social life either – why else would someone have a problem with being allowed a large personal space?

Call me left field, but I really enjoy staying in a comfortable, well-maintained hotel where you could eat off the floor if you so wished. I also have enough friends and family not to have to go and befriend strangers when I am on holiday. And – because I work in a service industry – I prefer dealing with people who under-promise and over-deliver. Give me a reserved person who does what I want, rather than a gregarious bungler. Hence my soft spot for Swiss hotels.

Switzerland is a wonderfully diverse country. Apart from containing four discreet linguistic groups (German, French, Italian and Romanisch; each group contributing to the richness of the country’s cultural life and cuisine) the land itself is varied and full of contrasts. While much of it is alpine, with stark mountains, and forests and meadows in lower-lying areas, there are also large tracts of cultivated land along a myriad lakes and rivers. Within the four main cultural groups there are also numerous subcultures due to the relative geographic isolation in which various communities evolved.

To cater for the preferences of such distinct (and hard-headed) groups of citizens, the Swiss settled on a novel political structure which works superbly well for them. The country has a confederal state form, consisting of 26 “Cantons” (autonomous districts) which govern themselves, but co-operate in areas of mutual interest (e.g. foreign affairs, defence, macro-economic policy and infrastructure). While its people were originally feared and despised for being fierce mercenary warriors, they are nowadays mainly envied for the incredible stability and prosperity that their devotion to democracy and the rule of law has helped to foster. It is one of the world’s richest countries per capita, and a popular home for multinational corporations.

Not totally unexpected in a country where entire communities lived in relative isolation until recently, and where foreigners come to store and retrieve their riches in anonymity, the Swiss are not talkative, outgoing people. They have turned quiet efficiency into an art form. They have also leveraged their multilingual national makeup; being able to serve foreign customers in Geman, French and Italian as well as English. With this broadening of media has inevitably come a dilution of spontaneity – apart from an exceptionally gifted few, it is naturally quite hard for most people to be relaxed and charming in four different languages.

Our chosen venue for the Millennium celebrations was a small town called Engelberg in Obwalden Canton, south of Luzern. Although it is one of the top adventure sports resorts in Switzerland, it has retained a small-village atmosphere. Mount Titlis, which at 3 239 m (10 600 ft) is the highest peak in Central Switzerland, falls within Engelberg’s municipal boundaries. Apart from its popularity among skiers and sight-seers, the town is best known for its magnificent Benedictine monastery, which was founded in the 12th century. The monastery is home to a highly-regarded Catholic school and a museum dedicated to the art of cheese-making. The monks make excellent cheese, which is sold in the museum’s curio shop. Another source of revenue is the classical music evenings in the monastery’s auditorium. To us it served a further important purpose: for us as Christians from a “young” country, being able to attend a Christmas church service in a place with so much history was a spiritually enriching experience.

Getting there

Jakki, Elouise and I had arrived in Engelberg first. We had flown from Vienna to Zurich early that morning, and taken a train to Luzern from the airport. After a quick stopover, we had boarded the Regionalbahn  (local train) to Engelberg and arrived at our destination just after 2 PM. This gave us a three-hour head start, which Jakki and I used to unpack and enjoy a siesta. Young Ms Rossouw had other plans; she used the time to construct a snow redoubt in front of the hotel in which she built a stockpile of snowballs with which she planned to pelt her cousins when they arrived. 

On my brother’s recommendation, we had booked to stay in a family-run hotel within walking distance from the train station. They had stayed there more than once, and had assured us that the rooms, service and food were out of the top drawer. It would not take very long before we agreed whole-heartedly. Apart from the comfort and value for money we experienced, we were astounded at the diligence and productivity of the staff. With a head count barely greater than that of Fawlty Towers, they ran the proverbial tight ship. Unlike the Fighting Fawltys, everyone was courteous, and clearly grasped the need to make guests feel like coming back.

The rest of our party arrived late that afternoon, and were duly ambushed by my now-refreshed family. After much excited banter and comparing of notes we allowed Pierre and his family to settle in. We had meanwhile discovered that the hotel went to a lot of trouble to lay on “theme” evenings, and dinner that evening would be livened up with folk music and dances from the Obwalden region. I particularly enjoyed hearing the haunting sound of an alpine horn during one of the nostalgic songs. The next day was Christmas Eve, and all those willing and able trudged through the snow to a nearby wood where we sang carols by candlelight before dinner. Coming, as we do, from a hot country in the Southern Hemisphere, this gave a whole new and special meaning to the term “White Christmas”.

Learning to ski was, well, challenging. The three children were left in the care of a sympathetic-looking instructor, and – as with most physical skills – they soon got the hang of it. The four adults were not such quick learners. What added insult to my injury was that the two wives made substantially more progress on that first day than did Pierre and I. My embarrassment turned to downright humiliation when the girls and our wives left the “baby slope” to start skiing on a proper slope nearby, and the two grown men were ordered back into the beginner’s area for remedial instruction.

Our instructor, a rakish bachelor called Ottmar, kept confusing the two Rossouw brothers. This suited Pierre - who was battling even more than me - to a tee, because it meant that Ottmar would be telling his mates how useless Louis, the South African was! Whenever Pierre came short, he would try and encourage him in the reflexive form, common in German: “Louis, relax you!”

All of us eventually mastered the basics. But, as with the inhabitants of Animal Farm, while all of us were equal, some of us were more equal than others! The three girls were soon whistling down the full length of the Klostermatte piste, with Tersia eventually becoming an accomplished performer as well. Jakki proved to be a natural, but her inherently cautious nature limited her repertoire. As for the two men? Let us just say that I wasn’t the wooden spoonist… 

We had arrived shortly after a decent snowfall, but as the days went by conditions for skiing deteriorated due to the balmy sunny weather. Powdery snow became hard snow which in turn became slippery ice. Even our intrepid female troupe started taking tumbles, which put a stop to the fun on Boxing Day. Fortunately for the skiers, Jakki got an early birthday present on the night before her birthday (the 28th) in the form of a heavy storm, accompanied by very heavy snowfall. The stage was therefore set for a memorable day when we woke up the next morning.

The fact that Jakki is not what you would call an “early bird” gave the rest of us ample time to ensure that everything was ready by the time she made her way downstairs for breakfast at around 9 AM. The rest of us had conspired with Frau Burcht, the owner, and she had laid on a champagne breakfast of note. Apart from the champagne and orange juice needed for Bucks Fizz, she had gone to a lot of trouble to obtain some milk stout (which is not exactly quintessential in Switzerland) when I mentioned that Jakki loved Black Velvet. Apart from all the usual breakfast dishes, we were treated to a variety of fresh fruit and served at the table rather than having to help ourselves at the buffet.

After a hearty breakfast, all of us except Tersia and Jakki excused ourselves on various pretexts. Tersia had arranged for Jakki to enjoy a massage in the hotel’s spa – essentially as a birthday treat, but also as a means of keeping her occupied while we were busy with her next surprise. The rest of us got into our snow gear and headed for the village park. The snow storm had abated, but flakes were still coming down steadily. With Pierre and me as “consultants” the three girls built “Snow-woman Jakki” – a (well-endowed) effigy of my wife!

Numerous photos and a few impromptu snow ball fights later, we went for a stroll in the gently falling snow. There was to be no skiing that day, and snow ploughs were hard at work clearing the key roads and streets. We therefore spent the remainder of the morning admiring the magical landscape and (some more than others) searching for souvenirs. After a light lunch of rösti and soup at a small restaurant we headed back to the hotel for a siesta.

The meal

Our dinner was a true celebration of the art of fondue. As a child in the 1970s, my parents had often treated us to fondue dinners but these invariably consisted of cubes of filet broiled in sunflower oil. It was therefore an eye opener for me to experience the real thing. After consulting with our waitress, we opted for a two-course formula: first a variety of seafood, meat and vegetablesfollowed by an authentic cheese-and-bread fondue.

The meal was a hit with all concerned. There was enough variety to cater for all tastes, and we could eat as much as we pleased without having to worry about sending plates back half full. The first course consisted of prawns, mussels, baby vegetables and cubes of ostrich meat and chicken, which we skewered and cooked in a rich court bouillon. A variety of dips were provided to add flavour to the cooked morsels. This was followed by a superb cheese fondue, the flavour of which was enhanced by a hint of garlic and the addition of a soupçon of Pflümli (plum schnapps). It was the perfect way to end a special day, because the format of the meal afforded plenty of time for conversation and togetherness.

Our enjoyment of the food was further enhanced by some excellent wine. Since we had already had some celebratory champagne with breakfast, we decided to rather have some really good red wine with dinner. Since Pierre had previousl experience of Swiss wines, he selected a Merlot from the Ticino region in south-eastern Switzerland. It was smooth and fruity, and complemented the first course really well. As I was new to the Swiss wine scene, I fell back on wines I had encountered elsewhere. My contribution was a Syrah-based Cotes du Rhône. Its fuller body and spicy bouquet was exactly what was needed to stand up to the sharpness of the cheese fondue. 

There was just no way we could even contemplate trying the chocolate fondue as well. The adults, who don’t have such sweet teeth, were chock-a-block and the three girls (who do) were half asleep by the time we finished the cheese course. The most pleasing aspect of our dinner was that, although the food had been comforting and filling, we did not feel bloated afterwards.

Having experienced the light but sure touch of real Swiss hospitality, I agree wholeheartedly with Emmerson. A really good host provides comfort and space, and allows guests to decide how much interaction they want. True hospitality is not about grovelling or bootlicking. Nor is it about invading a guest’s personal space by trying to become his/her best friend overnight. It is about listening well; not talking well – after all, discerning tourists go on vacation to get peace and quiet. It is about being there when needed, and attending to the guests' needs efficiently when necessary and then leaving them in peace. Swiss hoteliers and their staff seem to understand this well.

Making it at home

Fondue is often stereotyped as a “retro” pursuit, straight from the 60s and 70s. I beg to differ. Notwithstanding what the “cool kids” have to say, I honestly believe that it embodies many of the best elements of a good meal – it can be very healthy (or not), it breaks the ice by bringing people together physically, and (much like eating steamed artichokes) a bouillon fondue can actually be kilojoule-negative (i.e. one expends more energy preparing the food than is gained by eating it).

One of the most enjoyable ways of spending a cold winter’s evening with friends or family is to have an all-fondue dinner party. For starters, cook vegetables, prawns and mussels, cubes of chicken and beef and slices of sausage (we love Bockwurst) in court bouillon. Take a breather, open more full-bodied red wine and move on to a cheese and bread fondue. After another intermission, have a chocolate fondue for dessert!

 

First course - bouillon

NB. For cooking meats and veggies in a broth, you will need a sturdy copper, cast iron or stainless steel fondue pot, since the heat required is much higher than for the other two courses.

Preparation time: ½ hour

Cooking time: Up to you!

Enough for 4 - 6 adults

It is best to have both white and red wine at hand; (say) a well-chilled Sauvignon Blanc and a fruity red like a Merlot

 

Raw mushroom halves, baby carrots, broccoli florettes and asparagus tips

12 Queen prawns, shelled

12 Large black or greenback mussels

12 Cubes each (3 cm3) of beef steak (or ostrich filet) and chicken breast

4 Bockwurst, sliced into 3 cm lengths

Bouillon: 250 ml water, 150 ml dry white wine, 1 chicken stock cube, 1 bouquet garni, I chopped onion, 2 chopped celery stalks

Dip: Small bowls of mayonnaise, barbecue sauce and mild mustard sauce

 

  • Bring the bouillon to the boil on the stove. Scoop out the solid ingredients with a slotted spoon.
  • Transfer the liquor to the fondue pot, which should be heated by now.
  • The pot should be centrally placed and easily accessible to all. Do not move it once filled with the hot bouillon!
  • Skewer the pieces of raw food with your fondue fork, and tuck in!
  • Once cooked, dip in the sauce of your choice and season.

 

Second course - cheese

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: Up to you!

Enough for 4 - 6 adults

This works best with a full-bodied red like a Syrah or Cabernet Sauvignon

2 Cloves of garlic, cut in half

2 Cups dry white wine

225 g Shredded Emmenthaler cheese

225 g Shredded Gruyère cheese

1 Tablespoon Lemon juice

2 Tablespoon flour

3 Tablespoon Cherry schnapps (Kirschwasser)

Pinches of nutmeg, paprika and ground black pepper

Chunks of firm bread to dunk in the cheese

 

  • Rub the inside of the fondue pot with the garlic, then discard the garlic.
  • Pour the wine and lemon juice into the pot and bring to just below boiling point on the stove.
  • Reduce the heat and stir in the cheese.
  • While continually stirring, add all the other ingredients.
  • If the mixture is too thick, add wine. If it is too runny, add more cheese!
  • Transfer the pot to the fondue burner.
  • Skewer the pieces of bread with your fondue fork, and tuck in!

 

Dessert - chocolate

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: Up to you!

Enough for 4 - 6 adults

Enjoy with a fortified sweet wine, noble late harvest (botrytis) wine or glühwein

 

125 ml Water

250 g Dark chocolate

100 g Milk chocolate

300 ml Double cream

To dunk: 12 marshmallows, 12 strawberries and 12 fresh cherries

 

  • Bring the water to the boil in a small saucepan. Discard the water, and do not dry the inside of the saucepan.
  • Heat the cream over medium heat until hot, but not yet boiling.
  • Add the chocolate and stir until amalgamated with the cream.
  • Transfer to the fondue pot.
  • Tuck in!

“Researchers have discovered that chocolate produces some of the same reactions in the brain as marijuana. The researchers have also discovered other similarities between the two, but they can’t remember what they are.” – Matt Lauer.

 

Engelberg at twilight

Two rookies on the Klostermatte

Champagne Breakfast in the Schweizerhof

Jakki's well-endowed effigy

Milennium fireworks