Burt Wolf's Menu: Chile - #113

Chile... The world's longest mountain chain to the east.  The world's driest desert to the north.  The world's deepest ocean to the west. And to the south... the end of the world.  And in the middle... wonderful people with a great sense of history and culture and some fabulous food... a magnificent local salsa.... and corn from the continent where it first grew.  So join me in Chile for BURT WOLF’S MENU.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The word Chile comes from one of the ancient dialects of the native tribes of this country, and it means "the spot where the land ends," and that's a pretty good description of Chile. It has over 2,500 miles of coastline where the west side of South America ends and the Pacific Ocean begins. The most southerly part of Chile is a spot called Tierra Del Fuego, which is right opposite Antarctica; clearly the spot where the land ends.

If you take a look at a map of South America you see Chile running down the western side of the continent like a ribbon, 3000 miles from top to bottom but only 100 miles wide.  Chile is so narrow that you can stand on the peaks of the Andean mountains that represent the country's eastern frontier with Argentina and see the beaches on the Pacific Ocean that make up the western border.

The Atacama desert in the north is the driest place on earth; as far as anyone knows, there are parts of the Atacama that have never had a single drop of rain.

In the middle of the country is the nation's agricultural center... with thousands of acres of exceptional soil. The area's farms, orchards, and vineyards are constantly being irrigated by a flow of fresh water from the melting snow in the Andes.  To the south of the farms is the Lake District with some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  And finally, as Chile comes to an end, the land breaks up into a thousand islands.

Chile also has 2,085 volcanoes. Two thousand and thirty are quietly sleeping. Fifty-five are awake, active and very busy doing their thing.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The first European to see Chile that we know about was the Portuguese explorer Hernando Magellan. He sailed through the straits at the bottom of Chile and gave the passage his name. Then he sailed up along the coast but he never really settled in. I always considered Magellan a guy in the food business, because he had been sent out to find a short cut to the spices of Asia.  The king wanted to buy those spices at wholesale, bring them back to Europe, and resell them at prices so high that he would end up making big bucks.

Francisco Pizarro was one of the leaders of the Spanish conquistadors in South America. Pedro de Valdivia was one of his, shall we say, associates, and was given Chile as a reward for his loyalty.  De Valdivia then became the first European to settle in Chile.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Those were the good old days when loyalty was really appreciated. "Soooo Pedro, you have been a good and loyal friend, and for that I give you Chile.  And because it's Friday, I throw in a nice slice of Argentina." These days if you’re the head of a government and you have a loyal supporter, that loyal supporter becomes the ambassador to Paris.  Hey, don’t get me wrong -- being the ambassador to Paris is a really great job.  But it’s not like being given your own country.  We have devalued loyalty.  Sad.  Anyway, in 1541 Pedro de Valdivia founded the first city in Chile. He did it right on the mountain on which I am standing, and he called it Santiago.

For the next 200 years or so the Spanish fought with the native Mapuches tribe for control of the land. The Mapuches had never seen a horse, and in the early years of the conflict they thought that the Spanish soldier and his horse were one animal. Kind of like the way I felt about my son James when he got his first motorcycle.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   For the first 300 years or so, Chile was more or less under control of the royal house of Spain. Then in the late 1700s, those ideas that eventually led to the revolutions in America and France began to filter  down to Chile. They were ideas whose time had definitely come, not only in Chile but all over South America, and on the eighteenth of September, 1810, Chile declared its independence. Today Chile is a democracy with a government that is freely elected by over 90 percent of the people.

The two forces that usually exert the strongest influence on the gastronomy of a nation are its geography and the culture of the people who have lived on its land. When it comes to Chile, both geography and cultural history are quite dramatic.

Chile is nearly twice the size of California, with some 2,650 miles of Pacific coastline that drops off into the world's deepest ocean. The north is the world's driest desert. The south is a wall of frozen ice fields. And the world's longest mountain chain, the Andes, runs down the length of the country and seals it off from the its eastern neighbors.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The first human inhabitants of Chile that we know about were probably a group of native tribes who came across the Bering Sea from Asia to Alaska and down the Pacific coast of the Americas about 35,000 years ago. Then the Spanish conquistadors showed up, the English, the Germans, the French, the Italians, the North Americans and just about everybody else who got a good look at the beauty of the place. Well, if all of those people are living here, what's for dinner?  Actually, some pretty great  stuff. Those thousands of miles of Pacific coast produce some wonderful fish, which has made Chile the fourth leading fishing nation on the planet.

Opposite the ocean are the Andes mountains. They have made their gastronomic contribution by sending rivers of fresh water into the valleys below and that has produced mile after mile of fertile farm land. Land that yields some of the world's best fruit. The roadside stands are overflowing with plums, peaches, apricots, apples, and melons. I’ve had a serious weakness for watermelon since I was kid, and the Chilean watermelons are absolutely topnotch.

The original native tribes were responsible for the growing of corn which you find in some excellent recipes. Pastel de Choclo is a like a shepherds' pie: chicken or beef at the bottom of a casserole, a layer of mashed corn on top.

Another corn recipe for a very traditional Chilean dish is Humitas. They are easily made by steaming mashed corn that has been wrapped in a cornhusk.

The Spanish influence results in the empanada. Little packs of pastry filled with cheese, meat or seafood.  They originally became popular because the ingredients were so inexpensive. Now they’re popular because they taste great.

Even though Chile does not have a lot of land for raising cattle they still produce some excellent beef, and their pork products are very good. They have a type of restaurant called aparilladas, where cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and sausages are grilled in the kitchen and then brought to the table on a mini-BBQ.

When it comes to pastry and dessert, the Germans have transported just about everything that Bavaria had to offer. Torts, pies, cakes and creams. And the Italians have introduced gelato. The most Chilean of desserts, however, are based on manjar which is condensed milk that has been heated until the sugar in it has caramelized.  Manjar is used in many common sweets.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The major meal of the day is lunch. It begins around one o’clock and kind of slices along until 3:30.  In case you get hungry later in the day, they have something called once which is the Spanish word for eleven. It’s kind of a high tea with little sandwiches and pastries, and it’s something to hold body and soul together until dinner, which usually begins around 9:00.  Now, my friends here tell me that the reason this break is called once is because some people are not drinking tea in their teacups.  They’re actually drinking a powerful locally distilled spirit called Aguardiente, which just happens to have eleven letters. Very clever bit of coding, eh, Bond?

The national before-meals alcoholic beverage is called a Pisco Sour. Pisco is distilled from Muscat wine. It arrives with the impact of straight tequila, and leaves with a slight flavor that reminds me of pears.

A traditional Chilean cooking method is called "curanto", which means "hot stones."  A master of this technique is Coco Pacheco, the owner and chef of Coco's Restaurant in Santiago.  His assistant, Francesca Ciani, tells us how it's done.

FRANCESCA CIANI:  This is a typical Indian, native -- um, Indian / Chilean type of dish.  Basically what they did here is that they heat up stones for two hours.  This is their kitchen; instead of using coal, they heat up their food on top of these stones.  You dig it up with dirt -- this is how you maintain the heat.  And it has these sacks on top.  And these leaves here that you see on top, these are typical from the south of Chile.  This is the chicken... so you see, it’s all hot.  There’s a lobster -- this is all a combination of dishes.  This is meat, meats with the seafood... there’s shrimps, kind of made into like shish-kebobs, and they’re wrapped in between cabbage, cabbage leaves.  The whole idea here is that they’re all cooked naturally; there’s no, there’s no sauces, there’s no spices.  This dish is like more than a thousand years old by the native Indians, and it can include practically everything.  Seafood, meats... this is salmon that is roasted.

COCO PACHECO:  (Speaks Spanish)

FRANCESCA CIANI:  He says the most beautiful thing is to feel and taste the natural taste of all the seafood and the fish.

COCO PACHECO:  Es excellente.  ¡Whew!  ¡Rico!

FRANCESCA CIANI:  Eating something from -- that, that comes from -- that’s cooked on, from the dirt is something completely different from eating it from the oven or from the stove.  This is, this is what gives the taste, and this is something that’s, that’s natural, which --

COCO PACHECO:  (Speaks Spanish)

FRANCESCA CIANI:  The vapors on all the tastes trespass between each other and you taste the different tastes, which is the best.  You have a combination of tastes, which -- that’s what, this is what makes the plate unique.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   During the middle of the 1500's, say 450 years ago, a man named Juan Jufre y Montero was travelling  through South America with the conquistadors. His job was to make a list of what those guys were doing and send it back to the King of Spain.  Well, Juan was doing such a good job that the king decided to give him a bonus. And so in the year 1545, Carlos V, King of Spain, Ruler Of The Americas, Defender Of The Faith, and Keeper Of A Fabulous Recipe For A Cup Of Cocoa, amongst other things, gave his dear and loyal friend 10,000 acres of fabulous farmland just south of the city of Santiago. It was good to be King.  Let me tell you, it wasn’t bad to be the king's good friend either.

Since then the land has been passed down through the family, and today it’s known as Los Lingues.  It's owned by German Claro Lyon and his wife Maria Elena.

It is a working farm that breeds Aculeguano horses, which are often described as the best horses in South America. They trace their bloodlines back to the Moors who bred these horses in Spain during the 700's.

The hacienda and the nearby outbuildings have been turned into a rural guest house, with an excellent kitchen.

Maria Gomez has been the household’s chief cook for over thirty years.  Her skill at producing the classic dishes of Chile is unbeatable.  She starts with pebre, which is the salsa of Chile. 

A chopped onion goes into the bowl, followed by two peeled, chopped tomatoes and a half cup of minced Italian parsley.  Next a green chili pepper is rolled between your hands to loosen the seeds and sliced lengthwise.  The seeds are removed, and the pepper is chopped and added to the bowl.  A little vegetable oil is drizzled on top, and all the salsa ingredients are mixed together thoroughly and rest for a minute.  That’s it!  And it’s excellent.

The next recipe is for Maria's empanadas.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The recipe starts by making the stuffing, which is real easy.  You heat a little olive oil in a saute pan, you add in a chopped onion, some chopped beef, cook that for a few minutes, and then the seasoning, which is just salt and cumin. That's what we've got there.

Then a dough mixture is made from flour, water, salt and shortening and rolled into small balls, each with about a half cup of dough. Those in turn are rolled out into six-inch circles.  A raisin goes into the center, followed by two slices of hard-boiled egg... an olive... and a spoon's worth of the meat mixture. The bottom half of the dough is folded up to cover the mixture and pressed down to seal it in. The top flap of dough is trimmed with a pastry crimper. Folded over... Pressed down on the sides... Trimmed and folded again. Then baked in a 425 degree oven for 25 minutes.

At the edge of the city of Santiago is a church called Vicente Ferrer.  It was built by the Dominican fathers during the mid-1500s, and has a long history as the favored church of many of Chile's most famous heroes.

Behind the church is a small village called Los Dominicos.  It’s a village of craftspeople who have set up small shops where they practice their craft, and sell their artwork.

A perfect example is the shop of Pablo Manns.  Pablo has taught himself to work with wood, and makes wonderful marionettes.  Each piece is totally made by hand, and as you would expect, Pablo is a fabulous puppeteer.

About 75 miles south of Santiago, resting against the side of a mountain pass, and looking down a river that races out of the Andes is the Termas De Cauquenes. For over 400 years there has been an inn on this spot... an inn where people come and rejuvenate themselves...  a rejuvenation that takes place in the hot mineral baths that come up from deep inside the earth.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The idea of resting in a mineral bath actually goes back for thousands of years. The ancient Roman soldiers would stop into a small town in Belgium on their way home from the wars in Northern Europe and sit in the mineral pools. One of the reasons they felt better resting in those mineral pools is because the water was filled with warm salts.  The salts made their bodies float. That gave them a sense of lightness, which in turn gave them a sense of well-being. The name of that small town in Belgium, by the way, was SPA.  The Termas here never hosted any Roman soldiers, but many of the most important people in Chile's military history came by, including Bernardo O'Higgins, who was the head of Chile's army of independence.  The scientific community was represented by Charles Darwin, who vacationed here to rest his evolving bones.

Today the Termas is as also an excellent resort under the direction of a Swiss hotelier and his family. Rene Acklin is his name and he has been living in Chile since 1972. During those years he has become one of the country's most respected chefs.

RENE ACKLIN:  Now we are preparing one of the best fishes from the south, the South Pacific -- this is merrow, called in United States “Chilean Sea Bass.”

BURT WOLF:   Chilean Sea Bass.  I can ask for that.

RENE ACKLIN:  I think this is one of the richest-flavored fish you can ever find; rich in Omega-3 fat content, which is very healthy.  Therefore, we are not going to prepare it very heavy; we just add a little olive oil, a little bit vegetable, and that’s it.

BURT WOLF:   Let’s do it!

Rene is also an exporter of fish and quite an authority on the subject.  The recipe starts with the Sea Bass fillets being salted and peppered. Then one side is dipped in flour and it's off to a waiting sauté pan that's been used to heat a little oil. The fish goes in, flour side down. Two minutes of cooking on each side. A little lime juice. And into a 350 degree oven for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, a little butter goes into a pan, to be joined by a cup of cubed zucchini, some thinly sliced yellow, green and red bell peppers, and a large chopped tomato with its juices. While that's cooking for a few minutes, some pre-cooked black beans and a little water are pureed in a blender, then heated in a sauce pan. At this point everything is ready to go to the serving plate. First the pureed black beans go on, then the Chilean Sea Bass, and finally the bell peppers. That's it. An interesting and attractive collection of colors and flavors for very little work.

Rene's second recipe is for one of the most traditional dishes in Chile. It is called Pastel De Choclo.  Rene starts by putting a little oil into a saucepan, followed by a chopped onion, and some cubed beef. That cooks for a minute. Then in goes a little paprika and some salt and pepper. Rene divides the mixture into individual heat-proof serving dishes but it can just as easily go into one big heat-proof family sized dish. A few olives are added, and a piece of chicken that has been cooked in boiling water for 5 minutes. A few raisins and a couple of slices of hard-boiled egg. At this point the dishes are held aside for a moment while a little butter is melted in a saucepan. Some corn kernels are pureed in a blender an added to the melted butter. A little milk, salt, pepper and a touch of sugar go in. Whether or not sugar is added appears to be a function of where in Chile you learn the recipe. Rene is from the sweet school which is in keeping with his overall disposition. The pureed corn is then used to give a top crust to the casserole, and it's into a 375 degree oven for 10 minutes. When it comes out it's ready to serve. Great dish.

Carne Mechada Con Porotos Granados.  That's the next recipe at the Termas, and it's being prepared by Rene's daughter Sabine.  It's basically a pot roast with fresh beans, and the national down-home recipe of Chile.

She starts with a 6 pound rump roast. A series of holes get poked into the meat and filled with strips of carrot and garlic cloves. A little oil is heated in a large pan. The meat goes in and gets seared on all sides for about 5 minutes. Chopped onion goes in. Chopped garlic goes in. Chopped tomatoes and their juices go in. Followed by a little oregano, rosemary, parsley and two cups of boiling water. The pot cover goes on and everything is simmered for 50 minutes.

While the meat’s in the oven she makes the beans. Two tablespoons of butter are melted in a casserole. Then in goes a chopped onion, and two cups of fresh pumpkin cut into small cubes. If fresh pumpkin is not in season you can use any other squash. A cup of chopped tomatoes. Two cups of white beans. Two cups of green beans. Both pre-cooked. Two cups of corn kernels that have been pureed in a blender along with a half cup of fresh basil. Top goes on and all that simmers for 20 minutes.

When the meat comes out, its sliced and everything is ready to serve. The beans go onto the plate first, followed by the slices of beef with their polkadots of garlic and carrot, and finally some of the sauce that came from the meat.

The government of Chile has organized the country into thirteen districts, or regions. The area known as The Lake District covers most of district number Ten, which is also called Los Lagos. Los Lagos is one of the most beautiful areas in the Americas. It has lakes, rivers, ocean beaches, the extraordinary eighty million-year-old peaks of the Andes Mountains, ten million-year-old volcanoes, and a subtropical rain forest.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When the government of Chile wanted to encourage European settlers to come to the southern half of Chile, they set up an immigration office in Kassel, Germany.  They offered great land at low prices, no taxes for the first twenty years, and the right to practice any religion you wanted to.  So many Germans came here during the last three decades of the 1800's that the place began to look, and sound, like Bavaria. It also began to taste like it. The Germans set up the first brewery in Chile, and began to reproduce their favorite dishes from their homeland.

In 1905 the settlers brought trout from Germany and began to stock the southern lakes of Chile. They also started the cultivation of salmon. Today you will see the quantity and quality of bratwurst, sauerkraut, and pastry that you would expect in most parts of Germany.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   And yet this is clearly not an expatriate German community. The people who live in the Lake District are Chilean first, with a German heritage, in the same way that everybody who lives in the United States and Canada has an ancestor who came there from someplace else. And though the food is clearly German in origin, it has a Chilean accent. I never forget that the completo, the most popular street food in Chile, though it is clearly a frankfurter, on a frankfurter roll, does not come with a topping of mustard and sauerkraut.  What goes on top is guacamole.  Well, that’s our tour of Chile.  Please join us next time as we travel around the world looking for good things to eat and the reasons why people eat them.  I’m Burt Wolf.

[Under the end titles, Burt attempts to make an empanada]

BURT WOLF:   Well... it’s not bad for a gringo.MARIA GOMEZ:  Ah, muy bien.