Written for The International Wine & Food Society
There aren’t many places that can boast the prodigious geographical diversity of Chile: deep forests buffeted by creeping glaciers; sun cracked deserts and white washed salt flats; snowcapped mountains, smoking volcanoes and the dizzying heights of the Andes; fertile valleys with rolling hillsides; and an enviable expanse of Pacific coast spanning 29° of latitude. The heart of Chilean wine and gastronomy reflects this topographical potpourri and any glimpse into Chilean cuisine reveals an encyclopedia of endemic ingredients.
One of the greatest influences in shaping the country’s culinary culture is the coastline stretching over 4000kms across the entire length of this skinny nation. The coast is one long fish counter for Chileans: established favourites like oysters, small sweet scallops with melt-in-your-mouth corals, fleshy salmon, pink and succulent clams, Patagonian King Crab and enormous Pacific sea bass are accompanied by a plethora of weird and wonderful native sea dwellers, such as the Humboldt Squid (reaching a monster-sized 2 meters), Erizo de Mar (sea urchins which are quite logically translated as ‘sea hedgehogs’), Cholgas (a gargantuan relative of the mussel), Picoroco (ginormous and irrefutably ugly barnacle) and so much seaweed that you wonder if biofuel will be Chile’s next cash cow.
Most Chilean seafood and fish is prepared simply and often eaten raw with just a dash of limon de pica (a small sharp lime), Pebre (Chilean condiment of coriander, onion, chilli, garlic and olive oil) or a pinch of their delicious Fleur de Sel. The Spanish influence is seen in rich fisherman’s stews and other fusion influences arise in dishes like ceviche, sushi, clams ‘al parmesano’, shellfish pasta and risotto, seafood pastry pies and even the humble battered fish sandwich makes an appearance.
It almost goes without saying that the perfect pairing for most Chilean seafood are crisp, aromatic and fresh coastal wines. Pioneered by winemakers like Pablo Morande in the 80s, the main coastal wine regions of Casablanca, San Antonio and Leyda benefit from brisk sea breezes and protective, low coastal mountains creating a buffer from extreme cold and a cavity to bathe the vines in cool morning mist before the afternoon sun emerges. The varied coastal wine regions, which extend to the borders of the Atacama desert region, produce wonderful seafood pairings: the herbal aromatics and citrus fruit of crisp Sauvignon Blanc from coastal Leyda; the voluptuous, tropical and chalky Chardonnay from Limari; or the earthy and fruity cool climate Pinot Noir of Casablanca Valley. Further inland, the natural acidity and mineral notes of the Chardonnay from Malleco, one of the southernmost wine regions in the world, also works well in seafood pairings.
Intensely aromatic whites – Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Viognier – have seen a rebirth since the exploration into cooler climates. Their acidity, off-dry nature and sublime fragrance make them fun pairings for the influx of Asian cuisine using local seafood.
Moving in from the coastal mountain range the country morphs into warm flat plains, breeze brushed foothills and the rugged start to the Andes. Naturally the cuisine shifts focus onto land dwellers and Campesino (rural) cooking dominates. The simple Huaso Asado (Chilean cowboy’s BBQ) with grilled meats like pork, beef and lamb are an ideal partner to the bigger reds from the Central valleys.
The Asado tradition of hours spent around the fire warrants an equally time-absorbing wine. Syrah is Chile’s new champion and the deep black fruit, rosemary, smoky and pepper notes, juicy tannins and bright acidity of Syrah from Apalta in Colchagua is dreamy with slow-cooked Patagonian lamb. “Apalta is mostly colluvial with granite and some clay – it’s a great terroir for Syrah for its soil and water,” says winemaker Andrea Leon who makes terroir selection Syrahs.
Another favourite of the cowboy culture and prepared all over Chile is the hearty stew. Usually with a base of root vegetables, coriander and full flavoured meats like cow tongue, it pairs well with what really was a Campesino’s wine of years past: Carignan.
In the Southern regions of Maule, Itata and Bío Bío some gnarly trunked, old bush vines had been forgotten by the wine world, until recently. Old vine Carignan from Maule is a muddle of rich cassis, mulberry and wet earth with a refreshing acidity. “Carignan from Maule is concentrated but not necessarily rustic,” says owner of Santiago wine bar Bocanariz, Katherine Hidalgo. “It has a countryside flavour but it can be super elegant.”
País too is a rediscovery. Once the most planted variety in Chile, it was later dismissed as table wine to make way for noble varieties, although now the old vines – some up to 350 years old – are producing unique wines. More rustic than Carignan, País has dark fruit and drying tannins with attractive floral and citrus notes.
Like anywhere, stews in Chile are made big. They are inherently for sharing. One treasured national dish is Estofada de San Juan, a stew comprising dried and smoked meats with acid cherries and always eaten on 24 June, National Indigenous People’s Day. As part of the necessity of the day, the native Mapuche tribe had a rich culinary culture preserving foods – still echoed in contemporary cuisine.
The Mapuches also developed techniques cooking directly in the fire. The Rescoldo method of cooking in the ashes is still avidly practiced in the campfire and roadside favourite: Tortillas de Rescoldo (flatbreads cooked on embers resulting in a rich smoky flavour).
One spectacular indigenous dish is Curanto, coming from the lost-in-time Chiloe archipelago. Villagers tie a stilted house onto a platform and, with oxen, drag it to a new location in an annual ‘Minga’ ceremony. This century-old tradition is followed by a Curanto cooked for the entire village: a large hole filled with hot stones where layer upon layer of shellfish, meat, potatoes, vegetables and dumplings are covered by native Nalca leaves and cooked underground resulting in a medley of flavours. Time-conscious, less romantic chefs can replicate it in a pressure cooker…
Continue reading for:
– Merkén. Chile’s unique smoked spice
– Carménère and its food pairings
– Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon
– Merlot, Central Valley red wines
– Pastel de Choclo
– Limari Chardonnay
To view the print version in PDF, click here.