Burt Wolf's Menu: Lake District of Chile - #109

The Lake District of Chile... one of the most beautiful landscapes in The Western Hemisphere.  Its culture comes from the native tribes, Spanish explorers and German colonists.  One of its most important centers is Valdivia, with its historic structures and botanical gardens.  It’s the spot to see what makes southern Chile an international tourist attraction.  So join me in The Lake District of Chile for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

Chile’s Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, once described his native land as “a thin country”.  It was a reference to the fact that Chile runs down the west coast of South America for almost 3000 miles, and for most of that distance it is only about 100 miles wide.  Chile is also the world’s longest country.   Perhaps the nation’s most distinctive geographical features are the peaks of the Andes Mountain range.  They are distributed down the entire length of the country and present a constant backdrop to the scenery. They also have an interesting effect on the weather.  They act as a barrier to bad fronts that come in from the Pacific Ocean.  Their great height forces the clouds to deposit their humidity on the mountain crests. Beauty and function.  Chile has been divided into three geographic zones.  The north is home to the Atacama desert, which very well may be the driest in the world.  The central region, which surrounds the capital city of Santiago, is the business and cultural center of the nation and the core of its agricultural activities. And finally, one of the most beautiful parts of the Americas, the south. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The Lake District of Chile is in the lower third of the country, the south.  Though I think it’s only fair to point out that the only reason we consider the south “lower” than the north is because the guys who first made the maps that we use were in the north, and they loved the idea of being on top of the world.  Nevertheless, I think that any visitor to the Lake District in Chile would agree that things around here were definitely up. 

During the 1600’s the Bio Bio River was marked as the boundary between the Spanish colonists and the native Mapuche.  Since the Lake District is considerably below this line, the land was under the control of the tribes and not a very safe place for European settlers.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The Lake District of Chile wasn’t fully colonized until well into the second half of the 1800’s.  Since then it has become a symbol for the people of Chile --a symbol of the honest life, the good life.  Clean, healthy, unspoiled, real people doing real things.  The district also has a number of geographic features that make it very popular. 

First of all it has the lakes, some of which are the largest in South America.  The lakes were originally formed by glaciers passing through during the last Ice Age.  As the ice advanced north from the South Pole it would dig out huge basins in the earth.  Then when things got too hot for the glaciers and they headed south again, their melting ice filled the basins and pure, clear lakes were formed.  The lakes are now fed by rivers that pour down from the snow melt in the Andes Mountains, and drained by the rivers that run from the lakes into the Pacific Ocean.  And then there are the volcanoes.  The eastern edge of the Lake District runs along what is called the Pacific Rim of Fire.  It starts out in Alaska, runs down the west coast of North America, Central America and South America.  Then it slides down into the Pacific Ocean and pops up again in New Zealand.  From there on it island-hops in a sweeping curve up through and past Japan.  It is this unique combination of volcanoes and lakes that give the Lake District its signature landscape.  But there are also the araucania trees.  They are only found in this part of the world, and they take about 500 years to reach maturity. Then they live for over 2,000.  They’re considered a national treasure and protected against cutting by the federal government.  And finally, there are the rolling green hills covered with farms that remind people of southern Germany, Austria and Switzerland.  The fact that the Lake District in Chile looks and feels very much like Germany has played an important part in Chile’s history. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  During the 1800’s there was an adviser to the president of Chile named Perez Rosales.  And he decided that it was time to fully colonize the Lake District. There were two things motivating him.  He wanted to fully pacify the local tribes, and he wanted to make sure that the Argentineans didn’t get in here. He felt that those things could only be achieved by a colonial group that was new, came from Europe, and was strong and fully motivated to do the job.

Perez Rosales went around telling everybody that the word for “foreigner” had been eliminated in the Chilean language. Colonization offices were set up in Germany with the objective of convincing people to immigrate to Chile.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The government was offering land at greatly reduced prices, a long period without taxes, and a clear promise of freedom of religion.  Three very important selling points to the Germans.  In no uncertain terms, Perez Rosales was saying “Come on down”.

By 1860 over 3,000 Germans had settled into this area.  By 1900 there were over 30,000.  Some had come from the German countryside and immediately set up farms.  Today you can drive along the roads in the Lake District and easily think you are driving through the German countryside.  The farm buildings are built to look as European as possible.  And the local names make the place sound German.  But many of the Germans who came into the district came not from farms but from light industry.  They moved in and set up small towns.  They practiced their     old skills.  The Lake District got Chile’s first beer brewery.  Woodworkers arrived and quickly reproduced the same furniture that they had been making in Germany.  The roots were in Europe... but the tree blossomed in Chile.

The German influence is also very apparent in the area’s food.  This is EntreLagos, which means “between the lakes,” though in this case I think the lakes we are talking about are filled with ice cream and chocolate.  This place displays the variety and quality that you would find in any major European sweet shop.  Like the folks of North America, the people of Chile love chocolate. The shop’s main area is given over to small tables where an assortment of ice cream dishes are served along with a great selection of real coffees and some fabulous cakes and cookies.  There’s even a special area for chocolates and marzipan.  It's actually a shop next door, and it's a major attraction for the people of Valdivia.  It has a wonderful selection of hand-made chocolates -- cremes, fruits, nougats, nuts, truffles -- the traditional stuff.  But there's also a collection of chocolate figurines; folkloric characters, including Santa Claus.  And a major commitment to marzipan.  Marzipan is always a big deal in German communities.  When sugar first started coming into Germany, it got mixed in with ground almonds and given to artists as an edible medium.  Frankfurters, cheeseburgers, Fred Flintstone, brides and grooms, and the Three Little Pigs.  And if I continue eating in here, I'm going to be the fourth.

Mauricio Peña is the master pastry chef at EntreLagos and this is a Sacher Torte recipe that has been adapted to the taste of the food lovers of Chile.  Fourteen tablespoons of butter, at room temperature, go into a mixing bowl and get beaten with an electric beater until smooth.  That’ll take about two minutes.  Three quarters of a cup of sugar is added and beaten into the butter.  Then five egg yolks take the same beating.  Seven ounces of melted semi-sweet chocolate get blended in, after which a half cup of ground hazelnuts are added.  After the nuts, a teaspoon of vanilla extract is added.  Then the beater heads are changed, or just cleaned, because it’s time to beat the five egg whites.  They are beaten until they start to get stiff and then added to the batter.  But at the same time that you are adding them to the batter you are also adding one and a quarter cups of flour.  And to make sure that everything gets added evenly and without lumps, the egg whites and flour are added one after the other, a quarter at a time.  The final ingredient is a teaspoon of baking powder.  That’s the basic cake batter and it gets poured into a deep, nine-inch round cake pan that has a loose bottom and is lightly buttered. The batter is spread out to the corners and smoothed out on top. Then it’s into a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for one hour.  While the cake is baking, the chocolate coating is made.  A cup of cream goes into a saucepan.  Eight ounces of semi-sweet chocolate are melted in a heat-proof bowl.  Then the chocolate is mixed into the cream and held aside to cool.  When the cake is fully baked, it is taken out of the oven and allowed to cool.  That takes about two hours.  At which point it is removed from the pan.  Then it is sliced into three discs.  Pastry chefs prefer to make the layers of a layer cake like this by making one cake in one deep pan and cutting it into layers, rather than in three individual shallow pans, because having made one cake to start with they are sure that all the layers will fit back together properly when they pile them up, which is not always the case when individual layers are baked, one at a time.  The top two layers are taken off and held aside and the remaining bottom layer is given a paint job with cherry liqueur.  The melted chocolate and cream mixture returns and a coating is put onto the layer and smoothed out.  Then a layer of cherry preserves.  Next... the second layer of the cake.  More cherry liqueur.  More chocolate cream mixture.  More preserves, and then the third layer of cake.  Some of the chocolate mixture is poured on top and then the cake goes into the refrigerator for two hours to set.  When it comes out it gets one more final coating of liquid chocolate. It rests for five minutes and gets cut into twelve serving pieces.  The cutting is done with a serrated knife which is dipped into warm water between each cut and wiped clean.  A clean, warm, slightly moist blade helps give you a much cleaner cut.  It’s a good technique to use with all moist cakes.  Like any work of art, this cake requires a signature.  A pastry bag is made by rolling some waxed paper into a tube, filling it with some of the liquid chocolate, cutting off the tip and using it to do the writing.  A slight pressure is placed onto the tube and the word “Chile” is written on the top of the cake.  This is probably one of those times when spelling counts.

EntreLagos also serves up a few main dishes with the same attention to flavor that goes into the sweets. Today the lunch special is Chupin De Pescado. It’s a simple but great-tasting fish stew.  Chef Edgardo Soto does the main dishes, and he starts this one by pouring two tablespoons of vegetable oil into a large casserole. As soon as the oil is hot, in goes a chopped clove of garlic.  Then a red bell pepper that has been seeded and cored and sliced into thin strips.  That’s followed by a green bell pepper that has also been seeded and cored and sliced into thin strips.  A little stirring and in goes a half cup of grated carrot, and a cup of sliced onion.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When you’re working with a raw onion, that odor can be quite intense; it might even move you to tears.  What you’re dealing with is a form of sulfuric acid.  When you cut the onion, the acid molecules spread out into the air.  And as I learned many years ago in high school chemistry, those molecules will move more slowly and with less intensity if they are cold.  So I pop the onion into the refrigerator for five minutes before I cut it, and that helps a little.  In terms of getting the smell of the onion off your hands, the best thing I know is to take a half of a lemon, coat that open surface with salt and then rub that all over your hands.  It does a pretty good job.  If you don’t want to use half of a lemon you can take a cloth, soak it with some vinegar, and put the salt on that.  They’re not perfect systems, but they help. 

Now where were we? Okay --

Stir those onions for a moment and then mix in two cups of tomatoes that have been cut into small pieces.  These are about one-inch squares.  Next comes the fish.  Edgardo is using two pounds of local Chilean fish that he has cut up into steaks, with the skin left on and the bones still in.  That’ll add more flavor but also a lot more work when you start eating the dish.  My personal preference would be to remove the bones before the fish goes in or use boneless, skinless fish fillets cut into large chunks.  After the fish has been stirred in, the herbs and spices are added. A few bay leaves. A teaspoon of cumin, and two tablespoons of chopped fresh parsley.  The liquid used to cook all of those ingredients is made up of a half cup of wine and a cup of water, or fish stock, or chicken stock.  Chile is also a major wine producing nation and the use of a Chilean wine in this recipe will give it an authentic flavor.  If you don’t use wine in your cooking, you can just increase the water or stock.  The liquid goes into the pot and it’s brought to a boil.  Once that happens, two peeled and sliced potatoes are added.  The cover goes back on and everything cooks for ten minutes.  At that point the fish should be fully cooked.  The solid ingredients are spooned into individual serving bowls, some of the liquid goes on top.  A garnish of chopped fresh parsley... and an optional mussel.  The stew is ready to serve.   The EntreLagos sweetshop is in the middle of the town of Valdivia. And Valdivia is a classic example of the southern towns of Chile. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  It was founded by the Spanish explorer Pedro de Valdivia. Valdivia was an extraordinary man.  He came here from the north, crossing a desert... a desert so difficult to cross that even today, with the most modern technology, it’s still quite a challenge.  And Valdivia did it on horseback.  On one side of his horse he carried a statue of the Blessed Virgin.  On the other side rode his beautiful mistress Inez de Suarez.  What Valdivia was trying to do is the same thing that many of us are trying to do -- to balance our love of the pleasures offered in this world, with our hope for salvation in the next.  Valdivia showed up here in the summer of 1552,  which is only fitting, because the area has become a major summer resort.  But what really interested Valdivia was the same thing that interested the native tribes for thousands of years before Valdivia showed up.

This spot is at the crossroads of nine different rivers, sheltered from the open sea, and only a few miles up-river from the ocean.  It’s a perfect port town.  The same kind of ideal situation in relation to the sea that worked for London, or New York or Lisbon.  The Germans who immigrated to Valdivia during the 1800’s were not farmers.      For the most part they were professionals, craftsmen and scholars, with enough money to set up their own businesses.  The Hispanic community that was here when the Germans arrived were pleased to have them in their population and the two groups progressively fused together.  Today Valdivia is still a town of readers, thinkers and artists.  During the 1950s, Valdivia built its own university.  The work was done by the students and the faculty.  It was the idea of a local doctor who wanted to have a university in town and just made it happen.  In the early days the students and the faculty actually put the place together building by building.  Now it has 10,000 students and a thousand teachers.  There’s a general liberal arts program, a science department and an agricultural college, with a special division that just deals with milk and milk products.  Imagine going to school to study ice cream, I love it.  Ice Cream as a major, hot fudge as a minor.  The university also has one of the nation’s most interesting botanical gardens with an area totally devoted to the trees and plants that are indigenous to Chile.  Just across the river from the University is the city center.  Like all Chilean towns, there is a central plaza with a band that plays there on Sundays during the summer.  As you walk around town you get a good feeling of what urban life is like in the south of Chile.  There are strong family ties here and they are constantly expressed in the pattern of daily life.  There’s a street market that’s been at the same location for hundreds and hundreds of years.  Farmers come in from their fields and display their produce on the land side of the street.  Fishermen tie up their boats and display their catch on the sea side of the street.  At the end of the fish and produce stalls is a small area for local crafts.  Where the market ends, a promenade begins and runs along the riverfront for about a mile and a half.  It’s the place where people come to walk and talk and where I took my daily exercise march.  After which I took my gastronomic tour.  Haussmann’s Cafe is famous for its steak tartar.  Camino De Luna is a floating restaurant that is considered to have some of the best food in town.  And clearly the best view: it’s anchored along one of the nicest parts of the promenade.  The New Orleans is another local favorite.  For street snacks there are the cabritas stands. Cabritas is a form of sugar-coated popcorn that has a great local following.

For years Valdivia was one of the most important settlements in Spain’s New World.  The only problem with Valdivia was that the local Mapuche believed that the land here was part of the Mapuche Old World.  And in 1599, they destroyed all the Spanish settlements in the area.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  For the next 200 years everybody was pretty much forced to agree that this was Mapuche territory.  Then in the 1700’s the Spanish decided to try and fortify their settlements on the west coast of South America, and they began building a series of forts.

This is one of those forts, and it is called the Castle of the Pure and Clean Conception.  It was built at the point where the Pacific Ocean meets the river that comes down from Valdivia.  It was actually started in the 1600s, but the real work took place in the late 1700s when the Spanish were getting nervous about the possibility of a war with England.  They also built a fort on the other side of the river so they would have a concentration of firepower in the center of the channel.  The records show that in 1767, the chief engineer, Juan Garland, came here and installed these huge ovens. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  The ovens were used to heat cannonballs until they were red hot; then they would fire them at enemy vessels.  When they hit a canvas sail, the sail would burst into flame.  When they hit a wooden deck, the same thing would happen.  Sometimes they were hot enough to burn through the deck and the hull and actually sink the vessel.  The cannonball was called a “shot,” and when it came out of the oven it was called a “hot shot,” and that’s where we get the English phrase “hot shot” from.  Now, I don’t know if there’s any relationship, but the guy who installed these ovens a couple of hundred years ago was named Garland, and Garland is also the name of a major oven manufacturer in North America.  I’m gonna have to check that out when I get back.

When the Chileans talk about their Lake District, they almost always start with the natural beauty of the area and then follow up with stories of the German immigration.  But there’s quite a bit of Spanish history around here, these forts, and some great stories from the independence movement during which Chile won its freedom from Spain.  One of the best sea stories took place during the early years of the 1800’s. The local fleet that was loyal to the king of Spain was here in the port of Valdivia. The Chilean independence squadron was under the command of a British soldier of fortune named Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  He was kind of a freelance soldier of fortune who had to leave England because his love of independence was in conflict with the English king’s love of dependents.  One night he took his marines and, though he was outnumbered two to one, attacked all of the Spanish forts and ships in this area.  He took ‘em on, fort by fort, ship by ship and knocked them all out.  Cochran was almost single-handedly responsible for breaking the hold that Spain had on the ports of Chile. Back home in England, he had been attacked as foolish, rash, unnecessarily daring. He answered his critics by saying that “where calculation was well thought out, rashness disappeared.”  Good point in combat; also in cooking. If you’ve got a well thought out recipe, you’re home. 

And for a well thought out recipe for a great tasting apple crumb cake, we can pop back into the kitchen at EntreLagos. Chef Mauricio Peña starts by taking his favorite pie dough and rolling it out to a thickness of one quarter of an inch.  The technique he uses to make sure that he gets an even quarter of an inch, all over, is to set up two guide sticks, each of which is a quarter of an inch wide.  Then he puts the dough into the center between the guide sticks and rolls it out.  When the dough is rolled out, the chef uses the bottom of his loose-bottomed cake pan to measure a circle and cut the dough out to that size.  Then the bottom of the cake pan goes back into the pan and the disc of dough goes on top.  More of the dough is rolled out and cut into strips that have a width of one and a half inches.  These strips are used to line the insides of the baking pan.  They’re pressed together with each other to make a complete circle and then pressed together with the dough at the base.  Now you have the complete pastry crust for the cake.  Three ounces of apricot jam are painted onto the surface of the dough.  At this point the topping is made by putting three tablespoons of unsalted butter into a saucepan, adding in one quarter of a cup of sugar, and melting those two ingredients together.  Then, off the heat, a quarter of a cup of flour is blended in.  That’s the topping and for now it is set aside, while the filling is made.  Peeled and cored apples are cut into rough chunks until you have five cups’ worth.  Then they are tossed together with a quarter of a cup of sugar, a quarter of a cup of currants or raisins, a quarter of a cup of ground almonds, the zest of a lemon and one tablespoon of ground cinnamon.  When all those ingredients have been thoroughly combined, they are placed into the dough-lined baking pan.  Then a mixture is made from a half cup of flour, a quarter of a cup of sugar, a quarter of a teaspoon of salt, an egg, and a cup of milk.  This mixture is poured onto the apples, and the pan tilted to make sure it spreads out evenly.  Then the topping that was made from butter, sugar and flour returns.  It’s become rather brittle and the chef breaks it up to form the crumb topping.  Then it’s into a pre-heated 325 degree Fahrenheit oven for one hour.  When it comes out, the crust is loosened by running a spatula around the edge between the crust and the pan. Then the cake comes out, and rather easily too, because we started with a loose bottom pan.  It’s sliced into eight pieces and it’s ready to serve.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Well, that’s our story from the Lake District of Chile.  Please join me next time as I jog around the world trying to burn off the calories that I gained making these reports.  I’m Burt Wolf.