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Chow down in Chile

By | March 13, 2014

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From haute cuisine to rustic food cooked alfresco on an open flame; from snow-capped peaks of the Andes to Pacific coastlines; from indigenous fruit grown in arid deserts, to Mediterranean-esque produce – if there was ever a land of contrasts, it is Chile.

There’s no doubt about it – Latin American cuisine is hot at the moment, around the world. Having popped up on various food trend lists last year, South American food is definitely having its moment. But there is so much more to it than Brazilian Churrascuria and Argentinian Asado.

Chile may not yet be on the world’s radar as a gastronomical destination, but it is just a matter of time before this unique, long country with varied geography – it stretches along 4,300km bordering Peru on the north, Bolivia and Argentina to the east, sheltered by the majestic Andes mountain range, and the Strait of Magellan in the south – starts attracting tourists to try their unique cuisines and fantastic produce. So far, Chile’s stunning coastlines, lofty mountains and volcanoes, lush valleys and forests, awe-inspiring glaciers and deserts, and a rich cultural and literary legacy have been reason enough for tourists to visit in droves (it made it to the New York Times must-visit destination list for 2011) – it’s not many countries that can lay claim to having all this in one single destination.

This blessed geography, which also means the land is well-protected by the Pacific ocean and the Andes mountains from foreign pests, has led to an agricultural abundance – Chile grows everything from Mediterranean fruit and vegetables to indigenous produce you can’t find anywhere else – and an abundance of seafood, including species unique to the region, which is at the heart of its gastronomy. With a focus on fresh, natural produce, eaten in as natural a state as possible, and clean, simple flavours, Chilean cuisine has evolved with influences from Europe and even the Middle East, with one basic philosophy – the ingredient is the hero.

And what ingredients they are! Quinoa, which is increasingly being seen as a supoerfood elsewhere in the world, is something Chileans have been eating for centuries. Chilean salmon and seabass has made its way into the menus of top restaurants around the world, but nowhere else is it as prized as it is here. Exotic seafood like barnacles, whip hake, pink cask-eel, clams and abalone are commonly used in the local diet. From avocados, berries, and olives to native produce only available here such as Murta (Chilean guavaberry), rosehip, and Papaya (not the tropical paw paw we are familiar with, but a smaller, yellow conical fruit cultivated in colder climates), the land and the sea in Chile is so generous, that good food is never hard to come by.

While traversing the entire country to discover its cuisine can take months – I know, a friend did it! – here is my pick of essential experiences you need, to get a true taste of Chile.

Urban gourmet

Anyone’s first port of call in Chile has to be capital city Santiago. With a vibe that is more European than Latino, Santiago, Chile’s main commercial centre, is a young, energetic city with tree-lined paths and historic buildings rubbing shoulders with modern high-rises, along both banks of the Mapucho river that runs through it. The Plaza de Armas is the city centre with tourist attractions like the Romanesque Santiago main cathedral, while the nearby Constitution Square is home to historic buildings from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. A can’t-miss attraction in Santiago is Bella Vista, a quaint arty quarter where you will find gorgeous boutiques, cafés and restaurants, and art galleries dotted around a warren of leafy lanes – it’s perfect for picking up souvenirs such as lapis lazuli jewellery by day, and getting a taste of the local nightlife after dark.

After a hard day checking out the city sights, head to Restaurant Mulato in Lastarria, headed by Chilean celebrity chef Cristian Correa. In an effort to revive Chile’s lost culinary legacy, Cristian serves contemporary food that celebrates the ingredient – whether it’s fresh sea urchins or local berries, with the menu using produce sourced from local markets. Set in a converted heritage building, the restaurant offers a relaxed yet elegant atmosphere, not unlike a country home, that provides the perfect atmosphere for sampling the homemade breads, micro-brewed beers, freshly roasted on-site coffees, and of course, creative cuisine.

Call 00562-6384931 for Restaurant Mulato. Visit www.cristiancorrea.cl for more on the chef.


Wine country

Just an hour from Santiago is the Colchagua valley, a fertile region that is now not only the country’s leading wine-producing area, but also a prestigious holiday home suburb for the wealthy. The Viu Manent winery in Colchagua is a family-run establishment dating back to 1935. Spread over 250 hectares, Viu Manent specialises in fine wines – the oldest vine is 120 years old – produced with sustainable and eco-friendly values.

The picturesque winery is open for tours, where you can explore the vineyards and cellars in old-school horse-drawn carriages guided by friendly staff, but what makes it truly unique is the on-site cooking studio run by Chilean foodie personality, Cordon Bleu-trained chef and former fashion PR, Pilar Rodriguez. Combining her passion for food with her marketing experience, Pilar offers visitors a unique insight into the diversity of produce in Chile, combining local ingredients, most of them sourced from within a 50-metre radius, with French cooking techniques to delicious effect – think Steamed crayfish with organic herbs where the fish comes from nearby Limari river; Pan seared lamb loin from a local farm with cherries and plums; and Chilean hazelnut crumbs with pisco granita (pisco is the Chilean national drink, a grape brandy), all paired with the finest wines.

Visit www.viumanent.com for details of wine tours and tastings; Pilar’s cooking studio is open for group bookings, visit www.pilarrodriguez.com.


Lakeside luxury

Further south in Chile, Pucon is a destination in the Mapuche region popular with tourists for its spectacular landscapes of snow-capped mountains, crystal-clear lakes, lush valleys carpeted with seasonal blooms, and dense forests. To explore nature at its scenic best, check into the Antumalal hotel, a unique boutique resort on the banks of the Villarica lake, that has hosted many a celebrity visitor including the Queen of England. Designed to blend into its environment, the stylish 22-room resort marries Bauhaus architecture with Alpine log cabin-style comforts. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer incomparable views while cosy fireplaces, and touches like rugs scattered over the natural wood floors and colourful cushions, create a homely feel. With warm service to match, this is where that rare balance between sophistication and friendliness is effortlessly achieved. You can choose to do as much or as little as you want here, from activities including whitewater rafting, horseback riding, trekking and hiking, kayaking and fishing, to curling up with a book by the fireplace with a view.

But the one thing you should definitely not miss is the delectable food at the Parque restaurant. Whether it’s traditional specialties such as empanadas and Chilean ceviche, or food with a European twist such as smoked salmon salad, Patagonian lamb rack with creamed barley and mint, or Apple strudel with homemade ice cream, the one thing you’re guaranteed is creativity in the kitchen that is worthy of any leading restaurant in the world (yoghurt ginger or poppy seed ice cream, anyone?), exceptional flavours, and again, a celebration of local and seasonal ingredients.

Room rates start from US$323 (around Dhs1185), visit www.antumalal.com.


Back to basics

The Mapuche are an indigenous tribe of central Chile who have managed to preserve their centuries-old heritage, which include a community-driven approach to living, and a diet based on fresh produce foraged from the land. Anita Epulef is a traditional Mapuche lady who is something of an ambassador of their culture, committed as she is to changing the way the heritage cuisine is viewed. A plain-speaking, simple woman, dressed in traditional gear, Anita welcomes guests into her ‘Cucina Mapu Iyagi’ (Mapuche kitchen), which is just that – a rustic hut with communal dining tables and a homely kitchen behind, adorned with dried herbs and garlic bulbs, and handmade pottery.

Anita conducts workshops on Mapuche cuisine, starting with an introduction to their history and way of life (she can only speak their local dialect, so a translator is required). As she passionately speaks about how their culture is based on respecting the land, it is interesting to learn how the concepts the Mapuche have been practicing for ages – such as seasonal harvests, root-to-tip eating, responsible and sustainable farming – are all becoming fashionable in the rest of the world now, as are some of their native foods, like quinoa and maki fruit.

She then takes you into her kitchen to cook with her, the menu depending on what was foraged for that morning. On the day of my visit, we cooked and ate traditional dishes like roasted potato bread (Poni cancan), which she grilled on an open flame in her backyard; fried bread (Sopai pilla); sautéed mushrooms with root herbs (Quilla); local vegetables tossed with leek and onions (Ngullo); grated potato with toasted flour and herbs (Zanku); and fresh salads (Pebve). The food is simple and rustic, low on condiments but reliant on local herbs for flavour, and oozes with the taste of freshness and wholesome goodness. Spending a day with warm, welcoming Anita, cooking with her and her family, and eating that freshly prepared, hearty food in the sunshine of the Currahue valley, is a great reminder of how the simple pleasures in life can, sometimes, really be the best.

Lunch workshops at Anita’s kitchen cost US$25 (Dhs91) per head, minimum bookings of six people are required. Email anita.epulef@gmail.com.


Dining with the stars

The Elqui valley, in northern Chile, is home to some of the planet’s clearest skies, making it a hub for astronomers worldwide. The valley has unique temperature qualities – hot at day and cold at night – which, combined with the natural protection of the mountains around it give it the unusually clear skies.

With the Elqui river running through it, and the rugged Andes towering over, Elqui also offers an ideal agricultural environment, particularly for grapes used in wines, and Pisco sours, Chile’s national drink. The region is also known for its lamb and variety of cheeses.

From La Serena, the closest airport, drive past the rugged terrain of the rocky mountains, dotted with sudden oases of green, to come upon Pisco Elqui, a little hamlet perched on a hillside, and the official home of Pisco.

A short distance away is the Elqui Domos hotel, an unsual property with geodesic or dome-shaped igloo-style rooms designed to offer the ultimate stargazing opportunities. The dome rooms offer basic but comfortable accommodation with the beds on a raised platform accessed by stairs, strategically placed under detachable roofs so you could literally sleep under the stars.

But, before you hit the sack, make time to explore the area – which is also home to Chile’s Nobel prize-winning poet Gabriella Mistral – discovering the mystic energies it is known to have, which makes it popular with alternative healers. Have a meal at the family-run Molle restaurant nearby, which offers home-style Molle cuisine (the Molles are known to be the original inhabitants of this land dating back to 600BC), but keep dinner booked back at Elqui Domos for an unforgettable evening under a glittering starlit sky, poolside. Even though you will be eating at a table with knives and forks, you can expect to make like the locals and eat traditional specialties like squash soup, boiled papaya fruit in syrup, and an absolute highlight, a whole spit-roasted baby goat that is as succulent as it is flavourful.

Prices for accommodation at Elqui Domos start from US$150 (Dhs550), astronomy tours at the amateur observatory located onsite are also available, US$50 (Dhs180) per head. Visit www.elquidomos.cl.


Shopping tips

Foodie products to bring back from Chile

Merken: A delicious spice blend of dried and smoked red chilies, toasted coriander seeds, cumin and salt, that is widely used in Chilean cuisine. The versatile spice can be used as a bbq rub, sprinkled over salads or as a dip with olive oil.

Pisco: The Chilean national drink, a sweetish grape brandy, is widely available and best enjoyed as an aperitif.

Olive oils: Chile has recently started producing extra virgin olive oils of a very high quality.

Jams and preserves: Shop around for jams made of papaya, rosehip and other native fruits to bring a taste of Chile back home.


TRAVEL DIARY


How to get there

There are no direct flights to Santiago from the UAE. Emirates offers the best flight options via Brazil (daily flights to Rio de Janeiro or Sau Paulo), with a connecting flight with local airline LANChile. Flights to Rio de Janeiro cost from Dhs7,400, tickets to Santiago can cost approximately Dhs12,000. Visit www.emirates.com for details.



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