Travel News

Wild at heart

Chile is one of the world’s major wine producers, but now the nation is reflecting on its cuisine, with chefs championing its hitherto underexplored native ingredients. Kendall Hill goes dining on the edge.

By Kendall Hill
In the glossary of Chilean slang, or Chilenismos, there's a word that perfectly sums up my week-long gastronomic tour of this slender, singular country. Pochito (po-chee-to) describes that happy-drowsy state of body and mind after a satisfying feast. In Chile, there are many pochito moments.
The first comes at Boragó, an epicurean temple in the fashionable Vitacura district of Santiago, where celebrated young chef Rodolfo Guzmán crafts what he calls "cuisine from the edge of the world". Translated, this means peculiar ingredients sourced from the 4300-kilometre length and soaring heights of this isolated nation, prepared using a novel combination of native Mapuche and Pehuenche customs and an arsenal of modern kitchen techniques ably handled by Guzmán, a trained biochemist.
On the plate this novel fusion can take the form of a blue egg from the Mapuche hen, smoked rescoldo-style over charcoal. Or seared kra kra fish from Easter Island with salicornia (aka samphire). An oyster plucked from the Pacific is stained a gorgeous, pale-ruby colour with maqui, a rainforest berry that also makes a knockout Kir Royale. Tender pieces of lamb heart come showered with scales of crisp rice and yuyo, wild mustard flowers that infuse the meat with a subtle botanical spice.
Guzmán's eight-course "Endémica" menu invariably also involves the Japanese art of bonsai. In my case it's a dwarf elm sporting two tiny pears that have been poached, skinned and rolled in pine needles. The tree is adorable and the pears are quite nice, too.
The dish is a tribute to the forests of Chile, but also to the imagination of a trailblazing chef helping to redefine a national cuisine that, until recently, languished in the shadow of fashionable Peru. Like Alex Atala in Brazil, Margot Janse in South Africa, Enrique Olvera in Mexico and - most famously - René Redzepi in Denmark, the Mugaritz-trained Guzmán is determined to seek out indigenous foods and fashion a cuisine that is inherently home-country.
"We want to get endemic things, wild things, that you can only find in Chile," he explains between courses in the concrete and white-leather surrounds of his contemporary dining room. "We know there are a few restaurants doing similar things, but we don't believe this is a fashion. We just wanted to look into ourselves, look at our cuisine, and to show people Chile."
Along the same leafy avenue, in an old mansion of fishbone parquetry and flourishing gardens, chef Matías Palomo Reyes is taking a more literal approach to fusing Chilean culture and cooking at Sukalde. Reyes, an alumnus of Arzak and El Bulli in Spain, and Daniel Boulud in New York, is famous for a dish inspired by the poetry of Chile's Nobel laureate. Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the Conger Eel Soup" assumes whimsical form at Sukalde: the verses are printed in squid-ink on sheets of potato, and cut-out carrot letters float in a fishy broth. It's the world's most sophisticated alphabet soup, and a salute to the country's best-loved literary figure.
When not constructing playful plates, Reyes, like Guzmán, is scouting the land for new sensations. "In traditional Chilean food, we don't even use 10 per cent of the products we have," he says, "so we are trying to show the people what we have and make them feel proud of it. We have some of the best products in the world."
Such as giant razor clams and elephant garlic; changle, an endemic mushroom from the Lakes Region that looks like a coral branch; and chañar, a tangerine-coloured fruit with a taste similar to caramel. Not to mention the hundreds of fish species teeming along the Pacific coast thanks to the nutrient-rich Humboldt Current. There are 35 regional varieties of quinoa, according to Reyes, and 260 types of mushroom - 30 of them endemic, 60 edible. There's no shortage of unique produce from which to fashion a distinctive regional cuisine. But perhaps domestic attitudes must shift before chefs like Guzmán and Reyes can convince the world that Chile is a true gastronomic force.
"We have the produce to make the best food in the world here," says Reyes, "but we eat farm food - chicken, pork and beef. You go to different regions but you find the same menu. Generally, food here is just all thrown into the pot and left to cook."
It's a sentiment I hear echoed during a meeting with some of the capital's leading food writers. The Círculo de Cronistas Gastronómicos, Chile's Association of Food and Wine, was founded in 1991 as a forum for journalists to talk about, and write about, gastronomy and wine. Which is what three members of the association and I are doing one bright afternoon in the elegant downtown neighbourhood of Lastarria.
"The thing is, with Chilean food it has to be big. We like our flavours oversized," explains Mariana Martínez, a spirited sommelier and wine writer. She cites the national obsession with foods such as pastel del choclo, a summertime casserole of minced meat and chunky chicken baked under a lid of fresh corn, and with fattening fried pastries like calzones rotos, or "broken underpants".
"There are two Chiles, gastronomically," says Juan Antonio Eymin, the association's director. "There is Santiago - which is not Chile - and there is the rest of Chile. The quality outside the capital is less."
"We are working very hard to find out what the original foods of Chile are," continues Pilar Larraín, a veteran radio journalist and secretary of the association. Native fish from Easter Island, for example, flora and fauna from the Atacama Desert, giant sea urchins from Quintay Bay, pink scallops from Patagonia.
All three concede Peru is the reigning star of South American cuisine, but hope the success of their neighbour can inspire their own goals. "They are so proud of their food, and it's everywhere now," says Larraín. "They are a role model for Chile; it's where we want to get to."
"The important thing," says Eymin, "is that after many years of crisis, our food is catching up to our wine."
Ah yes, Chilean wine. The first vines arrived in this sunny land in the 16th century, the same time as God. (The Franciscans were responsible for both innovations.) Five centuries later, in 2011, Chile was ranked the world's eighth largest wine producer - behind China and Australia - and its fifth biggest exporter, according to data from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. ProChile, the national trade commission, estimates that each day 9.8 million people around the world drink a glass of Chilean wine.
Vines are planted along a 1300-kilometre expanse of plains and valleys that bridges the Andean foothills and the Pacific Ocean, from the edge of the Atacama Desert to Chile's cool southern reaches.
The country's best-known wine region, the Central Valley, is conveniently located on the doorstep of the capital, Santiago. Geographically, it is the Chilean counterpart to Argentina's famous Mendoza wine country, located just over the Andes. It comprises the Maule, Curicó, Rapel valleys, and the Maipo - one of the oldest and most renowned New World wine regions.
We head instead to San Antonio Valley, a small but special area an hour's drive west of the capital. It sits about 20 kilometres from the Pacific in a microclimate of hot sunshine and cooling winds. Perfect conditions for grape growing, in other words. The rolling landscape is planted with eucalypts, pines and spinosa. We turn up a country road to reach Matetic winery and find it surrounded by soft hills ribbed with low vines, the occasional empty paddock of dry grasses rippling in the breeze.
The bodega is a sweeping and graceful stone bastion that commands a rise above the Rosario Valley. Matetic is one of the many newcomers to the nation's wine industry; the number of vineyards almost doubled in the decade between 1995 and 2005. The Matetic family, third-generation steel barons, turned part of their ranch into a vineyard in 1999, reaped their first harvest in 2001 and five years later their EQ Syrah made an élite list of the world's 100 best wines.
Such a precocious début in the competitive world of global winemaking might be due to Matetic's fastidious methods, as our guide José Ramón Salgado explains. The vineyard is not only biodynamic and organic - common practice in the venerable vignobles of Burgundy these days - but also apparently feng-shui compliant. Meanwhile, a swat squad of free-range hens controls pests while a rearguard of sheep and alpacas keeps the weeds in check. And the grape pickers are mostly women.
"They do this work much better," says Salgado. "They treat the fruit gently and produce double the work than men. They can talk and work at the same time."
The proof, ultimately, is in the drinking and the wines we sample are extraordinary. A 2009 EQ (short for Equilibrium) Pinot Noir is a velvety mouthful of fresh crushed berries. "It's a very difficult plant to work with in the field and in the winemaking," Salgado notes. "But it's a very good pinot, one of the best in Chile."
The '09 syrah could use another five years in the cellar, he admits, but right now it is insanely peppery with after-notes of green olive, and it has perfect archway legs that trace a crimson aqueduct around the glass. The white wines - sauvignon blanc, gewürztraminer, riesling and chardonnay - are only slightly less dazzling.
Next day we fly north to La Serena, bypassing its broad beaches in favour of a stiff drink. With Pisco Capel chief distiller Patricio Azócar along for the ride we set off into the countryside along roads lined with wildflowers and past hillsides studded with cactus and flourishing eucalyptus. ("All we are missing are koalas," Azócar jokes.)
The vegetation thins eventually to an arid land of gorges and mountains whose dull, pinky-brown flanks accentuate the relentless blue of the sky and the lush green of the vines embroidering the slopes.
The Elqui Valley's glacial terraces partition the ocean from the Andes and are the heartland of Chile's pisco grape-growing industry. Hot desert sun and cooling sea breezes concentrate perfumes and flavours in the fruit to produce a distinctive spirit that both Chile and Peru claim as their invention. (My host Agustín Chaparro from ProChile says that, at weddings, you can always tell Chileans because they drink pisco and coke, or piscola. And when they're abroad, homesick Chileans are most likely to miss empanadas, pastel del choclo, and pisco.)
We pass campsites, holiday cabins and homestays set up to meet the 21st-century demand for holistic escapes. The Elqui Valley is said to have a mystical energy that clears the mind and frees the spirit, hence the curious concentration of yoga and meditation camps amid the wilderness. The valley is also renowned for its clear-as-crystal atmosphere and is riddled with mountaintop observatories, their telescopes trained on the heavens.
This is the heartland of Pisco Capel. The world's largest pisco producer owns more than half of Chile's 10 million hectares of pisco-producing vines. Azócar, who has worked here for two decades, says Capel was one of the first firms to punt on the potential of the Elqui. The strong sun produces sugary grapes and sweet wines with a tendency to turn to vinegar, so smart producers distil the fermented juice to create the more stable pisco, named after the Peruvian port from where it first sailed to the New World.
Initially popularised by the hard-drinking silver miners of Potosí - once the largest city in the New World - pisco sales skyrocketed in the 1970s when the dictator Augusto Pinochet imposed a luxury tax on imported spirits.
It remains popular - Chileans drink more pisco than any other nation - but in the face of global competition producers today are increasingly targeting export markets, especially the United States. Pisco Capel sells in 49 countries and yet it is still run as a cooperative of hundreds of small producers. Visitors to its charming desert HQ are treated to entertaining tours and an excellent museum, as well as tastings guaranteed to make them re-evaluate their attitudes to grape-based spirits.
For lunch we journey deeper into the valley to Hacienda Miraflores, a glass-walled restaurant and pension that serves up sensational views of barren mountains and lush valleys alongside inventive pisco cocktails. One is flavoured with two drops of soy sauce, another with mangoes from Iquique, and both are delicious. We sober up over fried sopaipilla pumpkin bread, palm heart salad and slow-cooked, Flintstones-sized pork ribs served with superb mash. I'm feeling pochito again, but that could just be the pisco taking effect. Or perhaps it's the special energy of the Elqui Valley. I can't claim any transcendental moments here, but it is definitely some of the most beautiful countryside I've had the pleasure of visiting.
Back in Santiago, where the bells of the Metropolitan Cathedral play Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" at midday and the ostentatious skyscrapers of the financial district have been dubbed Sanhattan, the cornucopia continues. At the 1872 Mercado Central, an art nouveau gem in the city centre, I meet fish called lorna and lisa, and their cousin reineta, a flat, silver-blue specimen with a pouting lower lip and perfectly round eyes. It looks simultaneously stubborn and surprised. There are all manner of mussels and clams - almejas, mahones, cholgas, choros, choritos - and crab claws, and boiled kelp. There are also piures de roca, the most bizarre- and bilious-looking shellfish known to humankind. Piures are bottom-feeding barnacles that are so misshapen and ugly they look like they've been run over. I don't try one, for the simple reason that they look far too disgusting to swallow.
Chaparro takes me to see Bellavista, the old bohemian neighbourhood where history, theatre, art and 450 restaurants collide to create the Soho of Chile, but I prefer the simpler pleasures of the capital's many picadas: cheap diners with tap beer (schop in the local lingo). Costa Brava, on busy Alameda near the Catholic University, is typical of these basic bars where a filling meal costs less than $10. The menu offers 22 sandwiches including the Diplomático (pork and hot cheese) and the Italiano (tomato, avocado, mayo - the colours of the Italian flag), alongside pizze, soups and more substantial plates like churrasco and kidneys in Sherry. Tables are set with bottles of tomato sauce, mustard and hot aji sauce.
If Boragó is at the vanguard of new Chilean cuisine, Costa Brava is its antithesis. A place where traditions outweigh trends, and the focus is firmly on the satisfaction of humble food. What's common to both, and to Chilean cuisine generally, is the pleasure of pochito.
  • undefined: Kendall Hill