Burt Wolf's Menu: Show-Patagonia, Chile - #103

Patagonia, at the southern tip of South America, is one of the most unspoiled parts of our world.  The government of Chile has set up a national park in Patagonia with over half a million acres.  It’s the perfect place to take a look at our natural environment. You can walk up to it, or it’ll walk up to you. Good food, fascinating history, friendly people.  So join me in Patagonia, Chile for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

As South America comes to its southernmost tip, it slowly trails off into the icy waters of the Antarctic Ocean.  The final points of land that remain are the snow-covered peaks of the Andes mountain range as it descends to the ocean floor.  The first Europeans to see this part of the world were members of the crews that sailed with Ferdinand Magellan.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Magellan was a Portuguese nobleman who convinced the King of Spain to put up the money for a voyage of exploration.  Magellan believed that he could sail west from Europe, across the Atlantic, and find a passage to the Spice Islands. It was the same passage that Columbus had been looking for and failed to find.  Spices were still very valuable; worth their weight in gold, and the Spanish government did not have a sizable piece of that business.  So it gave Magellan the money and sent him off.

Magellan went south along the east coast of South America, and on October 21, 1520 his lookouts spotted an opening along the shore.  Magellan took his fleet of five ships and headed in.  As they moved through the straits, they saw a series of campfires and marked the area on their charts as Tierra del Fuego, “Land of Fire.”  The place is still known by that name.  Walls of snow-capped mountains lined the passage.  They spent 38 days in the straits and sailed over 300 miles.  And then on the 28th of November, 1520, his squadron slid past the last of the rocks and out into the great ocean that he had dreamed of.  The day was so perfect and the sea so peaceful that Magellan named it the ocean Pacifico.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  That ocean is still called the Pacific and the straits through which he passed bear the name Magellan.  Magellan is also the basis for the name of the southernmost province of Chile; it’s called Magallanes and it contains some of the most magnificent scenery in the world.

Chile’s Patagonian pampas is a form of desert, a desert not made of drifting sand but a desert of low vegetation.  The English scientist Charles Darwin found the dry plains of Patagonia to be one of the most haunting and impressive regions on Earth. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  A number of people have tried to discover what it was about this area that fascinated  Darwin.  And I think I agree with the theory that to pass through Patagonia slowly will bring you in touch with an extraordinary calmness.  And the constant wind is like the white sound of the universe.

The first Europeans to settle in this part of Chile were the employees of British-owned sheep companies.  In 1877 a Mr. Henry Reynard brought a flock of sheep from the Falkland Islands to test the business.  And what a business it turned out to be.  The land produced lots of healthy sheep, and the sheep produced lots of excellent wool. Gigantic farms called estancias were set up with their administration placed in the hands of executives from England and Scotland.  Within a few years Patagonia looked like a part of the British Empire.  But it didn’t sound that way, because everyone spoke Spanish.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Patagonia’s major southern city, Punta Arenas, got wealthy as a port, and the inland estancias made fortunes for their owners raising sheep.  But when the Panama Canal was opened, Punta got passed over as a port.  It was a lot easier to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific or vice versa through the Panama Canal rather than around the tip of South America.  And when the sheep farmers in Australia and New Zealand began competing, the price of wool and lamb around here just dropped away.  Things were looking pretty bleak.  Then in 1945, petroleum and natural gas were discovered, and that helped.  It was also the time that a big fishing industry was developed.  And in the 1950’s the federal government marked off a giant national park.  Today this area has one of the highest per capita incomes in Chile,  and many economists believe that the Chilean economy is one of the fastest-growing and safest in the world.

The business of raising sheep for wool still goes on, and it’s quite a thing to see.  The sheep are brought in from the fields under the direct control of sheep dogs.  The sheepherder’s whistle tells the dogs what to do.  The length and tone of each whistle contains specific instructions for the dogs.  The herders are like the ultimate coaches signaling their plays. The sheep are brought into the pens and sorted by age.  Once the dogs have gotten the sheep inside the building where the shearing takes place, the dogs get a break.  The wool is removed from the sheep by men who are masters of the craft.  Many have come over from the nearby island of Chole where sheep shearing is a skill that has been passed down from generation to generation for well over a hundred years.  They travel from one ranch to another during the shearing season.  They are the Vidal Sassoons of sheepdom -- if the sheep don’t look good, they don’t look good.  The wool that comes off is in three pieces. The two large sections are spread out on a work table and checked.  Any sections that are not up to standard are removed.  The remaining wool is then set into a giant press and formed into rectangular blocks. The blocks are tied into bales and rolled out for shipment. Most of this wool will go off to mills in England.  Once this was the most important industry in Southern Chile. Today it is really a very small craft that is still carried on more for its value as tradition than anything else.

These days, the most impressive reason to travel to the Magallanes region of Chile is the Torres del Paine National Park.  Paine is a native tribal word for “blue,” and Torres means “towers.”  The particular towers in question are the peaks that stand near the end of the chain of the Andes mountains, and the blue is a reference to the waters of the area’s many lakes.   The park was originally set up in 1959 and was designated a Biosphere reserve by the United Nations in 1978.  This is nature at its most untouched.  Grey glacier pours out of a mountain pass and breaks up into huge blocks of blue ice that float into Lago Grey. And you can walk right up to the edge of the action.  Beautiful waterfalls crop up every few miles, and views of the snow-tipped mountains are everywhere.  During the summer months, the fields are filled with wildflowers.  Since all this is in the Southern Hemisphere, the summer months are December, January and February.  The park is also home to a considerable amount of wildlife.  Guanacos wander along the roads and seem to be totally unfazed by the arrival of human beings.  Andean condors glide above the ridges looking for dinner, and sheep constantly sample the grass.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The thing to do in this park is walk.  There are over 150 miles of walking trails and the serious walker who can cover about 20 miles a day, can complete the circuit in about seven days.  The rough and ready carry backpacks, sleep in tents or little shelters set up by the National Park Service at key points. The less rough stay in one of the five hotels that are in the park, but they cover the same ground. They do it by being driven out to the starting point in the morning, yake their hike, and get picked up by bus in the afternoon.  Now I’ve always had great respect for “rough and ready”, as a concept.  But on a day-to-day basis, “rough” has become less and less attractive to me. So I’m spending my days in the park at an unusual hotel.  Always ready, never rough.

It’s called the Hotel Explora and it sits right on a cliff next to a waterfall on the Rio Paine River, right smack in the center of the park.  Permission to construct the hotel was awarded to the owners after they won an international competition conducted by the Chilean Forest Service.  They had to come up with a design that did not conflict with the natural beauty of the environment.  From the outside it’s a simple white clapboard structure.  It looks like it could be the totally functional outpost for an Antarctic expedition.  But once you get inside there is pampering in Patagonia.  Directly inside the front door are a series of wooden lockers that are used by the guests to store their outdoor clothing and hiking gear, and the lockers are heated.  The public space has an open curving flow that feels like the inside of an elegant private yacht. The construction materials were all selected to go along with the natural feeling of the park.   Local woods, slate, native rock.  And everywhere, windows that face out on the spectacular wilderness.  There are only 30 rooms and each has an interesting view of the surroundings.  My room looked out on the Cuernos del Paine, one of the most dramatic peaks in the area.  That’s the view when you sit on the bed.  That’s the view when you sit at the desk.  And to make sure that you never miss that view, the architect has cut a hole in the wall of the bathroom, and that’s the view when you sit in there.  For those more modest moments there is a little set of blinds on the window that separates the bathroom from the bedroom.  The exercise facilities are set in a building that’s on the edge of a lake.  The lap pool is on the same level as the lake so even though you are sheltered in the warmth of the building you feel like you are swimming outside. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The hotel’s guides speak English, French, Spanish and German, and they will arrange for daily outings.  You can take a nature walk... do some serious hiking...  there’s horseback riding and mountain biking.  Or you can find a really comfortable spot, relax,  and just take it all in.

Including a few meals that are reflective of the local cooking.  The chef at Explora is Orlando Vicencio and today he is preparing a dish of local lamb.  He starts by heating a stock pot over a medium flame.  Then in go three tablespoons of vegetable oil. As soon as the oil is hot, in go two pounds of lamb cut into bite-sized pieces. Now there’s a phrase I’ve always wondered about.  Exactly, whose bite was that anyway?  How about one-inch squares for a more precise description.  The lamb is stirred and browned on all sides.  Then in goes a tablespoon of curry powder. A half teaspoon of ground black pepper. A cup of coarsely-chopped onion, followed by a chopped clove of garlic.  Some stirring and about two minutes of cooking.  Then a medium-sized cucumber cut in small pieces.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Ah, cucumbers.  Now there’s an  old pal.  Scientists have carbon-dated cucumbers at 8000 B.C. in cultivated gardens.  We also know that they were around at the time of the ancient Romans.  Epicus, a big- deal food authority, used them in his recipes.  And he wanted cucumbers that were sweeter and sweeter.  In an effort to please him, his gardeners dipped their cucumber seeds into honey, before they planted them.  Seemed like a good idea at the time... Cucumbers got their own start in eastern India or Thailand, which would make them a logical inclusion in a curry like this.

Next a little salt. A half cup of red wine. A cup’s-worth of potatoes peeled and cut in small pieces.  The chef held the potatoes in water to help keep them from discoloring. After you have cut a potato, air can turn the surface brown. Holding them under water helps avoid that problem. Next, a tablespoon of flour. Two minutes of stirring and heating. The flour needs to be cooked through. Then everything simmers for twenty minutes and it’s ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Interesting historical mixture in that pot.  You’ve got lamb from the days when southern Chile was covered with giant ranches raising sheep. You’ve got potatoes which are indigenous to South America.  And you’ve got curry that was brought here from Asia by Portuguese and Spanish traders.

And there’s also some rather interesting local history that connects up with a couple of guys from the U.S.  Some time after their robbery of the First National Bank in Winnemucca, Nevada, in September of the year 1900, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, along with the beautiful but deadly Etta Place, headed off to South America.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  At one point they ended up here in Patagonia and appear to have spent five rather peaceful years, running a country store.  They played at being good neighbors and eventually became respected members of the community.  But then, when things got boring and their cash ran low, they returned to their old and evil ways. 

In 1905, they started robbing banks again.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Two years of their old tricks and the place was getting too hot. The Pinkerton agency was working with the local police and it was just a question of time, and not too much time at that, before they would be under attack or under arrest.  So they headed out -- but before they did, they sold their holdings to a beef company.  Which brings us to a recipe.

It’s for Chilean Beef Stew, and it starts with the chef at Explora putting a stock pot over medium heat and pouring in three tablespoons of vegetable oil.  As soon as the oil is heated he puts in two pounds of beef chuck that has been cut into cubes.  Then two cloves of minced garlic.  The chef browns the beef on all sides, then adds in a green bell pepper that has been cored, seeded and cut into strips. At the same time in goes a red bell pepper that’s been cored, seeded and cut into strips. And finally a carrot that has been cut into strips, but not seeded or cored.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Carrots are one of the very first foods in the human diet. Anthropologists tell us that prehistoric man was eating carrots.  They appear to have gotten started in Afghanistan and moved out from there.  We find carrots mentioned in the ancient Greek recipes, about 500 B.C. But they are not native to the New World, so they were obviously brought here to Chile by early colonists.  On the other hand, the potatoes which are gonna go into that pot in a few seconds are part of the New World and indigenous to this area.  They were brought to Europe by the first explorers.  Obviously a recipe like this could not have taken place until the Europeans got here and began exchanging food with the native tribes.

The carrots are cooked and stirred for two minutes, at which point he adds a cup of sliced onions. A few more minutes of cooking and the corn goes in.  These are pieces of frozen corn on the cob that have been cut into rounds about an inch long. There are about two cobs in this recipe.  Then a cup of green beans cut into pieces that are about an inch long. Great color in there.  A little salt. A little stirring.  And then four cups of beef or chicken stock.  A cup of uncooked rice and then eight small potatoes that have been peeled.  The cover goes on and everything simmers together for about a half-hour.  At that point the beef stew is ready to serve. It’s presented in a bowl with some chopped fresh parsley and cilantro on top.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that completes the recipe and I wish I could complete the story of Butch and Sundance with the same clarity.  But there’s a lot of conflict as to how they actually ended up.  One story has them being killed by local soldiers in South America.  Another story, however, says they went into hiding just outside of New York City. Butch’s sister, however, has gone on record saying that Butch showed up in her place in Circleville, Ohio in 1925 to have blueberry pie.  Must have been some blueberry pie.  She thinks that Butch died in the late 1930’s in Washington State.

Well, I don’t seem to be able to come up with the recipe for the blueberry pie that brought Butch Cassidy to his sister’s place, but I have got a Cheesecake that is clearly worth coming home to.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Cheesecakes have been around for thousands of years.  The ancient Romans made cheesecake, and it looks like every society between now and then that had cheese used it to make some kind of cake. It’s one of those universally good ideas. As soon as you have the ingredients you invent the recipe. 

The pastry chef at Explora is Nelson Acosta. He starts his recipe by taking a standard pastry dough and rolling it out so that it will fit into a 12-inch round baking pan.  He makes sure that both the surface of the table he is working on and the surface of his rolling pin are lightly dusted with flour so the dough doesn’t stick to either of them.  Then he rolls the dough over his pin to make it easier to lift and then unrolls it over the loose bottom of the loose-bottom cake pan.  The bottom was lightly buttered before the pastry went on.  Then he trims off the excess edge of the pastry and puts the pastry into a 350 degree pre-heated oven for eight minutes.  When it comes out, it goes onto a work surface to cool. While it’s cooling, he makes the filling.  Two pounds and three ounces of cream cheese go into an electric mixer and is mixed for two minutes to soften the texture.  Then in goes two cups of sweetened condensed milk. A moment’s pause to scrape the batter down from the sides of the mixing bowl and in go four egg yolks, one at a time.  Next, the zest of a lemon.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 700’s the Moors controlled most of Spain and they planted the first lemon trees in the area.  When the Spanish came over and colonized the New World, they brought their lemon trees here.  The zest of a lemon is the ideal flavoring agent.  It contains a concentration of the lemon’s essential oils, and that has most of the flavor. As a matter of fact, you will get more flavor from the zest of the lemon than you will from lemon juice.  But remember, use just the outside yellow zest; the white connective tissue right underneath is quite bitter.

Following the lemon zest is a cup full of raisins.  The batter continues to be mixed while the chef beats four egg whites until they are stiff, at which point they are added to the batter, a spatula’s worth at a time.  When the egg whites are fully incorporated, the batter is complete. Then the pie crust that was baked on the bottom of the loose-bottom cake pan is set into the a ring and the batter is poured in.  Then the cake pan goes into a pre-heated 325 degree oven for an hour.  When it comes out it is loosened from the walls of the pan with a knife and lifted out.  Then it’s freed from the base and gently transferred to a cake stand.  A piece of paper goes onto the top of the cake.  It has been cut into the shape of the nearby mountains. Then some powdered sugar goes on to mark the outline. The paper pattern is removed. And the mountains stand out. They are the Torres Des Paine that stand just outside the hotel windows.  A mountain of a recipe.

During the 1700’s, horses, bulls, and cows that had escaped from the large estates of South America roamed freely over the great Pampas. They were unhindered by most predators and bred into enormous herds.  Eventually, a group of men came together to hunt these animals for the traders.  They were called Gauchos. They were usually mestizos, a mixture of European and native ancestry, and they hunted with lassos, knives, and a piece of equipment called a bola. The bola is made of a series of leather strips with three iron balls on the ends.  The gaucho would throw the bola at the animal he was chasing. The balls would twist around the animal’s legs and bring it to a halt.  For a time the Gauchos had also been the backbone of the armies that fought for independence against the Spanish Crown.  By the end of the 1800’s, however, most of the Pampas had been fenced off to make large ranches and farms. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The wild herds were taken in, and sophisticated breeding techniques began to control their development. The old frontier died away and the Gauchos ended up being hired as handlers. 

They’re still around and still wearing their traditional clothing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Just after the great days of the Gauchos came to an end, a wave of nostalgia splashed over a group of South American writers and they began to present the Gaucho as a mythic hero of the Pampas. Must have been the same wave that inundated a group of North American writers who began to do just about the same thing, at about the same time, to the North American cowboy.  So frustrating to become a folk hero after the good days are over.  Most of us would like to be appreciated while we’re still enjoying ourselves.

[Gaucho song, in Spanish]

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our report from the Patagonia of Chile and one of the world’s most dramatic national parks.  You know, every time I get to a place like this I’m reminded of how magnificent our planet really is... and how easy it would be to destroy it in the name of progress.  The Chilean government is protecting over 600,000 acres here, and people come from all over the world to see and enjoy it.  And I hope you’ve enjoyed the small part that we’ve been able to show you. I’m Burt Wolf.