I had never been to South America before last week yet had always wanted to go – I had visions of partying all night in Buenos Aires, skiing in Patagonia, dancing on the beach in Rio and exploring the wonders of Machu Picchu, the lost city. When I was invited to have a culinary tour of Chile, I jumped at the chance, realizing I knew so little about this beautiful country. I asked if I could bring fellow blogger, Evette Rios and luckily they agreed! Here are my favorite memories.
Chile is a crazy place geographically speaking, as it extends over 2,000 miles down the western coast of South America, yet is only a couple hundred miles wide. The top of the country borders Peru and the bottom reaches out to almost touch Antarctica. Its western side hugs the Pacific ocean, making it an incredible gateway country to the rest of S America, while the Eastern side is flanked by the Andes Mountains, a breathtaking border that keeps this thin country safe from disease and other unwanted intruders.
As part of my tour I learned that while copper is the largest export, naturally found in Chile, salmon is next. However, salmon has been brought to Chile from Scandinavia to be farmed in the cold Pacific waters. This, along with avocados, stone fruits, apples, prunes and nuts are exported to the United States and around the globe. Chile not only has ideal growing conditions, but when we in the US are entering Spring, in Chile, they are just wrapping up Summer. This allows for a complimentary growing season.
Chile is very dry, in fact it hasn’t rained more than a few days a year for the past six years. Luckily, grapes and olives do not need a tremendous amount of water to grow well, they really need the sun. Imagine driving along and seeing rows and rows of vineyards creeping up the sides of the Andes. It reminded me of Northern California or Tuscany, but just so much larger in scale. This point is not lost on the wine world either.
One winery we visited, L’Apostolle, is owned by the Marnier Lapostolle family, makers of Grand Marnier liqueur, the famous orange flavored spirit which is experiencing a renaissance with the Cosmo. The L’Apostolle vineyards are located in the Colchagua Valley, one of three I visited on my trip. This winery is exquisite on so many levels. It is obvious the folks who developed these vineyards knew what they were doing. They have applied their French wine making expertise and brought it to the rich soils and ideal climate of Chile. Picking the grapes only at night so as to catch them at the exact right temperature and using a gravity-based method of crushing the grapes are just two practices that set these wine experts apart. It was the only vineyard I visited where you could also rent a casita and make a vacation out of staying snug inside the winery itself, something I would highly recommend.
L’Apostolle has employed organic and biodynamic agriculture within some of the vineyards and carries the same philosophy to the foods. We were treated to a delicious lunch of course paired with wines, which included Octopus Carpaccio with tiny Cheese and Basil Empanadas fried just so, A crunchy poached Arcuana egg, organic saddle of rabbit with local prunes and a lovely dessert with apples from the property poached in their Sauvignon Blanc. Definitely worthy of their Relais & Chateaux distinction.
Evette hanging in a tree seat at L’Apostolle
Another region we visited is the Casablanca Valley, just northwest of Santiago and close to the coast. In fact at the winery we visited, Casas Del Bosque, you could smell the salty sweet ocean air and see the fog rolling in from the water. This of course adds to the composition of the soils and vines and adds a special something to the flavors of the wines. This tree, called the Hancock Tree, leans ever so slightly to the side as a result of years of afternoon breezes from the ocean.
Here is where I not only tasted the best Pinot Noir of my life, and proceeded to buy an entire case which turned into a nightmare, but I also tried Chardonnay and loved it. For those who know me, this will come as shocking news as I do not in general enjoy white wine of any sort. I suffered through the Sauv Blanc politely but when I tasted this rich and buttery Chardonnay, I went ahead and purchased a case of that as well, just to be able to have some white wine on hand that I could actually tolerate at home. The nightmare developed when I asked them to ship it for me and they stared at me like I asked them to ship to Mars. I am not sure how one has a vineyard and doesn’t make it easy for people to ship the wine back home, but this was clearly something new for them. My group leader instead suggested I bring the wine to my room and that she would arrange for a company who ships wine to come pick it up for me. I was quoted $500 for the two cases, far more than I paid for the wine! I wound up having to give away over half of what I bought and packed the rest in my suitcase. Some things are better left as a memory :).
At Casas del Bosque, we had a fun and interactive cooking session where we helped make lunch, but were mostly left to enjoy the gorgeously seared salmon, the chicken stuffed with prunes and served atop pureed walnuts (something I will try at home for sure) and the velvety lamb stuffed ravioli, which we attempted to make ourselves.
From there we drove to Valparaiso, a town I was most excited to see. It used to be the largest and in fact the only port city to the Western coast of South America before the Panama Canal existed, and while all of these vineyards and Santiago seemed so new to me, this city showed its age. So much history has passed through this town and it continues to be a major tourist destination and port city. We rode the funicular and walked the steep, cobblestone streets to check out the walls of street art-commissioned murals are all over the city which is otherwise filled with youth hostels and boutique hotels. It’s not the cleanest of cities and it is bustling, but offers sweeping views and my favorite meal of the trip. We stayed at a sweet hotel called Palacio Astoreca and dined in their restaurant, Alegre, which was phenomenal. From the freshly baked breads to the “Piruleta” of Parmesan Cheese and Coriander dust, I was intrigued. They did wonderful things with flavors. Their preparation of salmon was to barely sear it in a coal-scented oil which gave this mostly raw fish a smoked flavor. We ate a “Liquid Omellet” with tiny spoons, which although an unfortunate name in my opinion, was a delicious morsel. At the end we passed around their evocative selection of infused oils to smell and savor.
At night I couldn’t sleep for some reason, so I opened by window and just listened to the sounds of the harbor, probably one of the most relaxing sounds I know. Something about just knowing there are people out there, working and doing their thing makes me feel somehow protected. I would not do well in a remote cabin.
Jumping around a bit, back to the Colchagua region, we spent an evening with the great female chef, Pilar Rodriguez. I love Pilar. She reinvented herself at 40 by attending culinary school and becoming one of Chile’s top chefs. Her studio resides inside of the beautiful Vina Viu Manent winery and is a chef’s dream location. The rooms are big and bright and surrounded by tons of windows that look out into the vineyard, I can only imagine how inspired she is every day. She delegated a dish to each of us, with loose instructions and the help, if needed, of her assistant chefs. I was inspired to see a female chef rise to the top and become so successful in a relatively short period of time. She is highly regarded by the Chilean government and welcomes visitors to her beautiful country and studio. You can feel her pride of country and the food it is becoming increasingly famous for producing. I made a Barley Salad, which reminds me of a Farro Salad I often make at home. I took cooked barley and added diced red and green peppers, carrots, radishes, scallions and toasted walnuts. I tossed it with tons of herbs, especially parsley and an olive oil, white wine vinegar, lemon and garlic dressing. The whole meal was fun and gave us a chance to bond as a group as we together ate the meal we individually prepared. As part of the meal, Pilar also taught us the proper way to do an olive oil tasting, which was a first for me.
Me at Pilar’s studio, ready to cook!
There are so many more things I could talk about in recalling my trip to Chile, from the beautiful olive oil estate called Olisur that we visited to the empanadas I grabbed off the streets of Santiago. The fact is, I was there way too brief a time to get to know this vast country, There is so much to see and do and I cannot wait to go back. Next time I will fight my way in to first class and fly direct as my only complaint is how far it is from New York. But hey, if a bottle of wine can make the trip, so can I!