“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.
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 restaurateurshaggle 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
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…
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 arriv. 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!
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.
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, Thirtysomething 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…
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.
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.