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Food to drink by: Central Chile

Food to drink by: Central Chile

Before digging into informal meals, young Chilean hosts may say, “Atacamos.” The term literally means, “Let’s attack.” In the South American country, as in many others, food and wine are enthusiastically embraced. But for many Chileans, the pleasures of the table also provide a major source of income.

“Wine has a lot of importance here in Chile,” says Giancarlo Mazzarelli, who is the chef and owner of Puerto Fuy restaurant in Santiago, the country’s capital and an informal cosmopolitan hub of the central Chilean wine region. The chef also says that in Chile food and wine are equally regarded. “One is not more special than the other,” he says. “Many people make their living from it.”

Chile’s wine region is located in the center of the 2,700-mile-long country, which is nearly equal in length to the distance between the coasts of New Jersey and California. The region is flanked by some of the world’s highest peaks of the Andes to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. The Atacama subtropical desert borders the area to the north, and a cool and windy climate is found in the southern tip around the Strait of Magellan. The super-skinny country measures 110 miles in width on average.

Wine heaven

Many winemakers say the conditions in Chile’s Central Valley are ideal for grape growing, and farmers long have found a host of climates that provide excellent conditions for many fruits and vegetables. In fact, Chile is the world’s largest exporter of grapes, but farmed salmon is actually the country’s largest food crop, says Juan Somavía, the New York-based trade commissioner for ProChile, which is part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Chile is also the No. 1 exporter of the dried seaweed agar, which is used primarily for thickening.

“The climate influences the wine,” says winemaker Pablo Morandé of Viña Morandé in Santiago. “We have cold breezes and fog in the morning and very poor soil—the same as California. We say the freshness [in the wine] is coming from the sea.”

Just 25 years ago Morandé says he was the first to plant wine grapes in Casablanca, a region that lies between Santiago and the Pacific Ocean. Now he is far from alone there. On weekdays many of his neighbors from other wineries frequent his three-year old restaurant there, he says.

The House of Morandé restaurant’s modern dining room has 60 seats with views of surrounding vineyards through huge floor-to-ceiling windows. During the summer—from approximately December through March—a terrace seats 80 guests who practically sit on top of the grape vines.

Morandé notes that half of his weekend diners travel to his restaurant from Santiago and the other half are tourists, most of whom are visiting from Germany, the United States or Brazil. Besides catering to those visiting the region, the restaurant helps market his wine, he says. And dishes are specifically developed to accompany Morandé wine, which in Casablanca is primarily Chardonnay.

The House of Morandé menu also highlights other products of the region, including such local seafood as octopus, abalone and pink razor clams as well as vegetables grown nearby. An octopus salad with olive oil is one of the restaurant’s best-selling appetizers.

“I love it with Pinot Noir–limited edition, organically grown,” Morandé says. His chefs cook the octopus three times, he notes. It’s simmered, baked and then grilled.

One of the restaurant’s best-selling main courses is Patagonia lamb with a Cabernet Sauvignon sauce, mushroom risotto, blackberries and blueberries. Servers recommend the same Cabernet that’s used in the sauce to drink with the lamb. Morandé says he expects lamb from the central wine region to be available by the country’s next summer season.

Morandé avoids serving Casablanca cuisine, but occasionally offers native dishes as specials, such as sea bass char-quican, which consists of potatoes, corn and pumpkin stewed together with a “touch of pork.” Some Chilean cooks replace the pork with beef.

Indigenous people ate mostly potatoes, corn and tomatoes, and even now diets don’t vary much throughout Chile, Morandé says.

“We eat the same food in the north, south and central Chile,” he says. “Now people most like beef and lamb.”

Jorge Luksic, a specialist in the foods of Patagonia, caters at Chilean wineries, such as Montes in the Colchagua Valley, where he recently orchestrated a traditional whole lamb roast cooked over Montes’ old-wood vines. The entire animal was served, including lamb testicles that were marinated in garlic, balsamic vinegar and merken, a traditional Chilean smoked hot red pepper seasoning.

For the starter Luksic seared the testicles over high heat in olive oil for about five minutes. The lamb was accompanied with Montes’ 2004 Alpha Syrah.

Inspiration by the glass

Pilar Rodriguez, a chef who primarily caters at Chilean wineries and runs a food-and-wine workshop for consumers in central Chile, says she adopts some of the techniques of traditional wine country cuisine, such as chupe de loco, an abalone gratin. However, she also favors more modern takes on authentic local fare.

“Wine is mainly my inspiration,” she says. “I definitely think of wine first, before cooking. Just being in a valley with so many wineries is so inspiring. After I taste the wine, I always try to find a bridge between the wine and the food. A bridge, which can enhance the attributes of the wine [and provide] a good balance to enjoy the combinations.”

For example, earlier this year Rodriguez teamed up with winemaker Ana Maria Cumsille of Altaïr Vineyards & Winery in Requinoa to prepare a meal. The main course of pan-seared beef medallions and red wine sauce came with chocolate pasta stuffed with caramelized onions and mushrooms. The dish was served with Altair 2003. Rodriguez describes that wine’s aroma as, “cigar, chocolate and oaky,” which inspired her to add cocoa powder to the pasta.

“The mushrooms are a complement that gives an earthy, meaty texture to the pasta filling, which goes with a beef medallion,” she says. “All these elements in a dish are put together to support this elegant red.

“The Altair is made mainly with Cabernet Sauvignon with very well-balanced acidity, so I wanted the sauce to go with this flavor.”

Her tomato sauce includes a reduction of a young Merlot.

Back in Santiago at Puerto Fuy restaurant, Mazzarelli says he also promotes Chilean wines “because we’re here and we have very good and young wine. So in the kitchen you can use a lot of kinds of wine and it is very cheap.”

For one dish, he simmers abalone in a sparkling wine and seafood stock and then serves it with a sauce that contains the cooking liquid, more sparkling wine, cream, dashi and grana cheese. His lamb is cooked with Chilean Syrah. He also enhances foie gras with late-harvest wine.

For the foie gras, Mazzarelli mashes raw lobes by squeezing them by hand and then adds a rich, sweet Chilean wine and port, rolls the mixture and cures it in salt for 36 hours, or until it dries. The result is a gravlaxlike preparation. He serves the liver with arugula, caramelized shallots, mango vinaigrette, brioche toast and a mango foam made tableside with mango purée, gelatin, water and sugar.

Mazzarelli’s trilogy of conger eel, a national specialty and a source of much pride, is topped with a beurre blanc prepared from a reduction of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc. “We use red, black and gold conger because you have three kinds of the same fish,” Mazzarelli says.

The three varieties are “totally different with flavors and textures,” he adds.

Golden conger eel is usually used in restaurants because it is the most tender, say Rodriguez and chef Carlo von Mühlenbrock, who now is organizing foodservice operations at Santiago’s university hospital, Clínica Universidad Catolica. For a recent meal, Mühlenbrock prepared standard conger eel soup, but he presented the seafood on skewers with shrimp and served it in miniature cast-iron pots, which gave the dish an authentic look and kept the broth warm.

He first cooked eel heads with onions and garlic for a broth. Using the strained liquid, he then added the remaining eel, tomato, potatoes, Sauvignon Blanc and merken—a seasoning that stylish chefs have recently rediscovered. Mühlenbrock finished the rich soup with a touch of fresh cilantro and an egg yolk and cream liaison. He served it with Sauvignon Blanc. Mühlenbrock noted that the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda professed his love of the conger eel in a nationally beloved poem.

Ahistorical and political perspective

Chef Cristian Correa of Aqua in Santiago says, “The cuisine tells the story of how Chile was colonized.”

Incas ruled Northern Chile until the Spanish conquest in the mid-1500s. The indigenous people in the South resisted Spanish rule until the late 19th century. Chile gained independence in the early 1800s. It then defeated its northern neighbor of Peru and northeastern neighbor of Bolivia later that century.

In 1970, the Marxist Salvador Allende took over and presided until the Sept. 11, 1973, coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who remained in power for nearly two decades. Socialist Ricardo Lagos Escobar ruled Chile until the election last year of Michelle Bachelet, the country’s first female president.

Chile and the United States signed a free trade accord in 2003.

In with the old

About 10 years ago, Mühlenbrock says he started offering takes on indigenous Chilean dishes. He notes that native cooking is now more stylish among chefs. While studying Chile’s ancient cuisine, he found out that flat breads were used for picking up food before eating utensils were used. So he started serving the minicakes in place of bread. He also began cooking in leaves as he discovered was done by natives of his country. For example, he served a tamale of goat cheese and corn custard in cornhusks with lamb chops.

Southern Chilean lamb feed on salt grass, which gives the meat a distinct flavor, Mühlenbrock says. He seasons lamb chops with merken and makes a “jerked” sauce. Along with a Jamaican influence, Mühlenbrock notes a similarity between the cooking in Chile and in New Orleans.

“There are techniques used in New Orleans that are common,” he says. “Jambalaya has very similar ingredients” to those used in Chile.

Chef Ana María Zúñiga’s 20-year-old Ana María restaurant in Santiago serves “home cooking,” Zúñiga says.

“We do not have any culinary training, but we cook with pride,” she says.

Among the house specialties at this off-the-beaten-path eatery is game, sea urchin and pink razor clams with a Parmesan gratin. In season, her abalone wins rave reviews.

Zúñiga tenderizes the shellfish, which are about the size of the palm of a hand, by putting them inside a tire tube and beating the tube on a cement floor. Then she cooks the abalone in the tube starting off in cold water and boiling for 30 minutes. The shellfish, called “loco,” which also means “crazy,” then cool in the tube in the water. Any black residue from the tube is scraped off the fish before serving them at room temperature along with a green sauce made with minced onions, lemon juice, cilantro and house-made mayonnaise.

“There are many techniques, but for me this is the best,” Zúñiga says. She says she’ll try a dish 20 or 30 ways before determining the final method of preparation.

While seafood and local lamb dominate many savory menus, Chilean fruit presides over dessert menus. Mühlenbrock prepares a blancmange dessert with Chilean carica, myrtle berries, quince sauce, thin cookies made with chestnut flour and jam prepared from lúcama, which is also known as egg fruit. Caramel twists and caramel-dipped almonds decorate the plate. Although, carica has been compared to a papaya, it looks like a cooked yellow pepper with a similar texture, but the flavor is reminiscent of Juicy Fruit gum.

“We are very proud of our products from our Chilean soil,” Mühlenbrock says.

Both carica and lúcama grow in the northern, more subtropical desert area of Chile. Cristian Correa of Aqua in Santiago serves carica with Chilean sea bass ceviche. For dessert, Correa features lúcama ice cream that he serves with mint ice cream, sun-dried peach, strawberries and almonds.

Mazzarelli shows off a modern molecular-gastronomic style with cherimoya sorbet. He combines the fruit with orange, gelatin and agar. The mixture is then brought to diners’ tables and liquid nitrogen is added. Servers stir as the liquid freezes.

Pilar Rodriguez

Pilar Rodriguez was director of marketing for Tommy Hilfiger Latin America before she followed her “biggest passion” and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris eight years ago. She eventually returned home to Chile’s Colchagua Valley wine region and opened Comida y Vino, or Food and Wine, a catering and seminar center. She now conducts cooking demonstrations centered around local wines for home cooks. As a caterer, she predominately works for wineries and prepares foods to match specific wines. Her dishes typically include an element of the wine to “bridge” the food and wine. She currently is working with a friend on a cookbook that will “celebrate the foods and flavors of Chile’s wine country.”

Does Chilean wine influence your cooking?

I definitely think of the wine first before cooking. It is mainly my inspiration.

You use lúcama in a custard. Does it grow in the wine region?

Well, it grows mainly in the north part of the Central Valley. It is native to the dry, subtropical Andean coastal valleys—in Quillota, for example.

You have consulted with U.S. restaurants on the foods of Chile. What foods do you think U.S. chefs may want to incorporate onto their menus?

Our climate and geography give us excellent products all year. I think all our fruit like carica, lúcama and miel de Ulmo–honey. Ulmo is a native tree. Also locos, Chilean abalone, and merken, smoky chile powder. We also have delicious olive oils as well that are now in the U.S. market.

You make an amazing avocado purée. Does it have a secret ingredient?

Just avocado and fleur de sel from the coastal town of Pichilemu, where I live. —Pamela Parseghian

Special Report

Food to drink by: Cuisines of wine and sake regions

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